Wednesday, April 30, 2014

April 30: Today is Election Day

Downtown Suly with poster of Jalal Talabani
I know that just a few months ago I posted a story about elections, but that was elections for the Kurdish parliament.  During the local elections last fall, things got a bit ugly, particularly after it was clear that the PUK party (People's Union of Kurdistan) was going to come in third.  Everyone knew that the KDP (Kurdistan Democratic Party) would garner the most votes, but no one really anticipated that Goran (literally meaning "change") would place second.  At least one person was killed and many injured by stray bullets (some aimed at people, others shot into the air).
Little girl handing out election pamphlets
with her father
Today is election day in all of Iraq to elect members of the Federal Parliament in Baghdad and council members in Kurdistan.  The parties and candidates are given one month to conduct electioneering activities and throughout April, each night has been filled with the sounds of firecrackers and the occasional gunshot, and cars with screaming people waving flags of the various political parties, particularly the PUK.  Two days ago, Kurdistan television showed Jalal Talibani, founder of the PUK and President of Iraq, casting his vote in Germany where he has been since his stroke more than a year ago (publicity no doubt intended to increase support for the PUK in today's elections).  Talabani is beloved by many Kurds, particularly in Sulaimaniya where he is from, and the television story brought on a night of gunfire (why do people celebrate by shooting rifles and other weapons), again with about a dozen injuries from stray bullets.
With Rezan Dler, PUK candidate for Parliament, and Heidi
A senior lawyer from Heartland Alliance International in Iraq is running for Parliament.  I would love her to win because she is a passionate human rights activist, fighting particularly for women, and the Iraqi Parliament needs her.  On the other hand, it will be a great loss to our organization.  Otherwise, the elections look rather grim.  Election rallies and polling places have been the target of terrorist bombings, turnout today has been low so far, and most people believe that the current prime minister, Al Maliki will win a third term and cement even more strongly his power (by law, he is the only one who can introduce legislation -- parliamentarians cannot!).  If you want to read a pretty discouraging piece about where Iraq is today, see David Filkens' story in the New Yorker.  However, Filkens also points out that the picture is more positive for Kurdistan.  In fact, on this election day, there is a very good television piece on whether Kurdistan is democratic, citing evidence that aspects of democracy have taken hold even if much still needs to be done.  The challenge is addressing some of the issues, including a lack of a free press and various human rights abuses, while continuing to keep Kurdistan secure from the violence facing the rest of Iraq.
Saddam Hussein's former headquarters in Sulaimaniya
I announced to my staff this week that I would be stepping down as Country Director later this year, though I will continue on as Technical Advisor to Iraq.  It has been my privilege to live and work here for three years, leading the organization as Iraq Country Director for the last two years, and the decision to step down has been a very difficult one, even though I knew it had to come one day.  I love my staff and am very proud of the work we do here, but I also love my family and want to spend more time with them in the US (even as I travel to Iraq and elsewhere on occasion).  I know I will leave the office in very good hands, with my dear friends and colleagues, Heidi, who will be our new Country Director, and Kak Shwan, our long-time Director of Finance and Administration, supported by all our amazing staff members.   And even after I step down, I look forward to continuing my work not only with the Iraq office of Heartland Alliance International, but also developing legal protection and other programs in other countries. 
Kak Shwan, his wonderful family and
their amazing hospitality
A final word:  my son and his wife open their new store, gather, this Saturday in San Francisco, and I urge everyone who might be in Northern California to go  (and encourage your friends to go) to the grand opening!

Saturday, March 29, 2014

It's Spring!

The lights of Nawroz

Last week, Kurds in Iraq and throughout the Middle East and Central Asia celebrated Nawroz -- Kurdish New Year.  The holiday is a time to demonstrate support for the Kurdish cause and coincides with the vernal equinox, or arrival of spring.  Its roots are ancient; this from Wikipedia:
According to Kurdish myth, Kaveh was a Kurd who lived 2,500 years ago under the tyranny of Zahak, an Assyrian who is named Zuhak by the Kurds. Zuhak's evil reign caused spring to no longer come to Kurdistan. March 20 is traditionally marked as the day that Kawa defeated Dehak. He is then said to have set fire to the hillsides to celebrate the victory and summon his supporters; subsequently spring returned to Kurdistan the next day.  This legend is now used by the Kurds to remind themselves that they are a different, strong people, and the lighting of the fires has since become a symbol of freedom.

