Women in Bastan Village, Kurdistan

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Let's do it the Kurdish way, PLEASE!--Erbil, Iraq, 012611

I will introduce you to the Kurdish way of doing things: 

Here in Kurdistan, bureaucracy reigns. In order to do anything you need three things: money, time and a lot of patience. Things are not organized let alone there are any procedures, and if there are, they are subject to change without any previous notice. If you need anything done, you need to pay for it. It [the government] works as a private company, like in most parts of the Middle East. Either you have "wasta" -know someone-- or you have to pay, before you get white hair waiting for things at any governmental office. I learned the words for up and down [in reference to the location of the different offices I was referred to], "sere and khware" respectively. I guess the government is the biggest source of employment, so they have created so many positions to deal with the same thing, and to make it more difficult for people. They do this so people don't have time to think about important things, but just worry about basic things like food, electricity, bureaucracy, etc.

So, with that background, now I'll tell you how I tried to renew my visa, after being here in Kurdistan little more than a month. First, when we got to the building, the parking lot was full, so we had to park on the "street". But there was no such thing as a street since all was just covered by mud. We parked and attempted to walk on the mud. I felt as if my feet where being swallowed by the mud, they felt heavier and heavier....I couldn't stop thinking, Oh My God, if I fall, (which is likely to happen to me) how am I going to get out of this mess. I think I got more than a kilo of mud on my white shoes...

Thank God, this is the capital city, imagine elsewhere. Construction and development everywhere, but the auxiliary infrastructure to support that development is unexistent. How does the Kurdistan Regional Government expects to expand and open to the world, but still keeps this archaic methods that date from the Ottoman times? We went to a small office and got the petition for the visa extension, then to the second office, the Passport Control office number 3, where the guy just look at your paper and sends you to the next office, then to number 11 and then to number 15, or whatever. I counted 6 different office, the last one being the "Blood Test Department". I did the blood sample and I have to return on Sunday, to finish the process. So I guess that was the easy part.

I have my solution to the mud issue for next time, I will get a couple of plastic bags and wrap my shoes around them. This is the latin way, if you cannot deal with them, join them. So far, ALL my shoes (3 pairs in total) are full of mud, but what can I do, if I can't fly...Yet. Maybe Barzani has to come here and see how things around here!

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Chronicles of a Woman’s Friday in Iraq--Erbil, Iraq 011411

Yesterday was Friday, and the weekend here in Iraq. I decided to visit around the ancient citadel of Erbil. It is like 15-20 minutes from Ankawa. I wanted to walk a little bit because the weather was nice. A lot of cars when passing by me were honking. So far, I was feeling safe but I started to worry when I noticed that a pick-up slowed down and stopped next to me. While walking, I was taking pictures and I took a picture next to a house and a generator. The guy started to ask, in Arabic, something related to the picture and the house. I couldn’t understand all that he said, but he was not happy that I took that picture.

There is a lot of private security around, and apparently he was one of them. I asked what was the problem with taking a picture. I guess he thought I was a terrorist, taking pictures to later put a bomb! So I just kept walking and ignore him. Later, I noticed some other cars slowing down, and sometimes stopping ahead of me. I just tried to cross and walk on the other side of the street. I couldn’t believe that a woman couldn’t walk on a main street without being harassed. So, I thought about not pursuing my visit to the citadel.

I called my Iraqi friend and told him about my frustration. Why couldn’t I walk freely, what’s wrong with men here?. He advised me to ignore the cars and to take it easy. He said is better when women walk together. It felt really strange for me, coming from Palestine, Cairo and Turkey, and traveling all the time alone. What was different about Iraq? I have been here in the Middle East for more than 6 months and this never happened before. I told him I just wanted to enjoy myself and walk but that I could not even do that, without being harassed, plus there was nothing to do around here. He said that it was safe, to just try to walk and see what I could find, to try to enjoy the culture, see the differences between the culture and people here and my own culture;to explore around. I complained about how can I enjoy and explore if I cannot even feel free to walk, plus I didn’t know my way around. I complained that this was not what I came for and I felt I was wasting my time.

He asked me: “What did you come for, what were you expecting?”.

I replied: “I came to see the real Iraq”

But this was part of the real Iraq; there is not only poor people. This was also an Iraqi reality, and now I was experiencing it. He said, this is the reality, there is nothing to do. Young people struggle with this.

