Sunday, November 25, 2012

Happy Thanksgiving!

Thanksgiving in Sulaimaniya
Though Thanksgiving is obviously not a holiday here in Iraq, my two new housemates and I left the office a little early so that we could cook a special Thanksgiving dinner.  We didn't have turkey but we did have two nicely stuffed chickens, mashed potatoes and gravy, green beans with almonds and apple crisp ala mode.  It was really delicious.  Actually, we could have bought a turkey that we saw in the market bazaar last weekend but none of us was up for killing and de-feathering a live bird.  I guess we are not true pilgrims!
Turkeys awaiting their fate in the bazaar
Earlier on Thanksgiving Day I was one of three judges at a debate contest held between a team from the American University of Iraq in Sulaimaniya and the University of Kurdistan-Hawler (the Kurdish name for Erbil).  The topic was "Oil: a Curse or a Blessing?"  My co-judges were from the Ministry of Higher Education and the newspaper Awene.  It was so interesting hearing the viewpoints of those who live in a country with lots of oil and where, in fact, it can be both a curse and a blessing at the same time.  For example, in Kurdistan (as well as other oil-producing nations), the income from oil, if managed correctly, can be used to build hospitals, schools and much-needed infrastructure.  It can be used to fund legal aid and social services programs.  However, that's a big "if."  The money from oil, if mismanaged, can, among other things, also foster corruption and stifle entrepreneurship and industry.
Debate topic:  "Oil -- a Curse or a Blessing?"
Speaking of hospitals, one of the projects I would like to do in Iraq if we can get the funding is a program for burn victims.  The rate of suicide and attempted suicide by self-immolation is alarmingly high and growing (not to mention "forced suicides" -- a form of honor killing).  Women are most often the subjects and in many cases, they are victims of gender-based violence or suffer depression for other reasons.  I visited the burn unit of the hospital in Suly and saw a number of women who had been badly burned, not necessarily by accident.  One of the mental health workers from the TRTC (Trauma Rehabilitation and Training Center) who works at the burn unit on a volunteer basis gave two of my colleagues and me a tour and talked about the need for a psychiatrist on staff, medication to treat depression, and additional staff to provide mental health services.  A legal component could be included in the program to provide legal services for women who have attempted suicide because, for example, they are divorced and have no rights to visit their children (the situation of one woman we met in the burn unit).  We are going to write the proposal and hope that the funding will come.
One of the victims in the intensive care wing of the burn unit was there because he had been injured in an explosion from a car bomb in Kirkuk.  Kirkuk is a disputed part of Iraq, with some claiming it is part of Kurdistan while others claim that it is not.  Because of this conflict, Kirkuk has seen a number of terrorist attacks.  Kirkuk is also an area rich in oil, and -- at least for now -- that oil is a curse and a major reason why people are fighting over who controls that city and region.
Dolma and Pringles?
As is often the case with the Thanksgiving Day holiday, my housemates and I also feasted the day after (known in the United States as "black Friday).   Friends took us on a picnic in a beautiful area outside of Halabja.  The land belongs to one of our friend's grandfather who not only hosted us, but provided us with pomegranates from his trees (this is the season for that wonderful fruit and the best variety comes form Halabja).
Picking pomegranates
After lunch we visited the memorial to the victims of the poisonous gas attack on the city of Halabja which was part of Saddam Hussein's genocide campaign against the Kurdish people.  We also visited the cemetery where many of the 6000 victims are buried in mass graves.  These are powerful reminders of the hideous acts human beings can commit against one another.
The memorial in Halabja

Halabja cemetery with markers for each family killed. 
Both Thanksgiving Day and the day after were excellent opportunities for me to reflect once again about all I have to be thankful for -- the privilege of working in this country with its wonderful people, the hope that no one will ever have to experience another Halabja, the ability to experience fellowship with good friends, and immense gratitude for the abundance of other gifts I have been given.  
Some of the beautiful scenery on the drive
through the country to and from Halabja. 