Lighting Fires to Celebrate Nawroz
Right now it's a beautiful spring:  sunny, warm breezes and the landscape is green from the winter rains.  It is probably one of the best, if not the best time to be in Iraq.  Spring has also brought for Heartland Alliance International (HAI) in Iraq new programs.  We are implementing a project with UNICEF to provide legal services to Syrian refugee juveniles who come into contact with the law and to juveniles living in some of the rural districts in Kurdistan, where they face even more challenges than those in the city because of the absence of juvenile facilities and lawyers, prosecutors, judges, etc., experienced in working with juveniles who are detained.  Another UNICEF program involves a survey about knowledge, attitudes and perceptions in Kurdish households regarding female genital mutilation, a hideous practice that is relatively widespread and can greatly harm and sometimes kill girls who are its victims.  Many people think the is limited to Africa, but in addition to its prevalence in Kurdistan, when I was recently in London, I read a story in the Times about a doctor and an accomplice who were arrested for FGM.  It is a shameful and secretive practice that needs to be eradicated.
Amusement park in Suly
Spring also means that I've been here in in Northern Iraq almost three years -- a wonderful three years.   I've come to love the people who have warmly welcomed me here.  And I've come to realize that HAI's programs are quite amazing and by and large not duplicated by other organizations here.  We work with the most vulnerable populations:  survivors of torture, trafficking and self-immolation.  We train community mental health workers to meet the needs of survivors of trauma.  We do our work with local partners and the government helping to build capacity.   
New Millennium Hotel in Suly
I also realize how much Sulaimaniya has changed in the three years I've been here:  small changes, such as the availability of things that were unobtainable three years ago: broccoli, lettuce, San Pellegrino (my favorite drink).  But there have also been large changes.   On Thursday night (the Middle Eastern "Friday Night"), two friends and I ate fish and chips in the Irish Pub at the new Millennium Hotel, which would have been unheard of even a year or so ago.  If we didn't know better, we would have thought we were in Dublin!  It was tons of fun and is hugely popular with the locals, but I hope my adopted city does not become westernized to the point that it loses its character. 
Girls night out at the pub with Rachel and Annet
My two "pub" friends, one English one Dutch, have been here since before Saddam Hussein's regime toppled and I can only imagine the changes they have witnessed.  One of these friends founded -- together with a local partner -- and they now manage an NGO that works with children. We often get together to have supper and play Scrabble.  I started playing Scrabble when I was a little girl and it won't shock those who know me to learn that I'm pretty competitive about it.  Before our first game, I had to tell myself that it was only a game and that I didn't need to be so intense about it.  As it turns out, Rachel is an avid Scrabble player whose single mindedness puts me to shame and as a result, she is very often the winner -- a bad night for her is when she doesn't use all her letters at least once, something I don't think I've EVER done.

Global Fellow Natasha "in bloom"

This is one of the wonderful thing about living here: I am constantly surprised by the differences -- the music, the holidays, the ways of celebrating, the traditional dress, even the choice of pets.  Natasha, our global fellow pictured below, is over the moon because  a friend of hers just acquired a baby squirrel as a pet and, in her words, "it's SO cute."  Having lived in the US, and having an apartment just a few feet from Central Park, I view squirrels -- which are abundant and often a nuisance -- as rodents with furry tails. But like everything else, these new experiences force me to look at  things in a different way, and that's an incredibly good thing.  So Happy Nawroz!
The Citadel in Erbil

Monday, January 20, 2014

Welcome 2014!