Shops with traditional Kurdish images

Ankawa is not a poor neighborhood, the houses here are very big and beautiful, but there is something else missing. There are no cinemas or clubs, or places for young people to gather and exchange ideas. Young people here is not motivated [to stay here], they often look to America as an escape to this traditional society, where there is no freedom. I was experiencing another face of the Iraqi society. Iraqi youth is connected to the rest of the world through technology, some of them speak perfect English, and there are new universities being established to educate the next generation of Iraqi leaders. But if they don’t find any freedom, they are feeling trapped and their only hope is to move out of Iraq. How do we expect to build a strong society?

Barzani, the Kurdistan Region President and Jesus, next to each other

So, after my conversation, I hesitated to go to Erbil, but in the end I turned my frustration into courage. My friend was right, I had to embrace the differences, try to understand them for what they were, and get the best of this experience, and the best was not to stay afraid and do anything, so I crossed the street when I saw a taxi that was leaving some women on the other side. So now, the challenge was, to get to Erbil city center. Of course the taxi driver asked how old I was and if I was married, which I tried to avoid answering pretending I didn’t understand him. I managed to accomplish the first part of the mission.

Once in the city center, I saw the impressive Citadel, dominating majestically the panorama. Now, the mission was to survive as one of the few women there. I mean, there were a couple of women, accompanied by their husband and children, but alone, there was not a single one, well just me. I found three young women and asked them to take some pictures, and they told me how to get to the top of the citadel.

It has been claimed that the site is the oldest continuously inhabited town in the world. The earliest evidence for occupation of the citadel mound dates to the 5th millennium BC, and possibly earlier. which lies 30 meters above the ground and is 7000 years old. On the bottom entrance there was an old man with a shop, I sat with him and he offered me a piece of his chocolate bar. I thought, oh, thank God that not all men are stupid. He said that he had 4 boys and 4 girls, and invited me to his house and said he will take me around in the car to visit many places. I went up to the citadel and walked around the once ancient city that is now in the UNESCO list.

Views of the mountains from the citadel

When I came down, I asked the man on the shop if there was a bathroom. He pointed to the other side of the street, where there was a mosque and lot of people. I guess because it was Friday and they were praying. It took me a while to realize I was the only woman walking on the packed sidewalk. At one point, I stopped and looked around and all eyes were on me. It felt a little bit intimidating but I took a deep breath and kept walking, telling myself, I had the same right that these men, to be there, and walk freely. I wondered around the stores and even bought a lipgloss by almost sign language.

Men in the market and I was just sitting and observing

Kurdish flag

I went back to where I started. It was a square, with water fountains, and benches, and little coffee shops. I wanted to have a coffee, but again was intimidated by the all men atmosphere. What the hell, I was already there and they were already looking at me, so I stopped in a small shop and asked the boy for Nescafe—a ready mix coffee-creamer-sugar—and sat among the all men crowd. A man came and asked me if I knew Kurdish and I said “ Kurdi nazanem” (I don’t know Kurdish) and he left. They were playing Shemame, a Kurdish song from Turkey that I know, but I reminded myself that I cannot dance in public, so I was just singing and laughing to myself.

Teaching myself Kurdish-sitting with my coffee

After I finished the coffee, I came back home, of course after having another interview with the taxi driver, I told him I had a Kurdish boyfriend and even with that he offered his services if I needed to go anywhere. I can’t believe that women here have to put up with all these challenges; on a daily basis. What is wrong with men here? But I am satisfied that at least I managed to challenge the stereotypes by daring to sit around all the men in the square. I was not scared, I was looking at them too. I was dying to know what they were thinking. I was smiling timidly and then looking back at my Kurdish notes. I guess they were as curious as me. I was wondering if any of them was going to say something to me and I guess they were curious as to why I was there by myself.

The Nescafe is a very sweet mix of mostly sugar, with a coffee flavor which is spread all over the Middle East

Mission accomplished, and proud I survived Friday day out in the city! Up for next Friday?