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Election Report from Iraq

Living in Iraq gives me a new appreciation for the rights we have as Americans to participate in the democratic process of Tuesday's election.  I have had so many Kurds congratulate me on the re-election of President Obama and exhibit sincere joy. One staff member, who speaks very little English, was so excited to have watched the election results and the president's victory speech -- she rushed into my office with a huge smile, as happy as the Americans I watched in Chicago and Times Square on CNN celebrating after the election results came in. 

One former Heartland staff member sent the following (unedited) message to a mutual friend who passed it on to me:   "I want to say re–elected Obama congratulation, congratulation to all American people, really American people did a right decision, in here in sulaimania me and [my colleague] were Voted to Obama spiritually."

Another (Kurdish) staff member told me he couldn't sleep the night before worrying and he particularly noted in Obama's victory speech his reference to "people in other parts of the world risking their lives to have a chance to argue, cast their votes, like we did today."  He said "that sums up what we are dealing with in Kurdistan and Iraq.  I think Iraq and the world will be a better place with Obama in the White House."

This last message is particularly apropos in light of the following warning the US State Department sent the morning of the election:

The Department of State warns all U.S. citizens of an increased threat of terrorist activity against U.S. interests in northern Iraq in the run up to and through the U.S. elections on November 6, 2012.  The Department of State urges all U.S. citizens to defer non-essential travel to urban areas in Northern Iraq, including Erbil, Suliemaniyah, Dohuk and Kirkuk.  The Department of State further advises U.S. citizens to avoid large gatherings or public events as those are often targets of terrorism.  Additionally the U.S. Embassy has directed Chief of Mission personnel to defer all non-essential travel to Northern Iraq until further notice.
In my 18 months in Iraq, this is the first warning I have seen that actually mentions Sulaimaniya.  Luckily the day passed here without incident, though a car bomb killed more than two dozen people at an Army base near Baghdad.

May our re-elected president and all the leaders of the world join together to bring greater global peace and security.
* * *

In Chicago where I used to live there's a joke that the city has two seasons:  winter and construction season, and by construction, what is meant is road construction and refurbishing -- including filling in the potholes from the prior winter.  I feel like we're living in a bit of that here.  A couple of weeks ago I went to lunch with friends on a Saturday and when I came back, the road and what amounts to a sidewalk in front of the office and my house had been totally torn up (as shown in the above picture).  This week steps were taken to finish it:

And I have to confess that once the cement dried, like a little kid I had to write my name in it -- but no hand print.

It's also the season for pomegranates -- and Iraq has the best in the world.  So now and for the next few weeks I'll be feasting on this wonderful fruit.


Sunday, October 21, 2012

Ending Domestic Violence

A rare site: a river near Duhok 
Ramadan and the Eid holiday are over and Kurdistan is resuming a more regular schedule.  For me this included a trip to Erbil and Duhok where I was last week.*  In Erbil I was a panelist for the Kurdistan Careers Conference (which was repeated in Sulaimaniya on Friday and Saturday), attended mainly by recent college graduates.  The panel was made up of expats talking about the organizations they worked for, their experiences, opportunities for employment, why they came to Kurdistan and how they see Kurdistan's future.
I was the only representative from an NGO at the conference.  My co-panelists predicted a very bright future for the region with, among other things, oil and gas production (Exxon-Mobil and Chevron both have agreements to drill here).  I suggested that although Kurdistan had many positive things going for it, there were some things which serve as impediments to full development and that their generation would need to change them.  For example, the KRG (and many other governments) have a political system in which so much of the government's funds go to  "public sector employment" rather than building sorely needed schools, establishing hospitals, supporting legal assistance programs, etc.  Another is the influence of tribal and cultural traditions that on the one hand give the Kurdish people their identity and rich heritage, but on the other too often perpetuate human rights violations.  Finally, I opined that any country or region which discounts 50% or more of its human resources -- its women -- will never grow into the kind of nation it otherwise could be. 