Snow in the mountains outside of Sulaimaniya
I know, I know, I'm just about the worst blogger in the world.  Posting a new blog is always on my "to-do" list but with everything else on the list, a new post invariably falls to the bottom and before I know it, months have passed (this time, more than 2 1/2 months!).  All is well here in Northern Iraq, though there have been a few failed IED's aimed at members of the Peshmerga (Kurdistan's armed fighters) in my hometown of Sulaimaniya.  And of course, things in Southern Iraq continue to deteriorate not only with daily car bombings and other terrorist activities in Baghdad and elsewhere, but also from new dangers.  As widely reported, militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), an offshoot of Al Qaeda, are battling the Iraqi army to control Fallujah, Ramadi and other areas of Anbar province. 
Welcome to Kurdistan
There is a terrible sense of deja vu about this latest wave of violence. First, as many as 70,000 people may have been displaced, with an estimated 14,000 Iraqis having crossed into the semi-autonomous Kurdish region in the past week after fleeing their homes in Anbar province to escape fighting that broke out at the end of December among government troops, tribal leaders and Islamist insurgents. Second, Anbar province was at the heart of the insurgency against US troops and this latest influx of IDPs (internally displaced persons) adds to the existing 1.13 million who were displaced inside Iraq during the sectarian violence of 2006 to 2008.   
Arbat refugee camp
Already overtaxed from hosting more than 200,000 refugees from Syria, the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) is working with aid agencies to prepare a temporary holding camp for IDPs arriving from Anbar.   Many of the Syrian refugees are also living in a temporary refugee camp at Arbat.  Although the permanent camp was scheduled to open by now, it has not and so in addition to dealing with all the other hardships they face, refugees are now living through the winter in tents that were undoubtedly made for summer, in areas that become a sea of mud after the rains that come at this time of year. 
View from 5-star hotel in Erbil
Nevertheless, Kurdistan continues to thrive -- and things should only get better economically following the KRG’s announcement on January 8 that oil has begun flowing to Turkey. The federal government of Iraq continues to condemn this unilateral agreement between Turkey and the KRG but has its hands full with, among other things, the situation in Anbar Province.  However, both the KRG and Al Maliki's government have reasons to resolve their differences.  As noted by one security analyst, "given that both oil rights and Iraq’s portion to the KRG national budget remain major points of contention between Erbil (the capital of Kurdistan) and Baghdad, Erbil is likely to make efforts to find a solution, while Baghdad similarly maintains a vested interest in resolving outstanding issues in order to increase general state revenues."   The bottom line is that the phenomenal growth in the Kurdistan region will continue, at least in the urban areas. Each time I visit the Erbil (which is once or twice a month), it seems as if hundreds of more apartments, shopping malls, homes and hotels are under construction.  The same is true in the city in which I live, Sulaimaniya, though to a lesser extent.  Yet Kurdistan remains a country full of contrasts -- modern cities alongside rural villages that seem to be lost in time.  
Kurdish Countryside
As the new year starts, I continue to marvel at how incredibly fortunate I am to call this beautiful region my home.  And I wish you, your family and friends a healthy, happy and prosperous 2014. 


Friday, November 1, 2013

Where has the time gone?!

Election time in Kurdistan

I can't believe it's been over two months since I last posted a blog.  So much has happened -- and with each event, I vowed to report it but there was always the next thing to do.  So I'll try to remember everything now.  First, in early September, electioneering in Kurdistan began and the countryside blossomed with flags, banners, candidates' pictures and more.  Unlike in the US where election campaigns seem to go on endlessly, in Kurdistan (like the United Kingdom for example), there is a very short period of time for trying to persuade voters, but what people lack in time is made up with enthusiasm. 
The sign of having voted

Each party here has its own color: Goran Party is blue, PUK (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan) is green, KDP (Kurdistan Democratic Party) is yellow, Communist Party is red and Islamic Parties are brown. Nightly, people would ride in trucks, cars and SUVs honking, shouting out windows and waving flags -- and regrettably, guns. Unfortunately two people were killed in Sulaimaniya; I'm not sure it was entirely deliberate because a popular way of celebrating here (and elsewhere) is shooting guns in the air and bullets often go astray.
Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani (KDP)
Even though democracy may not be perfect in Kurdistan as elsewhere (for example, the KDP-controlled Parliament voted this summer to extend for two years the term of President Massoud Barzani -- not to be confused with Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani), it's thrilling to think that 10 years ago there was no democracy here but now people are exercising this new-found right and having an impact. For example, PUK (founded and led by Jalal Talibani, now President of Iraq) has always been Kurdistan's second most popular party after the KDP (initially led by Mustafa Barzani, President Barazani's father); but in September's election, Goran (which means "change") received more votes than PUK.  
Qubad Talibani (on left)

