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