Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Letting Children Be Children

Children playing the Iraqi version of chess
I know I said I probably wouldn't post another blog until I returned to Iraq from a visit to the UK and the US but I want to write about a couple of experiences I had over the last few days. I'm sitting in the house waiting for our taxi to arrive, scheduled for 1:00 am, to take us to the Suly airport for our 4:00 am flight.  For some reason, most every flight out of, and many into Sulaymaniyah, are scheduled in the wee hours of the morning.  We fly to Amman, then Jim and I separate, he going to Amsterdam then New York City, me to London and then on to the US. 
Animals in the stockyard
One of Heartland Alliance's partners runs a drop-in center in the bazaar and a mobile drop-in center for working children, both of which I had the privilege of visiting this morning.  Although Iraqi law prohibits children under 15 or 16 from working, there is an exemption for work with relatives -- an invitation to exploitation.  This morning, the mobile drop-in center (a small bus) was at the stockyard, a place where animals are sold and often slaughtered.  Children start working there early in the morning and often arrive at the drop-in center covered in blood and cuts from slaughtering animals(I was reminded of The Jungle, Upton Sinclair's 1906 novel about the Chicago meatpacking industry which spurred government regulation). They are given juice, games to play and an opportunity to relax and just act like children for a while.  About 15 to 30 kids of various ages come each day. This morning, I met some terrific boys (they are all boys), age 12 or under, who were warm and friendly, as I have found almost every Iraqi child to be.
With my new friends
I then went to the drop-in center in the market. Because it's stationary and reaches more children, it offers more services, including a doctor who is there once a week, music, art, educational activities, as well as games.  The center greets about 80 boys a day, aged from 10 or 11 to 16.  The art I saw hanging on the walls by the kids was amazing, art that showed the places they worked (for example, garages, produce stands, selling cigarettes, etc.) as well as activities at the center.  Help us support these centers (unfortunately the drop-in centers in Baghdad and Basra were forced to close because of failure to find additional funding) by donating on-line at www.heartlandalliance.org and designating your gift for Iraq (I know, I'm an unbroken record but the work is so important). 
Drawings by drop-in center boys  
The boys that I met today, when not in school, should be having fun -- doing things boys love to do, like playing football.  When I lived in London I became a huge Chelsea football fan and my favorite player is Frank Lampard.  Ironically, on the way home from work today, I ran into a young man decked out in the full Chelsea kit with Frank Lampard's name and number (8) on the shirt and pants.
Young Iraqi Chelsea fan
This weekend we had the opportunity to go to a Kurdish party in the hills about an hour or so outside of Sulaymaniyah.  We were invited to join new ex-pat friends from Canada, one of whom is a volunteer at Heartland with a partner who works for a Middle Eastern oil rig company doing business in Kurdistan with our host.  We experienced the famous Kurdish hospitality in all its glory -- lots of food, drink and a host whose only focus was to make sure we had enough of everything. Just as we thought we couldn't eat more and were about to leave, the "main" course was brought out! 
Kurdish hospitality
One of the nice benefits of being guests at this lovely affair was that we drove outside the city and into the hills where it was not only beautiful but about 20 or 30 degrees cooler than the plain on which Suly lies.  When we return to Iraq, it will be what is purportedly the hottest month of the year -- August -- which reaches 130 to 140 degrees!  In the meantime we'll enjoy the "cool" temperatures in the west.
The countryside outside of Suly

Friday, July 8, 2011

The Hot -- and Holy -- Month of August (2011)

