Wednesday, April 30, 2014

April 30: Today is Election Day

Downtown Suly with poster of Jalal Talabani
I know that just a few months ago I posted a story about elections, but that was elections for the Kurdish parliament.  During the local elections last fall, things got a bit ugly, particularly after it was clear that the PUK party (People's Union of Kurdistan) was going to come in third.  Everyone knew that the KDP (Kurdistan Democratic Party) would garner the most votes, but no one really anticipated that Goran (literally meaning "change") would place second.  At least one person was killed and many injured by stray bullets (some aimed at people, others shot into the air).
Little girl handing out election pamphlets
with her father
Today is election day in all of Iraq to elect members of the Federal Parliament in Baghdad and council members in Kurdistan.  The parties and candidates are given one month to conduct electioneering activities and throughout April, each night has been filled with the sounds of firecrackers and the occasional gunshot, and cars with screaming people waving flags of the various political parties, particularly the PUK.  Two days ago, Kurdistan television showed Jalal Talibani, founder of the PUK and President of Iraq, casting his vote in Germany where he has been since his stroke more than a year ago (publicity no doubt intended to increase support for the PUK in today's elections).  Talabani is beloved by many Kurds, particularly in Sulaimaniya where he is from, and the television story brought on a night of gunfire (why do people celebrate by shooting rifles and other weapons), again with about a dozen injuries from stray bullets.
With Rezan Dler, PUK candidate for Parliament, and Heidi
A senior lawyer from Heartland Alliance International in Iraq is running for Parliament.  I would love her to win because she is a passionate human rights activist, fighting particularly for women, and the Iraqi Parliament needs her.  On the other hand, it will be a great loss to our organization.  Otherwise, the elections look rather grim.  Election rallies and polling places have been the target of terrorist bombings, turnout today has been low so far, and most people believe that the current prime minister, Al Maliki will win a third term and cement even more strongly his power (by law, he is the only one who can introduce legislation -- parliamentarians cannot!).  If you want to read a pretty discouraging piece about where Iraq is today, see David Filkens' story in the New Yorker.  However, Filkens also points out that the picture is more positive for Kurdistan.  In fact, on this election day, there is a very good television piece on whether Kurdistan is democratic, citing evidence that aspects of democracy have taken hold even if much still needs to be done.  The challenge is addressing some of the issues, including a lack of a free press and various human rights abuses, while continuing to keep Kurdistan secure from the violence facing the rest of Iraq.
Saddam Hussein's former headquarters in Sulaimaniya
I announced to my staff this week that I would be stepping down as Country Director later this year, though I will continue on as Technical Advisor to Iraq.  It has been my privilege to live and work here for three years, leading the organization as Iraq Country Director for the last two years, and the decision to step down has been a very difficult one, even though I knew it had to come one day.  I love my staff and am very proud of the work we do here, but I also love my family and want to spend more time with them in the US (even as I travel to Iraq and elsewhere on occasion).  I know I will leave the office in very good hands, with my dear friends and colleagues, Heidi, who will be our new Country Director, and Kak Shwan, our long-time Director of Finance and Administration, supported by all our amazing staff members.   And even after I step down, I look forward to continuing my work not only with the Iraq office of Heartland Alliance International, but also developing legal protection and other programs in other countries. 
Kak Shwan, his wonderful family and
their amazing hospitality
A final word:  my son and his wife open their new store, gather, this Saturday in San Francisco, and I urge everyone who might be in Northern California to go  (and encourage your friends to go) to the grand opening!

Saturday, March 29, 2014

It's Spring!

The lights of Nawroz

Last week, Kurds in Iraq and throughout the Middle East and Central Asia celebrated Nawroz -- Kurdish New Year.  The holiday is a time to demonstrate support for the Kurdish cause and coincides with the vernal equinox, or arrival of spring.  Its roots are ancient; this from Wikipedia:
According to Kurdish myth, Kaveh was a Kurd who lived 2,500 years ago under the tyranny of Zahak, an Assyrian who is named Zuhak by the Kurds. Zuhak's evil reign caused spring to no longer come to Kurdistan. March 20 is traditionally marked as the day that Kawa defeated Dehak. He is then said to have set fire to the hillsides to celebrate the victory and summon his supporters; subsequently spring returned to Kurdistan the next day.  This legend is now used by the Kurds to remind themselves that they are a different, strong people, and the lighting of the fires has since become a symbol of freedom.

