When Azzam Alwash fled from Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq to the United States, he had no idea that national parks existed.
“I didn’t even understand that I was an environmental conservationist before I came to the US,” he said in an interview with National Parks Traveler. “Two weeks after I arrived in the US I saw Yosemite and I was in awe. My god, I was in love. I saw Yellowstone, Zion, and so many national parks in the United States that the idea of national parks has become second nature. With those experiences, I decided this was the one way of making sure that Iraq, somehow, comes up with a plan to conserve these marshes, not only for Iraqis but for the rest of the world.”
Later this month, Alwash and his organization Nature Iraq will help open The National Park of the Marshes—Iraq’s first national park and the largest marshland in Southern Asia. For his work, Alwash recently won The Goldman Prize. He was among six recipients who claimed the world’s largest prize for grassroots environmentalism in 2013.
The award aims to demonstrate the international nature of environmental problems. Each winner of The Goldman Prize takes home a check for $150,000–no strings attached.
Alwash helped resurrect the marshes after they were nearly destroyed by Saddam Hussein in the mid-1990s. After the marsh’s Shiite Arab residents staged uprisings, they returned home for refuge. In response, Hussein burned and poisoned the ecosystem, creating dust bowls in an area formerly known as the Garden of Eden. The destruction forced out the local inhabitants, whose ancestors had lived in the area for thousands of years.
Alwash knew these marshes from his childhood visits to the area. So, when Hussein’s regime fell, Alwash moved back to his home country to help reestablish and protect the area. By this time, he had earned advanced degrees and established a successful career as a civil engineer in California.
Upon his return in 2003, Alwash founded the non-profit Nature Iraq. Along with his team, he restored the Mesopotamian marshes to 50 percent of their original size, as well as the local way of life.
Alwash also spearheaded the Key Biodiversity Areas Survey. The document, released in April 2013, is an atlas of more than 300 Iraqi biodiversity sites. It aims to guide preservation and ultimately to help establish an Iraqi system of national parks.