Monday, June 20, 2011

Highly Visible or Invisible--It's all your point of view.

Dress shop in Suly bazaar
It won't be surprising to learn that I don't blend in very well with the native population here in Suly.  I dress conservatively and cover my head so that my blonde hair doesn't stick out quite so much, but it's pretty unmistakable that I'm a foreigner.  And dressing conservatively in this part of Iraq is not quite the same as in other parts -- even other parts of Kurdistan.  Of course sleeveless shirts or blouses on women are inappropriate (I'm just not sure what it is about the upper arm that demands modesty) as is any garment that does not fall below the knee.  However, jeans that look as if they have been painted on and heavily applied make-up are quite common in Sulaymaniyah, which is considered to be one of the most -- if not the most -- liberal and sophisticated cities in Kurdistan and Iraq. 
Mobile clothing store making its neighborhood rounds
If someone speaks English -- even just a few words -- they tend to stop me and ask me where I'm from (often they think I'm Swedish) or some other question that invites conversation.  Kurds like Americans and they invariably try to relate in some way -- that they have relatives somewhere (outside of Iraq) or quite often that it is their dream to go to America, most often to study.  If, however, I encounter an older and more traditional man on the street, he probably won't even look at me -- it's as if I'm invisible.  Mind you, this is not always the case; every day on my way home from work I pass a group of gentlemen of many ages, but mainly elderly, who are playing dominoes -- a very popular game here.  They always smile and wave as do I.
As I was walking home this evening, a man in an SUV with his wife and young son stopped and he asked me where I was from and what I was doing here.  When I explained to him that I was here working with Iraqi lawyers in human rights advocacy, he asked if we could perhaps help his wife's stepfather.  He and his wife left to live in England for a while.  When they returned, she found that her stepfather who, in his words, "was not quite right in the head," had been removed from his home by relatives who then sold his house.  I explained that this is exactly the work we do -- helping people in vulnerable situations access justice -- and gave him our phone number.
Later this week we will begin our mobile outreach visits, taking the "help desk" to places where we can provide our services outside of our office:  women's shelters, detention centers, clinics for the disabled etc. -- places where vulnerable people or people in vulnerable situations can use our help -- both in Suly and the various districts in the Suly governate.  This way we can reach greater numbers of those who heretofore have found (or thought) that justice was inaccessible to them and begin to change that -- be visible to help the invisible.
One of the less prosperous housing areas in Suly

Thursday, June 16, 2011

It's Almost Like Paris

The Eiffel Tour
Because I lived in London for seven years, I had the good fortune of being able to hop on the Eurostar and be in Paris in 2 1/2 hours for a three-day weekend or longer.  Friends in the United States would be amazed when I said I was going to Paris for the weekend (not realizing that you can get to almost any European city from London in 2-3 hours).  I've made many wonderful memories there, from the first time I visited with my family in 1989 to trips over the last several years with Jim, my friends (Julie, Martha, Sophia, Jane), nieces, nephew and my youngest sister.  And Paris is truly the City of Romance;  my son, Christian, and his wife, Daisy, became engaged there in 2009, Christian proposing to Daisy on the Pont Neuf.
Produce Store
I love so many things about the city, including the cafĂ©s, the restaurants, the shopping and the way Parisians buy their food.  Every day most people in France visit the vegetable and fruit seller, the baker, the butcher, the fromager and so on to buy the food necessary for that day's meals.  And we do exactly the same thing here in Suly (with occasional trips to the supermarket).   Right down the street from our house is one of the most popular bakeries in town. 

