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