American University of Iraq in Sulaimaniya, site of the
Kurdistan Careers Conference
One of the significant human rights  issues in Iraq and a growing problem, even in areas like Sulaimaniya, is the problem of suicide and forced suicide, which is just another word for honor killing.  And the incidence of "self" immolation is alarmingly high.  Many of the women who burn to death or who are badly burned but survive are taking, or trying to take, their own lives because they feel there is no alternative.  In many cases, for example, they have been forced into unhappy and often abusive marriages.

But Iraq and Kurdistan both have recently enacted anti-domestic violence laws that make illegal not only domestic violence, but also forced marriages, underage marriages, genital mutilations and other forms of abuse.  As part of the law, the Directorate for Follow-up of Violence Against Women was created to help those protected by the law.  This Directorate refers many women to Heartland Alliance's Legal Help Desks (part of the UNDP Access to Justice Project).

The Heartland Alliance Access to Justice Project Manager,
Duhok Administrator and me with the Director in Samel and
her assistant
When we were in Duhok we visited the Directorate in the city of Duhok and also in the District of Semel.  In order for the Anti-Domestic Violence Law to be accomplish its purposes, it must be implemented effectively and enforced.  I'd love to be able to get the funds for a program to help do this.  For example, the law includes penalties, both monetary and penal, for certain violations; if damages were awarded under the enumerated circumstances, it might be a way to help women who are left with little if any means of supporting themselves (and so they are often forced to stay in abusive relationships). 

We also visited the men's penitentiary just outside of Duhok where prisoners who have already been to trial and are found guilty are held; while there we met with its director in order to coordinate outreach sessions, periodic visits, and referrals and we toured the facility. The differences between this penitentiary and those in the United States are remarkable.  The Duhok facility holds about 1000 prisoners in 100 "suites" of approximately ten men.  The suites include the bedroom, a kitchen, a sitting area and an outdoor space.  In fact, except for the steel doors that are locked each night, it felt more like a dormitory than a prison.
In one of the prison suite sleeping area with the director of the
Last week I also had the opportunity to attend the Kurdish wedding of one of our staff members.  When I say wedding, it's not what we mean in the United States and other Western countries.  In fact, what we would call the engagement is actually like a combination of the engagement and marriage;  the couple have a ceremony conducted by the religious leader and then they have several months during which they get to know one another, acquire the things necessary to set up house, etc.  After that, they have the "wedding" which in fact is when they take pictures (in this case the bride wore a very Western-looking white wedding gown and the groom wore a tuxedo), then join their guests for dancing and dining -- the party (or what we would call the wedding reception).  After that, they start their lives together.  A number of Heartland Alliance staff sat at one table, danced and had a great time celebrating this happy occasion!
On our way to the wedding -- I borrowed traditional
Kurdish dressy clothes   


Saturday, July 21, 2012

A New Year

UNDP Access to Justice Project with the support of Norway
I know it has been a very long time since I've posted, but it's been a busy several weeks.  First of all, I'm pleased to report that the UNDP Access to Justice Project for Vulnerable Iraqis Project was extended in May and will continue another eight months, into 2013.  The project is still sponsored by UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) and supported this time by Norway in lieu of the European Union.  So we're very glad to be able to continue this essential program which provides outreach and legal and social services to those in need.  For those of you who saw my last post about our Photo Exhibition , What the Eye Does Not See:  The Faces of Vulnerability in Iraq, all the beautiful photographs can be viewed on:
Grapes and pears in our garden.
I'm now into my second year living here in Sulaimaniya.  Another summer has arrived and with it the heat.  This week it is 40 degrees Celsius (or as I was taught, centigrade) -- about 105 degrees Fahrenheit.  Not too much different than what friends and family in the United States have been experiencing.  In many ways, it's more tolerable because it is dry heat with very little humidity.  On the other hand, the inevitable power outages mean long periods of time (e.g., four hours) without air conditioning in our house.  During these times, including as I'm writing this, the goal is to move as little as possible, but even then eventually sweat drips down your front, back, legs, arms, etc. As you can see from the pictures above and below, summer also  means wonderful produce.  We have a very large grape arbor in front of the house.  The grapes are pretty sour, but perhaps we can set up a winery and make a little money to help support our programs.