The second Eid holiday of the year, Eid al Adha, came and went in mid-October much to the dismay of sheep around the region.  Eid al Adha marks Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his first-born son, Ishmael, to God before God intervened and gave Abraham a lamb to sacrifice instead.  So it is common here to slaughter a lamb to celebrate this holiday.  Eid al Adha celebrations start at the same time as the annual Hajj in Mecca.  Making the Hajj -- or pilgrimage -- to Mecca is the fifth pillar of Islam, a religious duty that must be done at least once in a lifetime by every able-bodied Muslim who can afford to do it. 
Eid al Adha is not a lamb's favorite holiday
At the end of September, our office held its first staff retreat in over two years.  The weather this time of year is perfect and there was lots of eating and dancing -- Kurdish staples -- as well as hiking to an ancient Assyrian stone carving thousands of years old.  And to think we almost missed it!  After more than half an hour of hard climbing and just as we had turned around to hike back to the van thinking we had come the wrong way, I looked up and there it was.  
Picnic dancers
Fall (along with spring) is a time for picnics and some of the many of the visitors to Kurdistan from the US that we've had the last couple months were able to experience this wonderful event. Others were taken to different parts of the countryside to see what a beautiful country this is.  The weather -- mild during the day, cool in the evenings -- will soon change (to rainy and cold) so you have to take advantage of it.
Assyrian Carving

On a more somber note, on the same day as our staff retreat, the headquarters of the security forces (Asaish) in Erbil was attacked and several security members were killed.  Al Qaeda offshoot, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), claimed responsibility for this attack, the first in of its type in Kurdistan in six years.  However, despite Al Qaeda rhetoric, security experts do not see this as the start of a time of insecurity.  As one commentator pointed out, "Kurdish parties share one major enemy: anyone who attacks the nation they have fought for long and hard."  On this Kurdistan's parties -- regardless of politics, elections and other differences -- and the Kurdish people remain united.



Friday, August 23, 2013

The Syrian Refugee Crisis

Syrian refugees crossing into Iraqi Kurdistan
(picture courtesy of the BBC and UNHCR)
As I'm sure most of you know, the death toll in the Syrian conflict passed the 100,000 mark last month.  Just this week, hundreds were killed outside of Damascus, including many children, in an attack using chemical weapons.  This is a particularly horrific reminder for the Kurdish people in Iraq of the chemical weapon attacks against them by Saddam Hussein 25 years ago that also killed hundreds of innocent men, women and children. 

Halabja March 1988
Also this week, tens of thousands of refugees poured into Kurdistan -- almost 10,000 in one day, bringing the total number to more than 160,000 -- flooding already over-burdened refugee camps.  But Kurdistan has not closed its doors to the refugees, and many of those arriving in Northern Iraq are Kurds.  In addition, as widely reported by the BBC and others, president of Iraqi Kurdistan, Massuod Barzani, recently threatened to intervene  to defend the Kurdish population caught up in Syria's unrest.  He said if Kurds were "under threat of death and terrorism" then Iraqi Kurdistan would be "prepared to defend them".
Syrian refugees at the Iraqi border
(picture courtesy of the BBC and UNHCR)
Refugees are fleeing the horror of the war in Syria.  Many -- including children -- have witnessed traumatic events and have been subject to torture and other forms of violence.  They arrive here hungry, tired and traumatized.  UNHCR and various organizations around the world are trying to respond to this crisis but are fighting an uphill battle.  And the tragedy is that having escaped the horrors of the Syrian conflict, many refugees -- particularly women and children -- may become victims of human trafficking, including sex trafficking.  In need of  food and shelter, and unable to find jobs, displaced persons are often lured into sexual trafficking with promises of legitimate employment.   In addition to the refugee crisis in the North, sectarian violence continues to escalate in Southern Iraq.  With daily car bombings and other terrorist activity, the violence in Iraq is at its highest level since 2006. 
All in all, the needs here grow each day and of course, there are never enough resources to meet them.  Heartland Alliance International is developing programs to respond to these challenges, including, for example, programs to  serve survivors of trafficking -- particularly women and young people who are Syrian refugees -- through legal, social and mental health services.  This is in addition to maintaining our current projects.  I ask that you consider a donation to help us.  I have set up a website where you can donate directly.  Please feel free to pass it along to your friends and colleagues and please know that any support is greatly appreciated.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Two Years in Iraq

