Women in Bastan Village, Kurdistan

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Something to think about on Thanksgiving, Suleimaniya, Iraqi, Kurdistan

It has been more than three months since my last post. In that time, many things have happened here in this part of the world: the PA went to the UN to ask to be admitted as a member state, Arab Spring has become the Arab autumn and now the Arab winter, thousands of Syrians have been killed, Egyptian Christians have been massacred in Cairo, Gilat Shalit was exchanged by 1027 Palestinian political prisoners, 24 Turkish soldiers were killed in near the Turkish-Iraq border (Turkish territory) which led to air and land strikes in Northern-Iraq, Kurdistan, Muammar Qaddafi was murdered. It seems that violence is business as usual.

Perhaps I didn’t have the will to write, I was sick, very frustrated, overwhelmed or even disappointed. After a year in Kurdistan, nothing seems to have changed. Life goes on, people in the west and even here go to work, and they are busy with everyday things. In the meantime, I try to keep myself motivated and find a reason to wake up in the morning; to believe that there is hope for change, a reason to keep fighting for justice, in a far away country, removed from all the things that I love: my family, my friends, my country. Sometimes I find it hard.

Every morning and afternoon, I walk to work and pass by a group of old Kurdish men (Kakas) that greet me and invite me for a domino match, I have even beaten them a couple of times. I walk on the neighbourhood, absorbed on my own thoughts. I go to work and the day goes by seating between emails, reports, forms, meetings and trainings. Then the weekend comes and the story repeats itself. This doesn't make sense. Seems like if I were working for nothing, as things don't seem to change.

Suddenly, Friday morning, my day off, I go to a very special place. A place that is hard to explain, a place where love and misery coexist. Here, I realize why I am here, when I see the face of the children I get to work with every Friday, they are Iraqi children internally displaced by violence. Their eyes are so beautiful, full of laughter, full of joy, despite the hard conditions of living as refugees in their own country. When they come running and I hold them and see how full of love they are, I can’t but remind myself how lucky I am to be there and get to enjoy this time with them. We play, sing, dance, and learn together. The other day, I taught them the Macarena, I wish you could see how their small bodies danced to the rhythm of the music. For a single moment I lost sense of where I was, and just enjoyed their laughter. I forgot they are children of war and violence, displaced, fragile. I get back to reality, most of them must have spent the majority of their lives in this forgotten camp, a place of uncertainty and misery. Now every single week, they are asking to dance the choreography they learned. Even if we don’t have the music, I will sing for them and they do the steps. We have so much fun together. Then when is time to leave, everyone is sad, but we just look forward to next week.

Yes, this happens as you live a different life, go to do your groceries, to the salon, to the post office or for your daily walk. According to the UN Refugee Agency, there are 27.3 million internally displaced refugees around the world, the majority of them women and children, Iraq being the third largest country with internally displaced people (IDP), between 1.3-2.8 million, after Sudan and Colombia. Although internally displaced people outnumber refugees by more than two to one, no single UN or other international agency has responsibility for responding to internal displacement. As a result, the global response to the needs of IDPs is often ineffective. And guess who paid for the wars that created these refugees? You, with your tax dollars! And who is paying now, for programs to help refugees? Again, you with your tax dollars. And who should be accountable for these millions of people who now are homeless, I leave that for you to answer. Desmond Tutu said that those who are silent to injustice can be called complicit.

Last week, it rained on the camp, for a full three days, I could not think but how where the kids and if they were warm enough. When we arrived, there was mud EVERYWHERE, but the kids didn't care, they were waiting for us. We always take our shoes off to keep the tent clean, but this time it was needed much more. I found myself lifting up the smaller kids who where struggling to take their muddy boots off. It was a beautiful Friday, a beautiful muddy Friday.....

One of the kids pair of muddy shoes
So, when you are eating your Thanksgiving dinner, and are giving thanks, be thankful for all the blessings you have: a warm and safe home, food, water, electricity; think about the people: especially internally displaced women and children, who have nothing and yet are thankful for the little they have.