For much of the Arab world, Ramadan started yesterday, but in Iraq it started today (which made me happy that I had one final day of the weekend where I could eat regularly).  Once again I will be fasting while I'm here as I did last year, though I do drink water during the day. 

With the advent of my second year here, I have become Country Director of Heartland Alliance's Iraq office and programs (I tell my friends and former work colleagues that it's sort of like being the CEO of a foreign subsidiary).  As you can imagine, I've felt a little overwhelmed these first few weeks as I've gotten to know the programs, financial systems, etc. but I love it and feel so privileged to be entrusted with this role.  My direct boss, the MENA (Middle East North Africa) Regional Director is terrific -- very supportive and affirmative.  As the International HR person at headquarters in the US pointed out, I've had many roles with Heartland, including Board member, member of the President's Council and Legal Programs Director here in Iraq, and I hope I can continue to be of service in this new position. 
Proud mom with my handsome son and
gorgeous daughter-in-law at law school graduation
One reason why I haven't posted in a while is that I had a long visit to the United States to attend my son's graduation from law school and to celebrate my father's 90th birthday with my mom and the rest of our family (which includes 1 son and 1 daughter-in-law, 2 sisters, 1 brother, 3 nephews, 5 nieces and a niece-in-law, Jim and a boyfriend of one of my nieces -- 19 in all).  It was great  being with my family for this happy occasion and to celebrate my dad's life.  When I was growing up, my father encouraged me to pursue the things I loved and taught me to believe that I could do anything I wanted with hard work and determination.  I never dreamed I would be given the opportunity to have two wonderful careers -- first as a corporate lawyer and now as a human rights worker -- and to be given the privilege of living and working in Iraq with our terrific staff and the wonderful people who live here.   And I'm tremendously grateful for the continuing support of my mom and dad, even though they would rather that I be living closer to them.
With my mom and dad, son and daughter-in-law

Saturday, May 12, 2012

What the Eye Does Not See

Domestic violence is illegal;
don’t keep it behind closed doors.  
Photograph by Soran Naqishbandi
As I mentioned in my last post, one of the supplemental activities of the UNDP Access to Justice for Vulnerable Iraqis is a photo exhibition and media installation.  The photo exhibition, entitled What the Eye Does Not See:  The Faces of Vulnerability in Iraq, consists of  20 photographs  by various Iraqi photographers with captions highlighting human rights issues that the Access to Justice Project seeks to address.  The focus of the Exhibition is to (a) draw attention to and raise awareness of various issues, including gender based violence, trafficking, forced marriage, economic exploitation of children and other violations of human rights suffered in particular by vulnerable Iraqis, and (b) inform people about their rights under the Iraqi Constitution and other laws.   

The media installation accompanying the photo exhibition is a closed circuit television playing public service announcements produced for the Access to Justice Project and other Heartland Alliance-Iraq programs.  Subjects of the PSAs include trafficking, forced marriages (which are now illegal), Zhn ba Zhn (one for one) marriages and various religious figures speaking out against violence against women.  

The first showing was held in Sulaimaniya's Azadi Park on a lovely sunny Friday, the traditional day for picnicking in Kurdistan.  The A2J Legal Help Desk lawyers and social worker were on hand to answer questions and to distribute brochures and pamphlets about various issues addressed by the UNDP Access  to Justice Project and other Heartland Alliance programs, including the institutionalized violence against women in Iraqi society. Children in particular were interested in reading about these issues -- a positive sign for change in future generations, which is critical for the advancement of human rights.  (An informal survey indicated that Haedar Umar's photograph below was the favorite of those viewing the show in |Azadi Park.)