Thursday, January 20, 2011

We Give Life and Love, and We Get Violence and Inequality-- Khabat, Iraqi Kurdistan--010511

“Women contributes tenderness, love, conservation of life, values, patience,.....Thank God for making me a woman, but how hard is to be so here in Iraq” Johanna L. Rivera/ Jose L. Redondo
We returned back to Khabat, for our second day in the survey. Khabat is just 30 minutes from Erbil, well, with our driver, surely less. Erbil is the capital of the Autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan Region. On one hand; the poor infrastructure of Khabat and on the other, massive development and investment being poured into Erbil, construction of villas, malls, cinemas and billboards that read “Democracy cannot be achieved without justice”. There is construction and dust EVERYWHERE, whereas in Khabat, there is no sewage system. You can see the sewage water running on many streets as the kids run and play around.

We met Kak Faisal[Kak is a polite way to address a person here in Kurdistan] and the took us to our first home. As we explained the survey and the benefits from participating on it to the woman, she was very receptive. She started answering to our questions and then 2 men one of them her brother, entered the room. My colleague explained to him the purpose of our visit and how we were seeking to identify women to participate in the survey and eventually in the courses. He was opposed to her sister participating in any kind of course let alone working outside the house. He said that “Our tradition does not allow women to work outside the house”, besides he pointed out that his sister was old (she was in her forties) and she would not be able to learn anything in such a short time (a 3 month-course). I didn’t notice when exactly the woman left the room, but we could not complete our survey and left the house politely thanking the brother (FOR NOTHING!!!)

The houses we visited seemed to be constructed recently. You could tell because most of them were on bare concrete blocks, no decoration. The infrastructure around this village is very scarce. You can see the sewage running on channels on the street, there is a lot of garbage around. Kids playing and running on the streets, along the sewage.

We went to a second house, where we interviewed a woman, she was 23. She was married at the age of 13 and divorced at age 19. Her children were not with her, as she doesn’t have any means of supporting herself or providing for them. This situation (the early marriage), which could seem unacceptable for us, is a common practice in this traditional society. Marrying at this early age, leaves women no choice but to leave school, often without reading and writing skills, to attend her wife’s duties and leaving her depending only on her husband. When he leaves or dies, she is left with her children and no source of income, sending her and her children into deep poverty.

Some Statistics:
The estimated number of widows and divorcees reached 2 million out of a total population of 30 million. Many of these widows’ loss stem from wars of the past decades, including the Iran-Iraq War, the First Gulf War, and the American invasion with its resulting sectarian violence. The Iraqi government has not been providing sufficient financial assistance to this vulnerable group and women are often in need of humanitarian aid. On a recent study by Oxfam, 76% of widows said they did not receive a pension from the government. 40% of women with children reported that their sons and daughters were not attending school. Another study by the World Food Program found that 12.4% of households in Erbil were headed by women.

Largely widowed and almost entirely all without any employment, the female-headed households live in constant threat of eviction with few if any alternatives, making them especially vulnerable to exploitation and violence as they search for other means to find food and shelter. IOM research in 2008 identified victims of trafficking in northern and central Iraq with profiles of the victims revealing that more than half of female victims were orphans or from single parent families. Another IOM survey of 1,355 female-headed displaced families who have returned to their places of origin found that 74 percent are struggling to secure adequate nutrition for their families.

Kitchen of one of the families we visited for the survey in Khabat. Photo by Johanna L. Rivera

In addition to this, one in five women (21%) in Iraq aged 15-49 has suffered physical violence at the hands of the husband. 14% of women who suffered physical violence were pregnant at the time. 33% have suffered emotional violence, and 83% have been subjected to controlling behavior by the husbands.

Iraqi women and girls are not fully aware of their rights. 59% of women aged 15-49 believe that it is acceptable for a man to beat his wife under certain circumstances. This figure is higher in rural areas (70%) and among women with no formal education (71%). Women aged between 15 and 24 are as likely to tolerate abuse as older generations.

In a recent survey by Oxfam titled In He Own Words, Iraqi women talk about their greatest concerns and challenges, 1,700 women were interviewed and talked about their stories. Here I leave you with one of the stories that really made me take a deep breath:
“My son Amer graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering and was planning to get married…. On 5 November 2007, three days before his wedding, he and my daughter Basimah, along with a friend, went out to buy the wedding dress and other wedding accessories in the Al Karradah neighbourhood market in Baghdad. Two hours later, someone called us from Basimah’s mobile phone to tell us that they had been admitted to the hospital as a result of an explosion…. When I arrived, I started searching among the injured patients, running from one ward to another going crazy. Then they took me to the mortuary and there I found them. I wept silently for such a long time and so all the other women around me began weeping too....

