Margaret Hassan

Aid worker who devoted herself to the welfare of the children of Iraq
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The Independent Online

Visiting Baghdad some years ago, before the deadly United Nations sanctions had been lifted in early 2003, I was taken by Margaret Hassan, Director for Iraq of Care International, in her four-wheel-drive into a slum area of the city to be shown one of her current humanitarian projects.

Margaret Fitzsimons, aid worker: born Dalkey, Co Dublin 18 April 1945; Director for Iraq, Care International 1992-2004; married 1972 Tahseen Hassan; died Baghdad c. 10 November 2004.

Visiting Baghdad some years ago, before the deadly United Nations sanctions had been lifted in early 2003, I was taken by Margaret Hassan, Director for Iraq of Care International, in her four-wheel-drive into a slum area of the city to be shown one of her current humanitarian projects.

She drove me through a side-street six inches deep in raw sewage. The local people were hopping from rock to rock or balancing on bits of wood to pass through the ugly spill. We stopped outside a government clinic specialising in the health of local women and their children. The sewage had seeped into the building where women were standing in a queue holding babies or with children wrapped around their legs.

The smell was unbelievable, made worse by the prevailing gloom in the absence of electric power and the grim filth on the walls. Hassan walked in and was immediately recognised and warmly greeted. I met one of the nurses and the harried doctor trying to provide medical care to children endangered by bad water, and in many cases malnourishment, including acute malnutrition. It was not the place for healthcare to thrive.

Following words of encouragement to the doctor and his staff, and smiles and warmth extended to the patients, Hassan drove me 300 yards to a building in the final stages of construction. Here, on high ground, was a nearly completed health clinic, with areas created outside for essential shade and inside seating for waiting patients and the beginnings of new equipment for real medical care. The building had a good water supply, toilets, electric light with back-up generation - all the things that Iraqis had taken for granted before UN sanctions were imposed in 1990, just as we do today in London, Dublin or New York.

This was the kind of work that Margaret Hassan accomplished with Care's annual budget of $7m. In contrast, when I headed up the UN Oil for Food Programme, using Iraqi oil revenue, we had $4bn gross per annum and, although the programme fed some 20 million people, we were not able to accomplish such tangible results for the poor of urban Iraq. Due to the US and UK prohibitions, I was unable to use funds for development or capital projects that were so badly needed and which Hassan and Care were able to provide. Instead, the twisted logic of UN sanctions served to sustain the Iraqi government and punish the innocent people.

Margaret Hassan was snatched from her car as she was being driven to work in Baghdad seven weeks ago, on 19 October. A series of harrowing videos of her was released by her kidnappers, the final one apparently showing her being shot in the head. After analysis of the tape, the British Foreign Office announced on 16 November that she had "probably" been murdered.

Today at 12.30pm the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, will preside at a Requiem Mass for Hassan, who was a lifelong practising Roman Catholic, to be held at Westminster Cathedral. "No body has been found, and the family do not expect it to be found," the Cardinal's office has said, "which is why this is a Requiem Mass rather than a funeral."

Margaret Hassan had been living in Baghdad for over 30 years, having settled there in 1973 with her Iraqi husband, Tahseen Hassan, whom she met in 1970 when he was a manager at Heathrow airport. They married two years later.

Born Margaret Fitzsimons in Dalkey, Co Dublin, in 1945, she was the eldest of five children, the others, a boy and three girls, being born in London after the family moved there when she was four. They lived in Shepherd's Bush and she was educated at Cardinal Manning secondary school.

She worked in a solicitor's office before joining the Grail, a secular organisation for Catholics in Pinner, involved in ecumenical and welfare work. She spent three years with the Grail, going to Lebanon when she was 20 with three other Grail women to set up a project to aid Palestinian refugees. The four shared a flat in Beirut until Margaret moved out to live with a poor family in a concrete hut in the refugee camp itself. She only came back to England after being driven out by the Six Day War in 1967.

At the time she and Tahseen Hassan met, she was working in community projects in London, having trained as a youth and community worker in Leicester. When they moved to Iraq, Tahseen to run Alitalia's Baghdad operation, she worked for the British Council, first as a part-time English teacher, later becoming director of studies at its language school. With Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and the first Gulf war, both Alitalia and the British Council closed. Margaret Hassan, now a fluent Arabic-speaker and an Iraqi citizen, found her mission in Care International.

Care was the only international non-governmental organisation to maintain a continuous presence in southern and central Iraq after 1991, doing so until 28 October 2004, when, following Hassan's kidnapping, it closed down its operations. It concentrated particularly on children, and on projects involving water, sanitation and health. As Care's Director for Iraq, "Madam Margaret", as the children knew her, had a staff of 60.

Apolitical and willing to work with everyone, whether Iraqi government officials, local and overseas NGOs or those of us in the UN family of agencies, Hassan was able to get to the core of the crisis: what was needed was clean water and simple healthcare for the urban masses. With commitment, drive and an impatience with fools and bureaucrats, she set about making things happen in a country where progress was hard to achieve.

This was a period - still ongoing in the post-war occupation - when the majority of children who died under UN sanctions did so not because of starvation, but because of water-borne disease. Simple diarrhoea, dysentery and other water-related health problems killed the children, already suffering acute and prolonged malnutrition. Care installed generators and pumps for potable water in small towns and slum areas throughout the country, saving tens of thousands of lives. Hassan's work was critical, and provided the model, both in terms of caring and bricks and mortar, that others tried to follow.

She was demanding and aggressive when it came to the needs of the poor, resenting the time wasted meeting VIPS that could have been spent on delivering projects. She was a living dynamo who drove, led and inspired others to respond to the human needs - the basic human rights - of the Iraqi people.

In the run-up to the American-led invasion in spring 2003, Hassan was one of several international aid workers who voiced their concerns to the UN and the British parliament: "The Iraqi people are already living through a terrible emergency," she said in a House of Commons briefing in March. "They do not have the resources to withstand an additional crisis brought about by military action." She stayed on in Baghdad throughout the war and its aftermath, despite the increasing risks for Westerners.

The mystery of who kidnapped her has not been solved. She had played an invaluable role in the lives of many urban poor. The demonstrations in the streets of Baghdad in the week following her kidnap showed the love and appreciation that she instilled in so many.

Iraq, her family, the NGO community and all of us who want to make a difference in our own lives with respect to people struggling under cruel circumstances have lost an extraordinary person. Margaret Hassan gave her time and ultimately her life to Iraq and its suffering children and their mothers. We now must celebrate her life by trying to follow - with our small feet in her very large shoes.

Denis J. Halliday



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