The photo exhibition/media installation is now at the Investigations Courthouse in Erbil (through May 16).  The show was opened by representatives from UNDP and courthouse officials, including judges.  It will then be in the courthouse in Sulaimaniya and hopefully thereafter in the Duhok Courthouse.

* * *
On April 25-26, the International Bar Association held the 5th World Women Lawyers' Conference in London, my former "home town."  Women attorneys -- and a few men -- from around the globe attended.  I was privileged to be a participant in the opening panel, Women in war zones: the role of women lawyers in areas of strife and reconstruction.   The session covered the role of women, and in particular, women lawyers, in the restoration of peace, and the reconstruction of social administrative structures and organizations in the implementation of the rule of law.

Women and girls under the age of 18 are being
forced into prostitution.  To combat this, the
Iraqi government has passed a law making sex
trafficking illegal. 
Photograph by Haedar Umar

I discussed  the rule of law in Iraq, including the historical, cultural and religious context, the gains that have  been made and the continuing challenges to its implementation.  Fellow panelists included women from Zimbabwe and Nigeria, and an English lawyer who had worked in Afghanistan for a year on the implementation of the rule of law there.   The other speakers highlighted issues such as female genital mutilation and other forms of violence against women, the all too often deplorable conditions suffered by refugees and IDPs (internally displaced persons), illegal trafficking and other human rights abuses facing vulnerable populations.  Regrettably, these problems are not only prevalent in the countries  represented by the panelists -- Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria and Zimbabwe -- but throughout the world. 

I continue to be amazed, saddened and angered by the inhumanity that exists, not only in post-conflict and "developing" countries, but also in those nations that are deemed to be "modern" and "developed."   But I am optimistic that by providing information about human rights to all persons, and helping people understand and enforce their rights, one can not only make a difference in the lives of those particular beneficiaries, but can help bring about change in the world, albeit slowly and often painfully.  This is what programs such as the UNDP Access to Justice Project and organizations such as Heartland Alliance seek to do.   If you would like to support the work of Heartland Alliance in Iraq or elsewhere, please consider making a donation on the Heartland Alliance website.

Photo exhibit at Azadi Park,

Photograph by Safen Ahmed

The Iraqi Constitution provides that the state will care for the handicapped and those with special needs and will ensure their rehabilitation in order to reintegrate them into society.  Kurdistan recently passed a  law protecting the disabled.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Spring in Sulaimaniya