I wished I were dead when I saw their bodies in the morgue piled on top of each other. I can't forget the scene of them even for one moment.... I wish I could see them again. They were the fruit of my life and the only hope I had in this world. …. We have received no pension money to live on…there are so many cases of widows and others [who have lost loved ones and breadwinners] who are also not receiving anything from the government, no compensation or pension."

-- Emman’s elderly husband is ill with cancer and can no longer work. Emman said that she and her husband always struggled economically, but had enough to ensure their children attended university so they could improve the family’s situation. Her daughter Basimah had a good job as a computer programmer but had resigned due to rampant insecurity shortly before she was killed.
So, I leave you ---------with something to think about as I keep on my journey deep into the Iraqi women’s struggle.

All of us, men and women, soldiers and peacekeepers, citizens and leaders—have a responsibility to help end violence against women, UN Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Thoughts and Reflections for the New Year—Iraq 123110

How do I start gathering my thoughts about this year of 2010? First, I have to say that it has been a very productive one. A year full of changes, challenges, and decisions made, of letting go of some things and people and embracing others, losing but mainly gaining. A lot of traveling, and when I say a lot, is a LOTTTT! From NY to Cairo and back, and then back again….

In Cairo, holding the PR flag, full of puerotrican children's hands in solidarity for the children in GAZA, December, 2009. 
I started and ended my year in the Middle East. Last year, on New Year’s Eve, I was in Cairo, in my first international activism mission. I took part on the Gaza Freedom March, an international delegation that gathered around 1,400 people in Cairo, whose purpose was to challenge the siege of Gaza. It was the first anniversary of Operation Cast Lead, and we wanted to get the world’s attention on the approximately 1,400 people killed by this unjust Israeli attack on civilian population. Although most of us didn’t make it into Gaza, we stayed in Cairo for a week, annoying the Egyptian government, also complicit of the siege, for enforcing Israeli policies and for not letting us get into Gaza. We did actions and demonstrations every day; from climbing the pyramids and hanging the Palestinian flag, to the biggest international gathering on Dec 31st near the Egyptian Museum.

I remember that, when everyone was getting ready for the New Year to come, we were getting ready to make our voices heard. More than 500 people from 42 countries gathered and came out to the street in front of the Egyptian Museum paralyzing the traffic. Immediately, we were confronted by the Egyptian riot and undercover police, that had been all week following us. They started to kick people and to try to break the demonstration.

During the demonstration on December 31st, 2009, Cairo, Egypt. Photo by Johanna L. Rivera.
The sense of unity that I experienced was incredible. Everybody was holding each other, while being beaten or kicked, or women being pulled by their hair. I remember a guy that held me and hugged me after I was shocked and crying because of my confrontation with the police (I was not beaten, but still was PTSD). This guy whom I didn’t know was holding me and I experienced a sense of peace and comfort. The people's bonding and unity was amazing. It was the same feeling I experienced last November, on one of Beit Ommar's demonstration when being teargassed by the IDF. The feeling that no one can break the unity and strength that comes from standing for justice and truth. It almost feels that your spirit rises and you are so powerful and not afraid of what can happen.

I imagine that was the same feeling that activists from the Freedom Flotilla felt when their boats were illegally taken by the Israeli military (May 2010). That same spirit that makes Palestinians go on every week in Beit Ommar, Bil’in, Al Walaja and many other villages fighting in non violent ways. I guess among all my frustration and sometimes helplessness, I feel there is some hope. Hope that comes from the past months living this journey deep into the struggle. Knowing that there is evil, sure, but that there is more good. Sitting at a table around Israeli and Palestinian activists after a demo, knowing that they are fighting with the only weapons they have; their bodies and spirits and that there is no man-made weapon that can overpower truth. The Israeli military, with their US-made weapons can kill many, but they will never kill the spirit of truth; and the truth is that we are all human beings, made equal and that we don't own the land; the land owns us. And I will add that my hope, even when sometimes is mixed with tears and frustration is the only thing I can take with me on this journey, is the only thing that keeps me standing in the middle of the struggle.