Amir's shoes on the tents entrance

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Camping in Kurdistan: A Road Trip and some Perspectives, Iraqi-Kurdistan, July 9th, 2011

"Is easy to see the remarkable beauty of this country and forget all the atrocities that are still happening, I can get lost in the immensity of its mountains in the north, the Mesopotamian Marshes in the south, swim on its rivers; Furat and Dicle and enjoy the simplicity of its people....but then I hear its name: Iraq.... I recall I'm on this journey deep into the strugle.....still the magic prevails-in my heart and I smile" Johanna

In the beginning of July, I went on a road trip with two of my Iraqi friends. It was something we had been planning, but I had been postponing it because my injured foot. We started our adventure in Erbil, driving north into Duhok. We were going to camp somewhere, past the ancient city of Amedi, which sits beautifully on a hill, one hour past Duhok. I was really excited about the whole camping idea.

Our first challenge was in one of the literally thousand checkpoints that are all over the place in Kurdistan. I am not sure which; surely it was after we left Erbil. We showed our ID’s, and my two friends went out of the car. The Kurdish soldier asked to open the trunk, which my friend did, and all of a sudden, I saw the soldier checking my bag and taking out some of my medicines. Right, so maybe a Kurdish an Arab guy with an American girl could be suspicious. For sure we could be carrying some kind of bomb to disturb free and peaceful Kurdistan! After the guy slowly and meticulously looked through my medications -anti-inflammatory and thyroid medication- he was convinced that there was nothing wrong in our trunk.

He proceeded to ask me-in Arabic- where I worked. I said I worked in a human rights organization. Then he asked my Arab friend, who said he was my bodyguard!!!! But of course, his papers said otherwise. Luckily, the soldier did not inquire about that contradiction. They asked my Kurdish friend to come with them. I was surprised because I expected they would take my other friend, who was from Baghdad. After a while, when he came back, he said that they were looking for another guy with his name. Fortunately, everything was solved without major inconveniences.

We continued our road trip. Sunflower fields were covering both sides of the road. I asked my friend to stop to take some pictures. On an improvised tent, there were three young guys who were taking care of the fields. We were out for about 10-15 minutes, but it was hot as hell! When we were leaving, one of the guys called us back and gave us like 8 melons, which were also from the same field. That was nice of them, but we had enough melons for dinner and breakfast.

We made it into Duhok around noon, prayer time, but also lunch time. It was the first time that my Arab friend visited Duhok, despite he had been in Kurdistan for 6 years, always working and trying to survive. We stopped at a restaurant, and I was happy to get off the car and be in a cooler place. We went upstairs into the family section which obviously was full of families. As we ordered, in the midst of lunchtime chaos, I noticed a conversation between a waiter and a man; the man seemed to be asking for a prayer rug, something available everywhere, from restaurants to shops, anywhere there are people. The man got his rug and went to a corner to pray. It is one of those scenes that does not cease to amaze me, reminding me that Islam permeates all aspects of daily life. Is something very normal and I am used to it now, but is one of those things that could impress one who is not familiar with this culture.

We drove through a small dam, just on top of the city. It was a small, man-made dam, to collect water. It was in the middle of a beautiful landscape, and to me, it fitted perfectly as if meant to be there. We continued our journey, passing Amedi and into another city called Deralok. There were several Assyrian villages and a couple of churches on the way. My two friends that just met today, talked about politics, religion and about life in Iraq. I was sitting in the back, listening and smiling. These were two people that generally would not come together spontaneously. Arabs and Kurds are not naturally attracted to each other, due to historical reasons, mainly because of the genocide of the Kurds orchestrated by Saddam. Only when people think beyond history and realize that what happened was a result of people in power doing things that did not necessarily represent the will of all, only then they can start reaching to each other.

