Saturday, October 22, 2011

Autumn in Kurdistan

Barista Coffee shop
I was sitting in a coffee shop in Erbil called “Barista” earlier this week.  Erbil is the capital of Kurdistan and so it is the home to many expats who work in consulates, the UN, various NGOs and other places.  As a result, there are many establishments catering to Western sensibilities – no Starbucks yet but Barista is a Starbucks wanna-be.  In addition to espresso drinks, it sells doughnuts, bagel sandwiches and other goodies that look remarkably similar to those in my neighborhood Starbucks back in the US.  The only difference is that many people sitting in the coffee shop spoke Kurdish – though I also heard English and American accents as well – and almost everyone smoked.  That morning, one of my colleagues was attending meetings with UNICEF and a local NGO, another was catching up on her sleep (most people when they travel sleep less well; she sleeps better because when she’s home her two daughters get into bed with her and disrupt her sleep) and I was catching up on emails because Barista has wireless.
Enjoying a latte
I had spent the prior two days in Duhok and Erbil.  In Erbil, my program coordinator and I met with the Dean of the College of Law and Politics of Salahaddin University.  As a general rule, there is no tradition of legal aid services in Iraq even though there is a great need (as there is in almost every country, including the United States).  That is one of the reasons why Heartland Alliance's work is so important.  However, it is critical that capacity be built among Iraqi lawyers and organizations to do this work in order to build and sustain it, and I’ve become convinced that to inculcate lawyers with what is a Western notion, namely that the profession has an ethical responsibility to provide pro bono services, it must start early, i.e., in law school.   Salahaddin College of Law has a new Human Rights Center and recently, a legal clinic, and it was interesting exchanging ideas on the state of human rights in Kurdistan and other issues.  As the dean said, though not at the level of European countries, given the turmoil over the last decades,  particularly under Saddam Hussein, it's  much better than it has been. 
Lake outside of Duhok
In Duhok, the A2J team had its first meeting with our Legal Advisory Committee, which is made up of three judges, four professors and the president of the Duhok Bar Association.  Although most of the members saw the need for legal aid work (in fact, the  President of the Appeals Court urged us to have written materials so others can learn how to do the work, which in fact is part of the Access to Justice Project -- development of a Criminal Law Manual, a Civil Law Manual and a Manual of Procedures), unfortunately some members of the bar do not think pro bono work by lawyers is necessary.  This is discouraging because although our Project has reached over 1200 people in less than five months, there are hundreds more who have little knowledge about their legal rights or ability to access the justice system.  But just when I'm feeling discouraged, I meet someone as I did this week who works in the office next to ours in Duhok.  He told me that the work being done is so important, that free legal services are needed because lawyers charge so much and people can't afford to pay the fees (a problem encountered in many places, including the United States).
On a juicier note (ok, bad pun), it's pomegranate season here and they are wonderful!  We have several pomegranate trees in our yard but so far they have not yet ripened.  Luckily there are LOTS for sale in the bazaar, at roadside stands and in grocery stores.  And it's autumn here as well.  We're having beautiful cool days and cooler evenings (low to mid 70's at the peak of the day, 50's at night) -- actually sweater weather --and I'm told it will get really cold soon......
............ok, maybe not this cold but who knows?

Friday, October 7, 2011

Reaching Out

Art in Sulaimaniya
I think I've mentioned before that one aspect of Heartland Alliance's Access to Justice Project is outreach.  There are a number of outreach projects:  Know Your Rights brochures and pamphlets for distribution, radio and TV public service announcements and newspaper coverage.  However, the most important outreach activity are the Mobile Legal Clinic outreach sessions which allow us to reach dozens of people at a time. The Mobile Legal Clinics -- one each in the Governorates of Duhok and Sulaimaniya -- visit organizations, schools, jails, women's shelters, reformatories and other places where there are persons who may be in vulnerable situations.  During these outreach sessions, our lawyers and social workers may make a presentation on a topic of interest, answer questions about legal and other rights, and/or have one-on-one consultations.  In addition to visits in the cities of Sulaimaniya and Duhok, the Mobile Legal Clinics also go into rural and other areas in the governorates where arguably the need is the greatest, because it is in these areas where tribal law or other informal means of "justice" may often operate in ways which deprive vulnerable Iraqis, particularly women, of access to true justice.
In the women's workshop at the Kurdistan Disabled Persons Union
With my gift from the women 
Recently I was able to attend one of the Mobile Legal Clinic outreach visits at the Kurdistan Disabled Persons Union in Sulaimaniya, where I was the recipient of such gracious hospitality.  After spending time with Kak Omer, the Union's president, who is wonderful -- informative and welcoming (which has been my near universal experience with the Kurdish people), I toured the shop where women members are making handicrafts to sell (and I was able to pick up a holiday gift or two).  Kak Omer had asked the lawyers to give a simple-to understand summary of legislation which protects the rights of the disabled.  After their presentation and questions, one-on-one consultations were available.
Outreach at the Kurdistan Disabled Persons Union
Although many members of the Union have congenital disabilities, I was told that the majority of members are physically disabled as a result of mines and bombs.  After I asked what conflict the mines and bombs were from, I realized that the Kurdish people have lived with violence in their lives for decades.  In the 70's it was the Kurdish revolution for independence; in the 80's it was the war with Iran and the Anfal; in the 90's it was the first Gulf War and the Kurdish civil war; and in the 00's it was the US invasion against Saddam Hussein.  One of my Heartland colleagues recently said "we are the generation of war."   In a future blog post I'm going to explore what that means but the impact of decades of violence has had significant effects, both physical and emotional.

With Kak Omer, President of the Kurdistan Disabled Persons Union
On a less somber note, one of the things I've notice about living here is that there are more birds and butterflies than in previous cities I have lived.   Because of pollution, loss of habitat and other modern incursions, I found that butterflies and birds (other than pigeons and crows) are often rare in the US and the UK, even in parks and gardens.  It's lovely waking up to a songbird's trill and catching a glimpse of a brightly colored butterfly in a land that has experienced such tragedy.