The hope I got from the people at the Tent of Nations, fighting everyday against the illegal occupation of their land. They have been successful for the past 10 years from preventing the Israelis of taking over their land. Hope from my girls from Bethlehem, because in their eyes and smiles I see that we have to keep the cry for justice, so they, one day will be free to see the ocean. The hope from the bedouine people of El Arakib, rebuilding their village again and again after its 9th consecutive demolition. The people in Beit Ommar, Issawiya, that confront the soldiers every day, and stand against the occupation. The women from KAYAN working from within to empower other women to gain more social and political participation and to fight Israel's racism. The hope from ALL the people I met that work everyday to fight injustice and inequality.

In the weekly demo in Beit Ommar against the illegal appropriation of land from the farmers

But still, many questions remain. First, I want to understand what is behind all this disproportionate violence. How is it that a human being can react in such a way as to use such disproportionate violence against an unarmed civilian, to purposely KILL. Today, there were news report of a Palestinian killed at a checkpoint in Nablus, because the Palestinian attacked the soldier with a bottle. How does that work? I hit you with a bottle and you kill me, when you are the one oppressing me and taking away all my freedoms and rights on the first place. I have been on the checkpoint when there have been excessive delays of more than one hour of just waiting and one soldier on top of us, on the roof with a gun, just watching, indifferent, while smoking a cigarette how the Palestinians get anxious.

Entrance of BETHLEHEM checkpoint

Second, I want to understand what is behind these terrorist attacks here in Iraq (the main one in October 31st) , on the Christian community. How come, in the name of religion, you can justify bombing a church, although what is said here is that what caused the bombing was that the government intervened in an inappropriate way by failing to negotiate with the terrorists but went inside the church, causing the attack to be worse. I guess this mistake in strategy is political too. I don’t know about you, but it makes me ANGRY, in a different way than the Palestinian-Israeli issue makes me angry. I don’t know why or how people become so brainwashed to do such things but I know how it feels (here in Iraq) to be afraid in the very place you are supposed to find peace and lift your spirit.

I can only hope that peace will come, one person at a time, one smile at a time. I know I cannot change the way or the politics of these conflicts. If I had a magic stick and could make ONE wish come true for next year, it would be to make the first commandment true. LOVE YOUR NEXT AS YOURSELF! At least I think that would be a good start.

Children playing in Khabat village 20 km out of Erbil--Iraq their eyes and smiles help me keep on this struggle. Photo by Johanna L. Rivera

Children from Beit Ommar village in Palestine, for them I keep my hope. Photo by Johanna L. Rivera

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Look What I found around here in Iraq, Khabat, Erbil 010411

Today we visited Khabat, a village 20 km out of Erbil to conduct a survey about widowed women. The survey is part of a bigger project that is intended to be used as a base for an income generating project. This village has refugee families from other parts of Iraq because the region [Kurdistan] is the safest area in Iraq. Some of the women are the wives of the disappeared men and are still waiting for their husbands to return and they still do not know whether they are really widows or not. But in this situation their personal status is unclear leaving them with complex problems and unable to find closure and move on with their lives. For example, there are still mass graves to be identified and excavated. Women are extremely vulnerable in this situation. Another problem is the women with husbands who left their wives.

There are several women head of households either because they are divorced or widows. This leaves a big burden for this women that often have very little or no source of income.

We arrived to Khabat and waited over a cup of tea, as we were trying to go over the lists that were provided to us. Our local contact Faisal, who works with the municipality,arrived and took us to the major's house. There, with another cup of sweet tea, where we were sorting the lists from the Ministry of Martyrs and the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs. The major is a more accurate source of information, since he knows the women and could identify immediately, who was who just by reading the names from the list.

After the major’s house, Kak Faisal took us to a house, there was a woman called Belal, who lived with her 2 children, Mohamed and Ahmad and her mother. We sat there and had some more tea and started the survey, explaining to the woman that we were going to provide her with some training that will give her some skills for her to bring some income to the house. The woman, 26, was abandoned by her husband and left with nothing when he married another woman. She now lives on a rented house with her mother, who is a widow and receives a modest income of 200,000 Iraqi Dinars ($167). The woman only completed primary school and she forgot how to read and write.