Morning shopping at the bakery

As I walk by there each morning on my way to work shouting "bayanit bash" (good morning) and each evening on my way home shouting "ewarat bash" (good evening), people are lined up for fresh, warm bread just out of the oven (the bread is round rather than long like a baguette).  And produce stands abound selling whatever is in season.  We do not get the variety of produce available in Europe or the USA -- no blueberries from Chile or Africa -- but what we get is usually pretty delicious.   Tonight we had rotisserie chicken and tomatoes that were really red and really tasted like tomatoes (those of you forced to eat squarish -- so more fit in a box -- anemic looking tomatoes must be dying with envy).
Chicken Man
And the market bazaar!  It sells everything imaginable from live animals (chicks -- oddly enough in pastel colors -- rabbits, racing pigeons, chickens, etc.) to rugs to clothes to electronics to the greatest collection of extruded plastic products you've ever seen, all at very reasonable prices.  Now if there was only the Eiffel Tower here in Suly.  The only thing in Sulaymaniyah that rivals is a tall modern building still under construction -- but I'm told it will never be finished because it is not safe.
Selling chicks at the bazaar
If Suly is Paris, then Duhok and the surrounding area must be Kurdistan's version of an Alpine town (without the snow).  I was there last week meeting my Duhok Access to Justice team and it's quite a lovely city set amid mountains  (or large hills), lots of beautiful flowers, including gigantic dahlias, one of my favorites, and lots of trees (relatively speaking Iraq-wise). There was even a waterfall.  We stayed in Duhok's version of a 5-star hotel where my room had a balcony with a lovely view overlooking the town and the mountains (unfortunately I did not have my camera with me so will have to take pictures next time I'm there). One difference between that hotel and the Georges V, however, stems from the fact that Iraq is almost totally a cash economy because the banking system is just not very good.  So the hotel does not take credit cards and there may be perhaps one ATM in town that may or may not work (woe to the foreign traveler who arrives unprepared).  Differences between Duhok and Suly include the fact that they speak different dialects of Kurdish and Duhok is a more conservative governate, so almost every woman has her head covered (which is not the case in Suly).  
Jim and his friend at the local "7-11" that sells Diet Coke
On the way to and from Duhok we stopped in Erbil, the capital of the KRG. My counterpart at the WEO who is working on the A2J project in Erbil and I met with the Kurdish Lawyers Association to garner continued support for the A2J project's plans for Help Desks in the courthouses in Suly, Erbil and Duhok -- which hopefully will make access to justice easier for those who find it inaccessible now.  Heartland colleagues and I also met with DOJ lawyers to discuss Iraq's proposed anti-trafficking law.  And before returning to Suly, we stopped at the Majidi Mall in Erbil -- and it is a REAL indoor mall with international stores (e.g., United Colors of Benetton).  It has three ATM machines (though I'm told only one works well) and a large store that sells groceries, electronics, toys, bedding, clothing, hardware, etc. -- I felt like a kid in a candy store.
Majidi Mall
But although it was nice to be able to get money from an ATM and buy items with a credit card, it's very much like any number of US malls -- so I'll take the Suly market bazaar anyday.
Overlooking the market bazaar

Friday, June 10, 2011

End of Week Two

Our four chickens

It's hard to believe that I've only been in Kurdistan and in the job with Heartland Alliance two weeks. In many ways it feels much longer, though there are times when I have to remind myself that I'm actually in Northern Iraq. In many ways, it feels entirely comfortable, though there are times when I feel like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz ("Toto I don't think we're in Kansas anymore"). Having spent the prior 30+ years of my professional and personal life in private practice at an international law firm doing corporate law and living in London, Chicago and Washington, D.C. with lots of time spent in New York City, Los Angeles and elsewhere, including Kiawah Island, South Carolina, working with an NGO (non-governmental organization) and living in Sulimaniyah (which you will note has a number of different spellings) has required certain adjustments.
The island of Manhattan

Now I'm sure many of my friends and colleagues thought it would be hard for me to make the adjustment from designer suits to simple, loose clothing that covers the arms and most of the legs, yet isn't totally uncomfortable in the heat -- but that was an easy adjustment. In my prior job (and personal time) I travelled a lot (in fact I love to travel) and I'm sure many of my friends and colleagues thought it would be hard for me (if not impossible!) to make the adjustment from first class air travel and five star hotels to travelling in an SUV with four other colleagues for 5+ hours and sharing a room in a hotel that isn't luxurious -- but that's not a problem for me. I think many were surprised when I told them Jim and I would be living in a house with four others (and four chickens in the yard, down from seven), given that I had been living alone in London and Chicago since my son, Christian, graduated from high school and left for Amherst College in August 2002 (and before that it was basically just the two of us plus my friend who lived in our third floor apartment). But I don't find the adjustment to shared living space difficult at all, even though the house does not have central air conditioning, only ceiling fans and room air conditioners which stop working when the electricity shuts off, which it often does. In fact, the house Christian and I lived in in Evanston, Illinois for 15 years did not have central air conditioning, only ceiling fans and one window unit in the downstairs tv room (but admittedly, Evanston almost never saw 100+ degree weather). And I grew up in a small town (LeRoy, Ohio, pop. 300 or so) and lived in a large town (Bloomington, Illinois, pop. about 50,000) until I went to college in Washington, D.C. so the transition from London to Suli and all that entails has not been difficult, although I have had to adjust to the fact that there are no ATM's and no one takes credit cards -- not even the "five-star" hotel we stayed in in Dohuk, and to the absence of the almost unlimited choices in food, restaurants, shopping, etc. that a large cosmopolitan city offers. Nor has the cultural adjustment been difficult -- the night life here is pretty limited, particularly for women and for non-Iraqis but I have never really been part of that scene -- and I can respect and appreciate cultural differences (unless they impact on people's human rights).
View of London