Rashid Mosque
It's Friday morning in Sulaymaniyah, which is the equivalent of Sunday morning in other parts of the world  (Saturday here is like Saturday elsewhere -- perhaps the busiest day of the week when everyone does their shopping, runs errands, goes out at night, etc.).  Though it is the first day of our weekend, it is the holiest of the days of the week in Islam, the day when almost every shop is closed in the morning and many of them all day.  It is the day when in addition to the call of prayer five times a day, there is a fairly long "sermon" -- all of which, of course, is broadcast from mosques throughout Suly, indeed throughout the Muslim world.  They are not synchronized so if you are standing outside during one of the daily calls to prayer or the Friday sermon, you hear different voices ringing throughout the city.  Our house is literally three doors down from the Rashid Mosque so we have the privilege of being able to hear these rituals clearly.  For those of us who have not been exposed to this all our lives, at first it is surprising and a bit disconcerting but then it becomes soothing and comforting as I think prayer does in all religions.
Electricity lines in Suly
It is hot here -- really hot and about to get hotter (one of the reasons I enjoy writing this blog is so that I can see on my blog site the picture taken of Christian and me last winter on the slopes of the Rockies when we were skiing with my good friend, Kelly).  My friends in the US tell me that it's been 88 or 90 or even 95 degrees there -- SO hot.  My reply is "that's nothing."  We are currently at about 110 to 115 degrees on a daily basis.  In August it will be up to 130 or so.  So air conditioning and fans are particularly welcome and the almost daily or so power outages are more of a nuisance.  But at night when the sun goes down, it is really quite pleasant.  Last night we had friends over for dinner -- a new volunteer for Heartland Iraq and her partner, who works for a company that supplies oil rigs, and a former British soldier stationed in Iraq who is now head of security for one of the oil companies -- and we ate outside on our patio enjoying a relatively cool evening and great conversation. 
Jim and I are leaving Wednesday for a few weeks back in the US.  I will be going to London for meetings and to reconnect with friends and former colleagues, then to South Carolina, Chicago and the East Coast to visit family and friends, and to take care of those things you can't ignore, like the dentist, hair cutter, annual physical, etc.  Jim will be traveling to NY to see family and friends and to take care of those necessities as well.  The "cooler" weather will be welcome.  We've made lists of things to take away from Iraq (what made me think I would ever need a wool winter coat?) and things to bring back to Iraq (why didn't I know that I would not be able to find balsamic vinegar or Woolite in Iraq?).
Our yard during one of the only days of rain in June
When we return, Ramadan will have just begun (August 1 this year but its occurrence varies each year according to the Islamic calendar).  Ramadan, a month-long period during which Muslims fast for self-purification, is one of the five pillars of Islam; the other four are recognition of the Oneness of God (Allah) and Muhammad as His prophet, the aforementioned prayer five times a day, alms-giving/charity and a pilgrimage to Mecca during one's lifetime (Hajj).

During Ramadan, Muslims fast every day from dawn until sunset and special prayers are held.  Fasting means no liquids or food or other satisfaction of physical needs, but certain people are exempt, including those who would suffer severe ill health (but they must make it up by fasting later if they can or feeding at least one needy person at least one meal per day or the equivalent) . The month provides an opportunity to get closer to God.  I'm planning on participating in this important ritual when I return not only as a sign of respect to those in the country in which I'm living (and who wants to see me stuff my face when they are hungry?) but also, as the Koran says, to get closer to God.  I've always thought that it many ways Ramadan is like the Christian period of Lent, only shorter and more intense, but sharing the same purpose.  In fact, Islam, Judaism and Christianity share many things in common, including the recognition of Abraham as a prophet and Jesus as a messenger of God and a messiah who was sent to guide the children of Israel with a new Gospel.  Unfortunately, so many forget the similarities we share in our search for relationship with God and focus upon -- and shed blood over -- the differences, or in fact the distortions of the holy books.

This will probably be my last post until I return in August -- so stay tuned, and stay cool!

I snapped this picture last night on the way home from work -- I'm not sure if Halloween is celebrated in Iraq, but if it is, this child is ready!

Friday, July 1, 2011

Victims of War in the "Countries" of Kurdistan

IDP camp in Suly
Some of my Heartland colleagues have been working with IDP's -- internally displaced persons -- here in Suly. These are Arab Iraqis who have fled the sectarian violence in the south (mainly Baghdad and Basra) and have come to Kurdistan to find peace, at least until they are able to return to their homes.  They are living in a camp in Suly -- about 60 families of approximately 250 people -- in makeshift structures.  Their children are not being educated, their water and fuel is sometimes cut off and garbage collection suspended.  And now it is proposed that a football stadium and parking lot be built on the site of the camp, so the land has become valuable and they would have to be moved (perhaps to another camp where currently non-Iraqis are living, i.e., Iranians and Syrians, who are afforded even fewer rights).  The Guiding Principles On Internal Displacement, published by the United Nations sets forth the human rights protections afforded to IDPs; unfortunately, as with other international human rights principles, they are often ignored.