I was glad that they were talking and making jokes; I knew both of them had been through a lot. The Kurds had the genocide and the uprising of 1991 that made millions refugees flee to Iran and three wars, plus sanctions that had destroyed a country and its people: the Iran-Iraq war, the Gulf war and lately in 2003 which made millions of Arabs flee to the north. The [American] war in the south had brought many Arabs into Kurdistan, which is autonomous, but yet, still part of Iraq. Many Arabs had come to escape violence and many more in search of employment given that war destroyed their source of income. The reality is that there is a lot of discrimination towards Arabs and because they come not speaking Kurdish, they can only get odd jobs which offer no stability. These jobs pay very little despite the long working shifts and oftentimes have no days off [=exploitation??].

We passed another checkpoint where a soldier again asked for our ID’s. When he came to check mine, he asked me where I am from, and he was smiling and exclaiming that my name is Kurdish. My name also exists in Kurdish but it is spelled differently: Jwana≠ Johanna. He thought I am originally Kurdish. People often say that I have Kurdish features, and many times people talk to me in Kurdish only to realize that I have no clue of what they are saying. He returned our ID’s and exclaimed: “Welcome Mister Johanna!”

After a long day on the car, looking for the perfect spot for the camping, we finally arrived to a beautiful and quiet place by the river. It almost felt like we arrived to the end of the world, away from people, from the government, just nature and beauty in front of us. It almost felt like being in another planet. We mounted our tent, looked for some wood for fire, and grilled some chicken Iraqi-style-tomato juice and salt.

We sat and enjoyed the peace and quiet of the night, listening to the soothing sound of the river and overlooking the moon sometimes wanting to hide from us behind the clouds. Enjoying this little moment but knowing that tomorrow we would wake up to the same Iraq we just escaped a couple of hours ago!
Beautiful sunflower fields on our way to Duhok, Iraqi Kurdistan

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Navigating the Iraqi-Kurdistan Medical System: A Day at the Hospital, Suleimania, Iraqi-Kurdistan

Today I went to the Kurdish pediatric hospital in Suleymania. For the past two days I had a bad stomach ache and this had been going on since March, so I thought it was time to check with a specialist. The doctor I met was a pediatrician and he was going to put me in touch with a doctor who specializes in gastric issues for children. When we arrived to the hospital, we asked for Dr. Jamal who kindly came for me into the reception. He took me upstairs and I was surprised to see the huge amount of people waiting, mostly mothers with their children. We passed the crowd and I waited in another room for Dr. Adnan, the second doctor. In Kurdistan is not like in the west, when you arrive to the hospital there is not a big reception. Usually there is a guy or two in the entrance and they just put your name in a notebook. There is no need to fill a lot of registration paperwork, insurance or the like in order to be seen by the doctor, and let alone have an appointment; you just show up, wait and talk to the doctor.

While I was waiting, I was offered tea and water and shortly Dr. Adnan arrived. He asked how I was feeling and I explained that my stomach was hurting, and that I had a history of acid reflux, so after 2 minutes, he agreed to do the endoscopy next morning, (no appointment- no anything) but he advised that I do some testing first. And of course, I didn’t need any referral for the laboratory. Later in the morning, I got the [stool] sample and took it to the laboratory to be analyzed. Showed up at the lab., paid 2500 IQD ($2.00) and voila, my sample was analyzed in my presence. I had to open the flask while the technician pulled some of the “shit-sample”. After the analysis, the lab technician instructed me to see the doctor, and I was thinking, oh-oh, there’s something wrong with my results, so I went to see the doctor. He checked me and again asked me what was wrong with my stomach, after which he proceeded with a litany of medications, most of them I had been taking before. The doctor didn’t mention anything about the results, but he gave me the prescription. When I asked what was E. Histolityc, something that was positive on the results, the doctor said: “Yes, that’s a parasite, but I gave you something for it.” The fact is that if I didn’t ask, he was not going to tell me. That’s how well the doctors inform their patients about the test results and diagnosis. His initial diagnosis was irritable bowel syndrome, but he was treating my bug, without letting me know. I would have been angrier if when I came home and I looked up what was E. Histolityc was, found out that I was not told about the fact that I had a parasite on my s**t!!!!Welcome to Kurdistan’s medical system…..

