September 17, 2008
LUBBOCK, TEXAS (AP) -- Made of thousands of tiny, hand sewn knots, Colby Stewart's shoes may collect dust - the Texas Tech student never found a pair that fit his feet, size 13.
That's OK. The shoes will do more. They'll remind him of his life-changing journey to a country he says is misunderstood.
Stewart, a 22-year-old business major, spent six summer weeks in Sulaymaniyah, a city of roughly 500,000 in northern Iraq, as an intern for Preemptive Love Coalition, an organization that sells traditional Kurdish shoes, called klash, and uses the profits to fund heart surgeries for Iraqi children.
"We looked at students who we felt were people of character. Colby was a great fit," said a coalition spokesman, Scott Bertrand.
More than 3,000 Iraqi children need heart surgeries but do not have access to treatment in their country, according to the coalition's Web site, www.preemptivelove.org. The reason for Iraq's high heart disease rate isn't known, though some theorize chemical warfare, squalid living conditions and lack of access to health care could be to blame, according to the site.
"There are people there who really need help and don't have the resources to help themselves," said Stewart, who returned from Iraq in August to complete his senior year at Tech.
The coalition has helped raise funds for 20 Iraqi children whose heart conditions would have gone untreated, said members.
One of six summer interns, Stewart lived in a three-story, concrete house in Sulaymaniyah owned by the coalition's founder, Jeremy Courtney.
The Houston native volunteered at a local youth club, visited children with heart diseases and raised money for the coalition during his internship.
Thousands of miles separate war-torn Iraq from Texas, but the people who live there, Stewart realized, are the same as him. He said he met loving people who invited him into their homes, businesses and lives, such as Barzan, who sells handmade klash shoes in a central Sulaymaniyah bazaar, and Hunar, an athlete and actor Stewart's age who jumped at the chance to converse in English with an American.
"There are a lot of ideas (Americans) have of Iraq. We think of Iraqis as Muslims, terrorists, radicals. When I got there ... I just started to realize these ... are real people. We are the same as they are, but they are branded as something negative," he said.
Stewart hasn't forgotten about the thousands of sick Iraqi children who still need help.
He plans to hold a coalition benefit concert at a local coffee shop in October.
(Copyright ©2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)