View from my office of snow-capped mountains.
I know it's been ages since I've posted a new blog.  During that time we've passed through the winter with its snow, cold and winds.  I'm from Chicago and the Midwest where the winters are REALLY cold and the wind whistles across the flat prairie lands and the bridges over the Chicago River.  I swear that the office building where I worked before moving to London and then Iraq was on the coldest city corner in the world.  The difference is that here in Iraq, as I've mentioned before, the electricity goes off for periods of time -- sometimes several hours -- and of course that means the heat goes off.  I often went to bed in socks, sweat pants, a hoodie and gloves under a down comforter and blankets piled on.  I'm pretty warm-blooded but I swear there were times when I didn't think I'd ever be warm again.
Fields of grass whizzing by on the drive from Erbil to Suly.
But now it's spring and the loveliest time of the year in Kurdistan.  We've had rain and everything is green.  Riverbeds that used to be dry are now filled.  The temperatures are perfect and there's often a delightful breeze.  There are two gardenia trees right outside my office that smell heavenly.  The roses are blooming in the gardens.  It will be like this for another month or so before the heat and dry weather arrive -- so it's to be enjoyed: picnics, weekend strolls, sitting outside reading, just soaking in the sunshine and fresh air. 
Crossing a river which is dry most of the year.
The above pictures were taken during a trip last week from Suly to Erbil to Duhok and back again.  It's a difficult trip -- 5 to 6 hours each way on roads, some of which are good and some of which are bad.  But our drivers are wonderful; they drive fast but carefully and I'm always confident that they will complete the journey safely (when people ask me if I have safety concerns here I always reply that if I'm injured or killed, it will most likely be in a traffic accident!).  And I never cease to be surprised and delighted by the contrasts in this country.  For example, on this last trip, I saw sheep being herded right beside a football pitch where kids were playing the most popular sport in the world.  
UNDP Access to Justice Team in Duhok
The UNDP Access to Justice Project for Vulnerable Iraqis officially ended on March 31, 2012; however, we've continued programming on a part-time basis in April and are hoping for additional funding that will continue the Project to the end of the year.  Since the Project's inception, Heartland Alliance's two A2J Legal Help Desk teams in Sulaimaniya and Duhok have served approximately 6300 people who were provided legal consultations and full case representations, received answers to various inquiries and/or attend Mobile Legal Clinic Outreach sessions at a variety of locations in the cities and outlying districts of Suly and Duhok, including high schools, jails, women's shelters, senior centers, youth centers and orphanages, and for various groups (e.g., women's unions, organizations for disabled persons, and tenants' rights organizations, just to name a few).
Sulaimaniya Legal Help Desk
Each Legal Help Desk team member -- lawyers and social workers -- as well as our administrative assistant in Duhok and staff in Sulaimaniya, contribute to the effectiveness of the Project.  But the success of the Access to Justice Project is owed primarily to our Project Coordinator.  She is an amazing woman who I am privileged to be able to work with and call my friend.  In addition to being a dedicated, intelligent, kind, accomplished, beautiful and professional woman who is passionate about the work we are doing, she is a devoted wife, mother, daughter and sister. 
The UNDP Access Project Coordinator and me.
She was raised by wonderful parents who gave her a sense of independence and instilled in her the belief that she can do anything she puts her mind to, and she and her husband are now passing these gifts on to their two daughters.   She and others like her are the hope of Kurdistan and Iraq. She abhors corruption, believes in the sanctity of human rights for every Iraqi, rich or poor, and is willing to work for the change that is necessary if this country is going to be able to provide equality, peace, security and wellbeing for all its citizens. 
The Project Coordinator (second from right) with her
youngest daughter, her mother (second from left), her
sisters and nephew.
This Friday we are having a photo exhibition/media installation in Azadi Park, the largest park in Sulaimaniya, as part of the UNDP Access to Justice Project Supplemental Activities program.  Entitled "What the Eye Does Not See: Faces of Vulnerability in Iraq," the exhibition includes 20 beautiful photographs by various Iraqi photographers and is intended to highlight the work of the UNDP Access to Justice for Vulnerable Iraqis Project.  The exhibit will then be held in various other venues in Sulaimaniya, Erbil and Duhok.  If you are in Sulaimaniya on Friday, come see us!   You can view the photos on line at UNDP's website.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

On the Road

Snow on the mountains outside of Sulaimaniya
           I’ve done a lot of travelling over the last couple of weeks.  We had an international consultant from Bogota, Colombia here to conduct advanced training.   She is a law professor as well as a human rights advocate, particularly for women.  Colombia’s constitution is very similar to Iraq’s and she speaks from first-hand experience about how to handle cases involving deprivations of human rights and constitutional and other challenges.