Today, I went in to my endoscopy “appointment” at 8:00 am. It was in the Teaching Hospital, kind of like the Medical School. Dr. Adnan was there and introduced me to the doctor that was going to perform the study. It took 2 hours of waiting until I got into the room, young boys passing in front of us with buckets and hoses, I was already scared from the size and length of the hoses (for the endoscopy). When I finally made it into the room, I wish you could imagine the setting: 5 medical students staring at me, a young boy who was the technician giving me the instructions on how to get ready in Kurdish, the doctor asking my name, age and other information on the other side of the curtain. My friend Juliana who had come with me was called into the room with the duty of holding my hand, she said ”Breathe like in Yoga” then I realized that there was no anesthesia. The doctor came to the other side of the curtain and the 5 students made themselves comfortable, as if they were going to watch something important. Then the technician placed the mouthpiece –on my mouth- and the doctor started to push the hose in……then he said breathe, but I couldn’t figure out if to breathe from my mouth or from my nose, the hose was a big resistance to my breathing. He said, “Look at the TV”, which was displaying my stomach, while saying: “This looks ok”, as he kept pushing the hose in. When I did concentrate in breathing, I felt my body relaxing, but I could not keep it for long. The whole thing lasted 1 minute, but it felt like 1 hour.

After the process was finished, one of the assistants told me to bring a paper downstairs to reception. The whole study was 20,000 Iraqi Dinars, or $17.00. I even got a CD with my stomach’s 1 minute of Iraqi fame. That was it, the thing that surprises me the most is how complicated we make things in the west. The appointment has to be several weeks in advance, anesthesia and all the effects that come with it. When I finished I was able to go out of the room walking on my own. Recovery time was less than 5 minutes, and I was ready to go back to work!

So this is how I survived the Kurdish endoscopy, I’m not saying they are better, but at least more practical. The best thing is that my stomach is ok. I just have to treat that bug for 10 days and hopes it gets killed by the Syrian manufactured medication. Wish me luck!!!!

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Yezidis: The Struggle of Yet Another Minority in Iraq, Lalish, Iraqi-Kurdistan, June 19th, 2011

Driving south of Duhok, we were curious enough to visit the Lalish temple, the place where the world began and the holy site of the Yazidis. The Yazidis are an ethnic and religious minority in Iraq that is often misinterpreted to be devil worshipers. In actuality many of their religious stories root from the same fables of other more common beliefs. Their stories differ, however regarding their patron angel the Malek Taus or Peacock Angel. They believe that God left the earth in the care of seven angels and told them to obey Adam. The Malek Taus was the only angel to refuse, stating that Adam was created from the soil and the angels were created from God’s light. According to this angel, light could not be at the mercy of the soil. The Yazidis believe that this was the answer that God was looking for, proving that he was the most loyal angel, and made Malek Taus responsible for all humanity. In the Islamic tradition, that angel was Satan, who was punished by his disobedience by being sent to hell.

As Yezidi people enter the village, they stop to remove their shoes, and as they enter the temple; they stop to kiss the entryway. It was noon, the ground was burning hot and I had a sprained foot, but I had to respect the traditions. It felt like a holy place, especially when the Yazidi young guy that was showing us around told us we could not touch the step that was part of the entryway; “It is for angels only” he said. It seemed a mysterious and mystical place.

Yazidis secretive beliefs date more than 4000 years, before both Christianity and Islam. Yazidis have 5 daily prayers. However, most Yazidis observe only two of them; the sunrise and the sunset prayer. The daily prayers must not be performed in front of outsiders and are always performed in the direction of the sun. Wednesday is their holy day, but Saturday is their day of rest. Yazidis cannot spit on the ground, eat lettuce, cabbage (which causes gases), cannot wear blue- the color of the peacock? I am glad I was not wearing blue!!