No, none of those adjustments have been difficult and I know that I can be very happy living almost anywhere in new and different ways. The BIG adjustment, which I'm still undergoing, is going to working with an NGO in the Middle East from working at a law firm that functioned 24/7 and that provided incomparable services and support. Obviously the work is quite different -- but I love the work and hope that I am becoming a human rights lawyer (thanks to the privilege of working with people who are incredibly dedicated and experienced human rights advocates). And the pace is quite different. It's not that human rights lawyers don't work every bit as hard, if not harder and in more challenging circumstances, as lawyers in private practice -- they do, and I'm working as hard as I ever have. It's that I'm finding I can't make things happen as quickly as I would like (I know those of you who think I'm a control freak and a perfectionist are laughing). Because we answer to donors and work in situations that can be challenging, there are an incredible number of procedures (including paperwork) that have to be attended to, particularly for program directors. And although in private practice I had to keep track of my time and expenses and deal with other administrative matters, there was always someone to complete time and expense reports for me, take care of plane reservations, etc. (and I want to give a HUGE thanks to my former firm for the services it still provides me -- and a special thanks to Christine, Ron, Carla, Shaf, Stephen and others in London and Chicago who respond to all my emails and phone calls and make my life so much easier).
Kiawah Island, South Carolina
So when I feel frustrated or discouraged that there's so much to do and I'm not getting enough done or people aren't responding quickly enough or that I'm drowning in paperwork and spending too much time on administrative matters and not enough time on substantive work, I have to tell myself that this is a different world than the one I was used to and that I have to adjust to it -- because it's not likely that it will adjust to my will!  And I focus on how grateful and fortunate I am to have the opportunity to share in this work with incredible colleagues dedicated to helping victims of human rights violations. 

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Sulaymaniyah, Duhok and Erbil

A bird nesting in the porch lamp at our house in Suly.
Today is Saturday, the last day of the weekend here.  It is hot -- in the 100's -- but not as hot as in Baghdad, which is about 120 -- and it is dusty.  I heard it called the black cloud, but luckily the thin layer of dust that spreads a fine film over everything is not black but tan.  It is almost ALWAYS sunny (sort of like Arizona but without the cacti, though I imagine there is some somewhere) except during April and May when it rains (which, of course, we just missed).  And it will get hotter I am assured.  However, there's a nice breeze and with ceiling fans and "splits" (air conditioners) it's very pleasant -- until the electricity goes out and then we just wait a little while before we trip the generator.

The UNDP A2J (Access to Justice) project is in three cities and their regions.  Heartland-Iraq is covering Sulaymaniyah and Duhok and a local NGO, WEO, is in Erbil.  In addition to the cities, our mobile clinics will also go into the respective governates (regions) as part of the outreach aspect of the program.  This coming week I will be visiting Erbil to meet my counterpart at WEO and to meet with Department of State representatives to discuss Rule of Law Issues.  Then I will be going to Duhok to meet our Duhok A2J team.

It will be interesting to compare the three different cities and areas.  Erbil is the capital of the KRG (Kurdistan Regional Governate) and home to various consulates, including the British consulate, and a beautiful new airport with service to various cities, including Vienna via Austrian Air and Frankfurt via Lufthansa (and then on to other European cities), Amman, Dubai, Beirut, Istanbul and Abu Dhabi.  Suly is said to be the most "modern" city, with Duhok being more conservative.
PUK poster
There are two major political parties in Kurdistan: the PUK -- Patriotic Union of Kurdistan -- and the KDP -- Kurdistan Democratic Party (recently a third party, Goran -- meaning reform -- has emerged).  A couple of days ago the PUK celebrated its 36th anniversary and Suly, the headquarters of the PUK, partied like it was 1975.  With all the fireworks, etc., I thought it was Suly's equivalent of the Fourth of July until someone pointed out that some of the bursts may have been gunfire (in celebration nonetheless) so perhaps a bit of Guy Fawkes Day thrown in (we expats were advised to stay inside).  Erbil and Duhok are KDP country.