As I mentioned, my colleagues have brought some joy to the children living there in an attempt to give them some normalcy and structure in their lives.   Last weekend the children put on a puppet show, Akhdar and the Enormous Carrot, which was a delight.  It reminded me of the children's Christmas pageant that my former church, St. Matthew's Episcopal in Evanston, Illinois, put on each year:  controlled chaos with children of all ages together with adults having about as much success directing them as they would herding cats!  It was delightful.
At the puppet show
And by the way, we are still accepting donations to cover the cost of the puppet show and other activities here in Iraq.  Please go to www.heartlandalliance.org to contribute and help bring more moments of joy to these children and their families (you can designate your gift for this purpose).  We all thank you!!
Since coming to Northern Iraq I've been to Duhok twice and Erbil twice.  I've heard that each city -- Suly, Duhok, Erbil and others across Kurdistan (including Kurdish cities in Iran, Syria and Turkey which the Kurds also consider to be part of their "country") are like separate countries and I am beginning to see why.  There are several dialects of Kurdish, including Sorani, spoken in Suly and other parts of central Kurdistan, and Badinani,spoken in Duhok  (this according to one source: "Kurdish dialects can be divided into three primary groups: the Northern Kurdish dialects group also called Kurmanji and Badínaní; Central Kurdish dialects group also called Sorani and the Southern Kurdish dialects group also called Pehlewaní or "Pahlawanik" group in some sources; the two other major branches of Kurdish language are Dimílí group, also called "Zaza" and Hewramí group also called Goraní (Gúraní) in some sources; these are further divided into scores of dialects and sub-dialects as well"). 
In addition to language differences (and although they are called dialects, my understanding from my Kurdish colleagues is that they are so different from one another that often Sorani-speaking Kurds communicate in Arabic rather than Badinani with Kurds in Duhok).  As I mentioned in a prior blog, there are political differences -- the PUK party in Suly and surrounding areas, and the KDP in Duhok and Erbil; geographical differences -- compare the pictures; and cultural differences.  When in Duhok, I met with the President of the Duhok Courthouse to finalize plans for setting up our Know Your Rights Help Desk in the courthouse.  On the way into the parking lot, a lawyer from my Duhok team started shouting with the armed police officer stationed there.  I asked my Suly colleague what they were fighting about (she's an amazing woman who speaks English beautifully, Kurdish -- her native tongue -- and Arabic) and she explained that they weren't fighting but that's how people talk in Duhok!
Monday is July 4 -- Independence Day in the United States, a holiday I've always loved since the time I was a little girl and had to cover my ears when my beloved grandfather would shoot off the cannon in his backyard in LeRoy, Ohio.  In Evanston, a suburb of Chicago, where my son, Christian, grew up, there is always a parade in the afternoon followed by wonderful fireworks over Lake Michigan.  The parade is a classic -- floats, bands, politicians, the kazoo corps, the riding lawnmower brigade, fire engines, antique cars, and Boy Scout troops, just to name a few participants.  People start putting out lawn chairs and other items on the street curb of the parade route days in advance to secure a prime viewing location (remarkably no one removes these objects).  In the late afternoon/early evening, Christian and I would go to the home of good friends for a BBQ and then we all headed over to the lake with our sheets and blankets to watch the fireworks display.

Living in Iraq reminds me of how privileged I am to be an American -- notwithstanding the failings and shortcomings of my country, including an ill-planned war that has left many victims in the land where I now live.  Despite this, I have found that many of these victims want nothing more than to go to the United States even though there are so many others in this part of the world who despise us.

So Happy Fourth everyone!!  On this day, please join me in being thankful for all we have; in hoping for peace throughout the world; and in living (and giving) out of gratitude for the abundance in our lives rather than a fear of scarcity.
Backyard in our house in Suly