Lalish temple is either less than 1000 years or as old as time, depending on who you ask. The Yazidis believe that when God created the earth, he first created the temple and all living things sprang outward from its walls. Its labyrinth rooms comprise a series of holy sites. When you enter there are colorful silk fabrics tied together to the many temple columns. You can make a wish as you untie one of them. We entered one of its rooms which contained the tomb of the Yazidi prophet Adi Ibn Musafir, a Sufi whom the Yazidis believe incarnated Malek Taus until his death in 1162. Sheikh Adi influenced the largely Zoroastrian tribe with Islamic beliefs. A set of stairs nearby his tomb lead to a cave from which holy waters of Zam Zam flow, which he named after the spring in Mecca. We could not see the spring, as only Yazidis are allowed into the cave.

The temple was dark even in the heat of the day. The young guide showed us the room where they make candles. I remembered that my friend told me to ask if I was going to heaven or earth. Yazidis try their luck with a series of wishing games. A scarf tossed to perch perfectly at the top of the stone means that one’s wish will come true. A pebble thrown at two holes will show us where our souls will land on the judgment day. One has three tries to toss toward one’s preferred fate. I tried with the scarf, and I wasn’t lucky. I didn’t dare for the second one, I didn't want to know..where I will end up.

Today, the Yazidis serve an important political role in the region. Their numbers in disputed territories could act as a swing vote to sway cities such as Mosul towards the Kurdistan Regional Government over the Central Iraqi Government. Many attempts to define the Yazidis’ ethnic identity (notably the policies of the Baʿathist government in Iraq, which designated them as Arabs) have been politically motivated[1].

Yazidis were stripped from their Kurdish identity and reclassified as Arabs. Many were forced to leave their villages to be dispersed or concentrated in other territories. Apart from a few Arabic-speaking clans, Yazidi communities speak Kurmanji (Northern Kurdish) as their first language, and their cultural practices are Kurdish. Most Yazidis claim Kurdish identity when it relates to politics and the Yezidi identity otherwise. In Iraq, this view has had the support of the government in the Kurdish Autonomous Region since 1991[1].

In recent years the threats are mainly from militant Islamist groups, like Al Qaeda who views them as infidels. Terrorism has driven Yazidis from Mosul, where their numbers were once strong. Violence has even reached their smallest villages. In 2007 a set of bomb trucks killed hundreds of Yazidis This current situation affects the Yazidi’s rites and traditions preventing people from coming to Iraq for their required pilgrimage to Lalish.

As part of the Tiziano project, I came across the story of Alia, a Yazidian, who was the first woman to graduate from law school. She is also from one of the highest families in the Yazidi order, but even that has a price; she was forced to close her practice and move with her father in law upon her husband’s death. “Yazidis are quiet and peaceful people, they are very nice and very kind with other people because of the many genocides we have had, but maybe between us, we are not; we are cruel”. “She describes her situation: “Our traditions are very heavy to a woman if she is without a man and also I have no son, so is not allowed for me to work anymore. I am staying at home. I read and write, only this. My world is within my home, really.”[2]

Her loyalty to the tribe keeps her captive; she calls her home a prison. “I belong to Yazidi, I am Yazidian and I am very proud of this, but in my life, I am secular, I don’t believe in religions that could separate people.” There is no way to become Yazidi. Yazidi souls must be re-incarnated into new Yazidis, so there are not enough souls to accommodate new converts. This alsp means that Yazidis cannot leave the group because their souls are Yazidians. To maintain order, the religion upholds a complicated caste system that divides members into three groups by status, which is then in some cases sub-divided by occupation and wealth. Yazidis are only allowed to marry within their caste. Marrying outside your caste or outside your religion is often punished by death.

In 2007, a girl named Du’a fell in love with a Muslim boy in Bashiqa, near Duhok. Rumor got into the community that she had converted to Islam to marry him. The girl went into hiding but was found and dragged into the town’s square, where members of the community stoned her to death.

When we finished our visit of the temple, we had some time to wander around. There were some young people and families having a picnic. The place was quiet and beautiful and I was glad we were welcomed by the Yazidis and they were open and willing to show us their holy place.

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2. http://360.tizianoproject.org/kurdistan/#/213, Yazidi’s Power and Peril, accessed June 30th, 2011