Changing the world, one piece of litter at a time

Opinion: Columns

Share on Facebook
Share on Twitter


We have residents here who are dedicated to cleaning up litter. These community-minded people can find a kindred spirit in an unlikely place — Baghdad. A courageous young woman named Alyaa Shakir has founded a movement to clean the streets of the Iraqi capital. 

Alyaa didn't start out to become a community activist. The 28-year-old simply wanted to break down barriers that women face in Iraq's male-dominated society. A brilliant student, she obtained her master's degree in geology from the University of Baghdad. It is rare for a female to obtain a degree in Iraq, but Alyaa was just getting started. 

She persistently applied for the university's PhD program until she was finally accepted. In the meantime, she married Laith Ihsan, an engineer with an expertise in environmental safety. The problem facing these newlyweds was they could not find jobs in their fields.

Instead they joined other young Iraqis in anti-government protests that began on Oct. 1 in Baghdad's Tahrir Square. Iraqi soldiers have been ruthless in putting down these protests. They've killed hundreds of Alyaa's comrades. She was on the frontlines with her husband when troops fired a tear gas canister at them.

The explosion damaged Alyaa's hearing and caused chemical burns to her husband's face. So Alyaa chose a new tactic to protest Iraq's policies. She peacefully cleans the streets, where the protests are taking place. Culturally-speaking, Iraqis are not tidy. They tend to toss their trash everywhere. Alyaa is a clean freak. She printed up anti-littering fliers to pass out and got down on the pavement to pick up trash.

The litter problem was compounded by the protests. To counteract the effects of tear gas, protesters pour cola down their faces. There are empty Pepsi containers strewn everywhere in the streets. A photo of Alyaa cleaning the streets went viral. Her pink gym shoes became famous and she became known as the "Protector of Baghdad."

She risks her life daily to clean the streets and has attracted over 1,000 volunteers. Her efforts have created a cleaning movement. Being a female activist in Baghdad is risky. Besides enduring attacks from government forces, Alyaa's followers have been targeted by militia groups. Three of her cleaning crew have been kidnapped. Alyaa has a strong personality, though, and doesn't back down from anyone. She even has a logo — depicting a person holding a mop and a bucket.

I know about Alyaa's story because her sister, Ella, worked for me. Alyaa and I connected by email. Ella is a hero herself, having served as a translator for U.S. troops on patrol in Iraq.

It was encouraging for Alyaa to learn we have like-minded people here. She thinks it's ironic that Americans are punished by having to pick up litter as part of community service. She considers it a privilege to clean and hose down the pavement, so that protesters don't have to deal with filth. 

"After the revolution, we won't throw garbage," Alyaa declared. She also wrote a personal message to the residents of Forest Park: "Love your village as you would your house, and don't ever look at it as a chore. If you saw the amount of garbage me and my crew are picking up every day from the kindness of our hearts, you would never litter in public."

Some may think that litter is trivial compared to other problems Iraqis face. But powerful movements begin in small ways — like a woman refusing to give up her seat on a bus. Alyaa noted how cleaning can destroy stereotypes. "Men give women a helping hand in cleaning without feeling shame." 

"If there is one thing this revolution taught me," Alyaa said, "it's that change starts with the people. Our voice is heard through our actions."

Love the Journal?

Become our partner in independent community journalism

Thanks for turning to Wednesday Journal and We love our thousands of digital-only readers. Now though we're asking you to partner up in paying for our reporters and photographers who report this news. It had to happen, right?

On the plus side, we're giving you a simple way, and a better reason, to join in. We're now a non-profit -- Growing Community Media -- so your donation is tax deductible. And signing up for a monthly donation, or making a one-time donation, is fast and easy.

No threats from us. The news will be here. No paywalls or article countdowns. We're counting on an exquisite mix of civic enlightenment and mild shaming. Sort of like public radio.

Claim your bragging rights. Become a digital member.

Donate Now

Reader Comments

No Comments - Add Your Comment

Note: This page requires you to login with Facebook to comment.

Comment Policy

Facebook Connect

Answer Book 2019

To view the full print edition of the Wednesday Journal 2019 Answer Book, please click here.

Quick Links

Sign-up to get the latest news updates for Oak Park and River Forest.

MultimediaContact us
Submit Letter To The Editor
Place a Classified Ad

Latest Comments