Kurdistan is having a lovely spring -- not too warm (last time this year it had already gotten very hot) -- and it's been a busy one for me.  I went to my first concert earlier this month.  It was a famous singer, Neriman Baban, and it was called the "Home Concert" because he is from Sulaimaniya.   He was great and he had wonderful musical accompaniment:  a small symphony, a rock and roll band (drums, guitar and keyboard), some traditional Kurdish instruments and a chorus.  I thoroughly enjoyed it. 

Neriman Concert

Afterward,my colleagues and I went out for dinner to a new place in town:  Burger Fuel.  It is apparently a New Zealand chain and advertises that it serves New Zealand beef.  We had cheeseburgers (my first since coming here), fries and a milkshake -- a perfect way to end the evening.

Last blog entry, I wrote about Heartland Alliance's 125th anniversary.  I'm celebrating my two year anniversary in Iraq this month (May 26).  It's hard to believe I've been here that long, and that short.  On  the one hand, I still feel like a new comer in so many ways -- other than a few words, I still don't speak the language and I  still have so much to learn.  On the other hand, I consider Sulaimaniya my home.  When I reflect on the time here, I realize what an amazing experience I've been given by being able to work for an organization like Heartland, the many things I've learned and the opportunity to work and be with such wonderful people.
Being interviewed
A couple of weeks ago I did an interview for Kurdsat TV.  I was asked about Heartland's work here in Iraq and Kurdistan and had a chance to talk about our programs:  treating survivors of torture and other trauma, training Community Mental Health Workers, providing legal services to vulnerable populations, including victims of trafficking and gender based violence, and the importance of our youth media program in Kirkuk and Baghdad, two cities that suffer the horrible consequences of continuing sectarian and ethnic violence. 
I was also asked why I would leave London and my former career to come work for an NGO in Iraq.  Many people might think it was so I could help change things--help improve people's lives by working for human rights-- and I suppose that there is truth in that.  But what I have discovered is that the experience has profoundly changed me: seeing first hand what it means to grow up and live throughout years and years of conflict, being challenged to approach problems in new ways, working with wonderful partners and staff, and living in a culture with a long rich history, but one which includes barbarian traditions, such as female genital mutilation and a belief that "honor killing" is justified if a woman has "shamed" the family.
And I was asked what I would remember most when I left Iraq.  That question was easy.  Without a doubt, I will remember the warmth and generosity of the people here with whom I've been privileged to live and work.  If you'd like to hear the interview, it's available on YouTube.
Generous Kurdish hospitality
I have been incredibly privileged over the last year as Country Director to have a wonderful mentor and teacher -- our MENA Regional Director, Ramsey Ben-Achour.  Ramsey was previously Heartland's Country Director in Haiti and he made my transition into the job of leading the Iraq office easy.  I've learned a remarkable amount from him and so enjoyed working with him.  Like my colleagues in Sulaimaniya, Ramsey has enriched my experience here incredibly; in fact, there was a time when I couldn't imagine being able to do my job without him to turn to. 

Ramsey and me at his going away party
Regrettably, I'm going to have to now learn how to get along without him as he will be leaving Heartland in August after he gets married.   Thank you, Ramsey, for all you've given Heartland and all you've given me, and may you and Eva have a wonderful life together. 
Spring Sunset

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Happy Birthday Heartland Alliance!