First, she visited the Legal Help Desk in Sulaimaniya where in addition to meeting with and discussing matters with the lawyers and social workers, we accompanied members of the team who, as I mentioned in my last blog, conducted a Mobile Legal Clinic outreach session in Halabja.  Then on to Erbil where we met the WEO Access to Justice team that runs the Legal Help Desk in the Investigation Courthouse in the capital of the KRG.  I was able to go to a court hearing which was actually held in the judge’s office (with about a dozen or more people lined up outside the door – some with lawyers, most without).   Apparently there are not enough court rooms pending completion of new courthouse being built.
Then on to Duhok where in addition to meeting and speaking with the Access to Justice team, we did several outreach sessions.  Two were held in secondary schools, one for boys (an Arabic school) and one for girls.   At both sessions, the Kurdish “Misuse of Communications” law was discussed.  As in so many other countries, mobile phone harassment (e.g., threats, calling at all hours, lewd messages) as well as internet misuse (e.g., sexually explicit photos) is a significant problem.  The difference here is that a woman is often victimized twice – first as the recipient of the harassing calls and then as a target of family members who think she has been in contact with men.  In fact, the local media have published daily reports about women attacked by relatives on suspicion of contacting or being contacted by strangers.
LARGE (poster size) framed photograph hanging in the
Secondary School of Girls in Duhok (as I've mentioned many times before,
the Kurdish people are good friends of the United States).
Also discussed was another topic which is particularly relevant to high school students:  the stiff penalties for driving underage (less than 18) without a license and other traffic offenses.  If caught driving without a license, the defendant (and his or her parents if they allow it) can be jailed for one to six months.  On the other hand, the punishment for yelling at the traffic police (who take the place of stoplights at busy intersections) is one to five years in jail!   Driving without a license must be a relatively frequent occurrence because there were LOTS of questions trying to find loopholes in the law. (“Can I drive if my father is sick, it’s an emergency and I need to drive him to the hospital?” The answer, by the way, is no.)
With members of the Kurdistan Handicap Union
           We also met with the Kurdistan Handicap Union of Duhok and as in Sulaimaniya talked about the proposed legislation the Iraqi Kurdistan Parliament is considering. This new law would take steps in protecting the rights of disabled citizens who, as one article states, “historically have been underserved, underrepresented and too often subjected to institutional neglect.”  Fittingly, just a days before this outreach session, Iraq ratified the UN Conventionon the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. 
Tower of Babel
            Following these meetings with all three UNDP Access to Justice teams individually, we held a three-day retreat in Erbil with all teams conducted by the Project Coordinator, the international consultant and me. I describe it as being a bit like the Tower of Babel (which, by the way, is supposed to have been in Mesopotamia, now Iraq).   The consultant speaks only Spanish so she had a Spanish-to-Kurdish and Arabic interpreter.  I speak only English so I had a Kurdish and Arabic-to-English interpreter.  The Sulaimaniya and Erbil teams speak the Sorani dialect of Kurdish and the Duhok team speaks the Bedini dialect of Kurdish.  Both teams speak Arabic.  It was a mini-UN session.
Dancing in traditional Kurdish dress.
           While in Duhok, our administrator there invited us to a pre-wedding party.   Of course I jumped at the invitation. The party was held in a big hall and everyone was dancing to VERY loud music – it was so loud that it was impossible to have a conversation so I did the only logical thing which was to join in the dancing.  I felt a little out of place – not only was I the only Westerner there (and as is so often the case, the only blonde) but I was also the only woman who wasn’t dressed to the nines in traditional Kurdish outfits with lots of gold jewelry (when I was in Dubai recently, I was told that brides insist on receiving a gold belt as a wedding present from the groom; that way, if there is a divorce later, she can sell the belt, which you can see from the picture is quite large a heavy, and live off the proceeds--I'm not sure if that's also the case here).
Hands with henna designs.
The bride and groom, along with the bride’s mother, were sitting on ornate chairs on a platform in the front of the hall.  People would come and pay their respects.  Apparently, the focus of the evening was to decorate the hands of the bride and other women in attendance with ornate henna patterns. I was eager to get my hands done too but regrettably, the volume of the music forced us to leave before that activity began.  I’m told that the really BIG pre-wedding party was going to be the following night.
The bride's mother, the bride, the groom. 
The two men on the right are my friend, Rfa'at (far right)
and his cousin who invited me to the party.
I was reminded once again that although there are significant differences between the Iraqi people and Americans (or in this case, the British), there are many things that unite us.  Sitting in the hotel lobby in Erbil one night working, I looked up to see that a hotel employee had turned on the Chelsea-Manchester United football match which was being broadcast live from London’s Stamford Bridge, Chelsea Football Club’s home, which is just a mile or so from my old flat. Chelsea is my team so I started rooting for them as others who were watching backed Man U.  I scoured the shots of the crowd looking for my friend and former partner, Bruce Buck, who is President of Chelsea Football Club. Thanks to him, I was able to attend a number of matches.  Regrettably, in this match, though Chelsea was ahead 3-2 with just minutes to go, they gave up goal and had to settle for a tie.
Chelsea-Man U match