Even though in 2006 the PUK and the KDP signed a unification agreement (and I am told they have been brought closer together by the Goran party which threatens their dominance), in the mid 1990's a civil war broke out between the two parties with the PUK looking to Iran for help while the KDP turned to Saddam Hussein.  In 1998 the two sides stopped fighting but not before hundreds of civilians were killed. 

So each region in Kurdistan is different in many ways and I look forward to exploring those differences. However, each region shares many of the same problems, including a lack of access to justice for all citizens, and I hope the A2J program will begin to sucessfully confront the human rights issues that unfortunately continue to permeate this country. 

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Why Saladin's Sister?

The courthouse in Sulaymaniyah
Saladin was a Kurdish warrior who lived in the 12th century and defeated the Christian armies in the second crusade, displacing them from their fortresses throughout the Holy Land.  His most famous foe was Richard the Lionhearted.  However, he permitted both Christians and Jews to practice their respective religions in Jerusalem and re-establish their religious communities in that city.  In addition to being a warrior, he ruled an empire which included present day Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Lebanon and Israel.  He remains a Kurdish hero.  The Kurds continue to be known for their fierce warriors -- the peshmerga -- who fought along side the United States in the Iraqi war.  However, Saladin also fought against the abuse of women.  According to legend,  he gave one of his soldiers a woman to marry.  When he discovered the soldier was beating his wife, Saladin demanded her return saying that the Koran forbade mistreatment of women.

Unfortunately today, too many ignore the Koran's guidance on this point.  Combating gender based violence has been a focus of Heartland Alliance in Iraq and this year Heartland released a report entitled, "Institutionalized Violence Against Women and Girls: Laws & Practices in Iraq."  The report highlights legal, procedural and practical challenges facing victims of gender-based violence in the criminal justice system, as well as those seeking legal rights through the Personal Status Courts.  The information and recommendations included in this report are based on real cases handled by Heartland working with its local NGO partners in the Kurdistan Regional Governate, Kirkuk, Baghdad and Basra. Please let me know if you would like a copy of the report and I will email it to you.
Saladin (who had a sister)  would cetainly crusade against gender based violence if he were alive today.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

In Suly

Heartland Help Desk Office in Suly
Jim and I arrived in  Sulaymaniyah, Kurdistan in Northern Iraq last Thursday, spent the weekend (which in the Middle East is Friday and Saturday) moving in and started work on Sunday.  I am Legal Programs Director for Heartland Alliance for Human Rights and Human Needs (see  Right now, the primary program I am directing is a UNDP grant (United Nations Development Programme--I'm having to learn a whole slew of acronyms) to set up a program in Sulaymaniyah and Duhok (both Kurdistan) providing vulnerable persons with "Access to Justice."  This program has a number of components, including establishing "help desks" at the courthouses and at our offices in those cities.  The picture in this post is me standing in front of our office in Suly.  Other components include outreach through mobile clinics (in prisons, women's shelters, IDP camps (displaced persons), reformatories, etc.; development and distribution of a "Know Your Rights" brochure; and contributing to two new manuals being written on criminal and civil law.  Our targeted audience includes, but is not limited to (excuse the lawyer-like phrase) persons with gender-related concerns, those with issues relating to age and/or disabilities, displaced pesons and refugees.
The difference between Kurdistan and Iraq is confusing to many people.  Kurdistan is an autonomous region within Iraq.  I'll write more about that later, but in the meantime, a recent Washington Post travel piece does a pretty good job of explaining the situation (and no, our accommodations are NOT the five-star accommodations described in this piece; we live in a shared house with four others, which is comfortable but not without its challenges -- electricity going out, no hot water, etc.).  In fact the country is full of challenges -- this morning I walked into my office and it was filled with a dozen or more grasshoppers (I choose to call them grasshoppers rather than locusts because of the negative Biblical connotation of locusts) -- but it also is filled with wonderful people whom I look forward getting to know.
Before signing off, I'd like to put in a plug for donations from those of you who would like to support Heartland's work here (for example, we need funds for a teen runaway shelter in Baghdad, among other projects).  Much of our funding has come from the Department of State and with the anticipated withdrawal of US troops from Iraq, that may be changing. Yet so much still is needed here.  You can donate by going to Heartland's web site (again, that's  Many thanks in advance.
Next post:  why the blog is called Saladin's Sister.