Storm coming
It's hard to believe that my last post was more than four months ago.  Time seems to pass so quickly yet at the same time, November seems like years away because so much has happened since then.  Winter has turned into spring, and yet like other parts of the world, one day it can be sunny and warm, another day it is cold and rainy.  But flowers are blooming and the hills are green, rather than the brown they wear for most of the year.
Spring blossoming trees
This change in seasons is marked by Nowruz in Kurdistan -- Persian New Year and the first day of spring.  This holiday is celebrated for several days with picnics and other events.  Just as on New Year's Eve (December 31), the main street in Sulaimaniya closed down and there was a huge street fair.  So, there are two "new year's" celebrations -- the one on January 1 and the one in March. 
Lights of Nowruz
For both celebrations, flags and lights are hung everywhere, and pictures of Kurdish heroes decorate the thoroughfares.  They are wonderful times to see family and friends, share sweets, and wear traditional Kurdish dress (though this is primarily at Nowruz given that it's cold here in January!
One of the main streets in Sulaimaniya decked out for Nowruz
There are two other important dates in March to commemorate.  First, International Women's Day is observed on March 8.  Here is the message I sent to our staff to mark the occasion:

One hundred eleven years have passed since the first International Women’s Day was marked by demonstrations and celebrations.  On this day, it is fair and important to ask how much progress has been made for women and girls around the world; it is more urgent and timely to ask how much further we can and must go.  Equal rights and opportunities in the home, school and workplace are fundamental, but more important is recognizing that women and men have equal value as human beings.  This is and must continue to be our goal. Thank you for your work in support of not only women but all those whose rights we are committed to protecting and upholding.   

Our office commemorating International Women's Day
The other important date in in March is March 13—when Heartland Alliance celebrated its 125th Anniversary.  As our President, Sid Mohn said:

[S]ince 1888, we’ve been providing the very services people need to end poverty and build a safe and stable life for themselves and their families. Heartland Alliance traces its roots to legendary social reformer, pioneer human rights worker, and Nobel peace prize winner—Jane Addams. Her legacy endures and I see her spirit and commitment to those who need help in every one of our offices in every part of the world.  Today, as we celebrate this milestone, I ask you to join me. Join me in believing that we CAN live in a world where children live safe from violence and terror. That every working person CAN earn enough to support their family. That elderly people CAN live with dignity. And that the disabled, sick and mentally ill CAN get the help they need. At Heartland Alliance, we ALL believe that ordinary people can create an extraordinary world. Thank you again for being a part of this important work."
Spring sky
 One way of joining us in our work is to become a Global Fellow, which is how I came to Heartland Alliance International Iraq.  Our Global Fellow Program is a great way for people to work in one of our international country offices, for six months to a year (though like me, this may often turn into another position), and see how this suits them (work in conflict or post-conflict areas is not everyone's cup of tea).  A Global Fellow can work on a specific project (for example, as a lawyer in one of our legal services programs) or in a specific area (such as a finance Global Fellow).  It's a great opportunity to experience life in a country like Iraq (or Colombia or one of the many countries in Africa and other parts of the globe where Heartland has offices).  To find out more about the Program, you can go to our website.  It will also tell you how to apply.  Right now, for example, we are interested in applications for Global Fellowships for our finance department and also for one of our legal programs (since Iraq is a civil law country, someone with civil law experience/knowledge is preferred).  The organization is also interested in Global Fellows who can help with writing grant proposals.
Sheep crossing the road to get to greener pastures
Most often, though not always, our Global Fellows are at what I call either end of the age spectrum:  they are either young men and women who have just graduated from college or another degree program and who are anxious to get their feet wet in the international NGO world.  Or like me, they are starting a new career in the later part of their life.  But no one should consider becoming a Global Fellow unless they want new experiences that don't include the creature comforts that they may otherwise be used to and unless they believe that we, in collaboration with our local partners, can help make a better world.

Oh, and one other change of the season.  We have a new member of our household, Pak.  He has settled in nicely and we've learned that he is a very smart dog.  Among other things, he can literally climb the fence around our yard like one would climb a ladder so we have to keep him on a long chain.  Otherwise, he would terrorize the neighbourhood, not because he's mean but because most Iraqis do NOT like dogs and keeping them as pets is very unusual.  Happy Spring everyone!

One of our global fellows (left) and
our program coordinator