Lighting Fires to Celebrate Nawroz
Right now it's a beautiful spring:  sunny, warm breezes and the landscape is green from the winter rains.  It is probably one of the best, if not the best time to be in Iraq.  Spring has also brought for Heartland Alliance International (HAI) in Iraq new programs.  We are implementing a project with UNICEF to provide legal services to Syrian refugee juveniles who come into contact with the law and to juveniles living in some of the rural districts in Kurdistan, where they face even more challenges than those in the city because of the absence of juvenile facilities and lawyers, prosecutors, judges, etc., experienced in working with juveniles who are detained.  Another UNICEF program involves a survey about knowledge, attitudes and perceptions in Kurdish households regarding female genital mutilation, a hideous practice that is relatively widespread and can greatly harm and sometimes kill girls who are its victims.  Many people think the is limited to Africa, but in addition to its prevalence in Kurdistan, when I was recently in London, I read a story in the Times about a doctor and an accomplice who were arrested for FGM.  It is a shameful and secretive practice that needs to be eradicated.
Amusement park in Suly
Spring also means that I've been here in in Northern Iraq almost three years -- a wonderful three years.   I've come to love the people who have warmly welcomed me here.  And I've come to realize that HAI's programs are quite amazing and by and large not duplicated by other organizations here.  We work with the most vulnerable populations:  survivors of torture, trafficking and self-immolation.  We train community mental health workers to meet the needs of survivors of trauma.  We do our work with local partners and the government helping to build capacity.   
New Millennium Hotel in Suly
I also realize how much Sulaimaniya has changed in the three years I've been here:  small changes, such as the availability of things that were unobtainable three years ago: broccoli, lettuce, San Pellegrino (my favorite drink).  But there have also been large changes.   On Thursday night (the Middle Eastern "Friday Night"), two friends and I ate fish and chips in the Irish Pub at the new Millennium Hotel, which would have been unheard of even a year or so ago.  If we didn't know better, we would have thought we were in Dublin!  It was tons of fun and is hugely popular with the locals, but I hope my adopted city does not become westernized to the point that it loses its character. 
Girls night out at the pub with Rachel and Annet
My two "pub" friends, one English one Dutch, have been here since before Saddam Hussein's regime toppled and I can only imagine the changes they have witnessed.  One of these friends founded -- together with a local partner -- and they now manage an NGO that works with children. We often get together to have supper and play Scrabble.  I started playing Scrabble when I was a little girl and it won't shock those who know me to learn that I'm pretty competitive about it.  Before our first game, I had to tell myself that it was only a game and that I didn't need to be so intense about it.  As it turns out, Rachel is an avid Scrabble player whose single mindedness puts me to shame and as a result, she is very often the winner -- a bad night for her is when she doesn't use all her letters at least once, something I don't think I've EVER done.

Global Fellow Natasha "in bloom"

This is one of the wonderful thing about living here: I am constantly surprised by the differences -- the music, the holidays, the ways of celebrating, the traditional dress, even the choice of pets.  Natasha, our global fellow pictured below, is over the moon because  a friend of hers just acquired a baby squirrel as a pet and, in her words, "it's SO cute."  Having lived in the US, and having an apartment just a few feet from Central Park, I view squirrels -- which are abundant and often a nuisance -- as rodents with furry tails. But like everything else, these new experiences force me to look at  things in a different way, and that's an incredibly good thing.  So Happy Nawroz!
The Citadel in Erbil

Monday, January 20, 2014

Welcome 2014!

Snow in the mountains outside of Sulaimaniya
I know, I know, I'm just about the worst blogger in the world.  Posting a new blog is always on my "to-do" list but with everything else on the list, a new post invariably falls to the bottom and before I know it, months have passed (this time, more than 2 1/2 months!).  All is well here in Northern Iraq, though there have been a few failed IED's aimed at members of the Peshmerga (Kurdistan's armed fighters) in my hometown of Sulaimaniya.  And of course, things in Southern Iraq continue to deteriorate not only with daily car bombings and other terrorist activities in Baghdad and elsewhere, but also from new dangers.  As widely reported, militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), an offshoot of Al Qaeda, are battling the Iraqi army to control Fallujah, Ramadi and other areas of Anbar province. 
Welcome to Kurdistan
There is a terrible sense of deja vu about this latest wave of violence. First, as many as 70,000 people may have been displaced, with an estimated 14,000 Iraqis having crossed into the semi-autonomous Kurdish region in the past week after fleeing their homes in Anbar province to escape fighting that broke out at the end of December among government troops, tribal leaders and Islamist insurgents. Second, Anbar province was at the heart of the insurgency against US troops and this latest influx of IDPs (internally displaced persons) adds to the existing 1.13 million who were displaced inside Iraq during the sectarian violence of 2006 to 2008.   
Arbat refugee camp
Already overtaxed from hosting more than 200,000 refugees from Syria, the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) is working with aid agencies to prepare a temporary holding camp for IDPs arriving from Anbar.   Many of the Syrian refugees are also living in a temporary refugee camp at Arbat.  Although the permanent camp was scheduled to open by now, it has not and so in addition to dealing with all the other hardships they face, refugees are now living through the winter in tents that were undoubtedly made for summer, in areas that become a sea of mud after the rains that come at this time of year. 
View from 5-star hotel in Erbil
Nevertheless, Kurdistan continues to thrive -- and things should only get better economically following the KRG’s announcement on January 8 that oil has begun flowing to Turkey. The federal government of Iraq continues to condemn this unilateral agreement between Turkey and the KRG but has its hands full with, among other things, the situation in Anbar Province.  However, both the KRG and Al Maliki's government have reasons to resolve their differences.  As noted by one security analyst, "given that both oil rights and Iraq’s portion to the KRG national budget remain major points of contention between Erbil (the capital of Kurdistan) and Baghdad, Erbil is likely to make efforts to find a solution, while Baghdad similarly maintains a vested interest in resolving outstanding issues in order to increase general state revenues."   The bottom line is that the phenomenal growth in the Kurdistan region will continue, at least in the urban areas. Each time I visit the Erbil (which is once or twice a month), it seems as if hundreds of more apartments, shopping malls, homes and hotels are under construction.  The same is true in the city in which I live, Sulaimaniya, though to a lesser extent.  Yet Kurdistan remains a country full of contrasts -- modern cities alongside rural villages that seem to be lost in time.  
Kurdish Countryside
As the new year starts, I continue to marvel at how incredibly fortunate I am to call this beautiful region my home.  And I wish you, your family and friends a healthy, happy and prosperous 2014.