Sunday, January 29, 2012

A New Year

Al Khayat mosque in Erbil is the largest mosque in Iraq and
the main gathering place for the Muslim community in Iraqi Kurdistan.
I'm sitting in my hotel room in Erbil.  After the young bellman brought me my luggage and I tried to tip him, he refused to take my tip.  He said "you are my people."  He told me that he was an interpreter for the US military but now that they have gone he's applied for and expects to get his US visa soon and will be going to Nashville, Tennessee, where there is a large Kurdish population. Many people  have asked me how things are now that the US troops have withdrawn from Iraq.  The answer is, of course, that Iraq is experiencing almost daily incidents of sectarian violence, killing many innocent people.   It is tragic. Kurdistan, however, has not changed.  It is no less safe than it was before the withdrawal.  The young bellman reflects what I have consistently heard in Kurdistan--admiration and support of America.  This is primarily because America brought about the fall of Saddam Hussein, who practiced genocide against Kurds. 
Holiday time in Sulaimaniya
I know it has been a long time since my last post.  Christmas and time at home with family intervened, then returning to Sulaimaniya, I've been really busy as we move into the final three months of the Access to Justice Project.  I just finished the December quarterly report and since the Project's inception, the Heartland Alliance A2J teams in Suly and Duhok have provided free legal assistance to more than 3600 people -- people who have attended outreach sessions, received answers to inquiries, had one-on-one legal consultations and been represented by A2J lawyers in their cases.  The outreach sessions are particularly effective in reaching large numbers of people, not only in the cities of Duhok and Sulaimaniya but also in districts throughout the Sulaimaniya and Duhok Governorates.
Monument to those killed in Halabja
Last week I went to an outreach session in Halabja. Halabja is the city near the Iranian border where "Chemical Ali", Saddam Hussein's cousin, used chemical weapons on March 16, 1988 in an act of genocide against the Kurds, killing more than 5000 people and injuring thousands more in one day. We met with about 50 women who met in groups and talked about their problems, including poverty, depression, and being forced to wear a hijab or be labeled a "bad woman." We discussed with them the new Kurdish Law Against Domestic Violence, which includes a provision against female genital mutilation, a practice which is particularly common in areas of Kurdistan (such as Halabja) where tribal influences are especially strong. And we urged them to continue to meet together, to support each other, because there is strength in numbers. As with almost everyone I've met here, the women were warm and friendly and it was a privilege being with them and listening to them share about the challenges faced by women in this country and in others.
With some of the women of Halabja (I'm the only blonde!)
It continues to be cold here and snow is on the mountains outside of Sulaimaniya.  The electricity still goes off and on and therefore so does the heat.  Each day this weekend it was off about five hours (or on low generator so the heaters don't work).  By the time the heat comes back on it's about 13 degrees centigrade in my bedroom (about 56 degrees).  But there are signs of spring.  When it's sunny during the day it gets quite warm.  March will bring the holiday Nawroz, which means "new day" in Kurdish.  It is the first day of  spring  and the first day of the new year.  In Kurdish legend, the holiday celebrates the deliverance of the Kurds from a tyrant, and it is seen as another way of demonstrating support for the Kurdish cause.  Let us hope that there is never another event like the gassing of Halabja and that all of Iraq may find peace.
Statue outside of Halabja memorial depicting
a father trying to shield his child from the lethal gas
(he was unsuccessful and they both died).

A photograph of the same event.