The infrastructure in Khabat is very poor, no sewage system

Me with Mohamed and Ahmed, aren't they adorable?
As my colleague, Dastan talked to the woman,in Kurdish, I noticed his soft and sympathetic tone. The two children, 4 and 5 years old were sitting beside us as we talked to their mom. I was immediately in love with them and trying to play games and gain their friendship as I was thinking what kind of future these children will have here in Iraq. Will they be able to go to school? What about their young, and beautiful mother? Will she be able to find a loving husband that takes care about her and her two boys. It is unfortunate, but I think the answer is no! Will this generation of men continue this cycle of violence against women?

We were making a survey and were welcomed in every single house, here we went with the major, which is a very reliable source when looking for a specific set of women, young and with children to be able to provide them with training to make them self sufficient.

After this first interview, we went to the municipality and there we met with a woman that provided us with another list of women and more tea. By now I am really hungry and hoping this sugar overload helps me.

It’s all kind of confusing and sad, but I am glad to be here and have this opportunity, to see the real face of Iraqi women. There are so many things that I would like to know about these women, which are about my age, and most of the time younger than me. I look at their eyes and I see how strong they are, I mean, you have to be strong on this culture to survive all the oppression that this society imposes on women. All the pressure is on the woman, she has to be perfect in order to accepted and be able to marry, perfect in her husband’s eyes, for her own family, for her husband’s family and in the end for what?

But sometimes we faced rejection from the men living with the women, this very traditional society does not allow women to work out of the house. If they are widow or divorced, they have to move with a relative and cannot provide for themselves, making them and their children poor and vulnerable.

Sometimes I am just glad that I was not born in this kind of society, and that I don’t have to deal with this. THANK GOD!!!!Sometimes I just feel sorry for them and I am angry that we as women have to accept this, just because “it’s the tradition” or because that is what women are supposed to do. I can’t believe we are on the 21st century and dealing with these issues that are leaving women illiterate, poor and dispossessed if they are widowed or divorced. I am frustrated because there is a lot of work to do before these “traditions” are changed and women are able to break this unjust cycle of oppression that leads to poverty and violence. Maybe it will take a generation or two, to educate men as well as women but I think it can be done, it MUST be done.

These children are vulnerable in many ways if their mothers are unable to have an income.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Two weeks, lots of tea and too much to handle in Kurdistan, 122710--Ankawa-Erbil, Iraq

Today it has been two weeks since I have been in Iraq. The first couple of days, I just felt out of place, just I wanted to go back; no friends, missing family, nowhere to go after work, I couldn’t even feel the spirit of Christmas. I was so sad and I cried every single day for the first 5 days, I felt completely disconnected. I had so many illusions to be in Iraq, and was so excited to come here, the cradle of civilization, the land of Abraham, Babylon, the Sumerians, the Assyrians, Baghdad, the center of the Islamic world in the 12th century and I was finally here and nothing was clicking. I knew it was just a process, that it was going to be all right, that it was normal to be sad, (I never felt like that in Palestine), but I could not stop crying, I guess after 6 months, and another holiday away from home, everything was finally hitting me.

For the first time in 6 months, after sleeping on a tent, on the floor, on the kitchen, and not having a specific place to sleep, I have my own room, even when its temporary. Despite having my amazing kingdom, I was still sad; the feeling of being alone and far away from home, and the fact that I couldn’t do anything on my own made me very frustrated. I just went to work, was sad all day and went back to the house, sat on my bed to cry. Now, I realize how helpless it feels to be displaced, to depend on others to fulfill your most basic needs like eating, or just getting back home. I know how vulnerable one feels and even I can’t compare my situation, but MAYBE this is how refugees and internally displaced people (IDP’s) here in Iraq feel. The feeling of powerlessness not being able to be self-sufficient, having to depend on the government or on NGO’s to fulfill their needs for housing, food, water.

My co-workers were trying to make me feel at home, playing Spanish music and they even got me a Christmas tree and we mounted it and put some lights on it. That was so sweet. I have been drinking a lot of tea too, tea at all times and in EVERY place and with a lot of sugar, I guess that's why you see my face a little bit more round. At work, most of the people in the organization is Kurdish, but there are 2 girls that are Arab. One of my co-workers is one girl from Baghdad. She moved here 4 years ago, running away from the sectarian violence between Sunni-Shi’a that was at its peak around 2006-2007. She is a very lively and outspoken girl, she told me that her father cannot find a job because he cannot speak Kurdish and also he was from a different political ideology, but that he receives some money from Baghdad. The other girl that works with me is originally from Mosul, but she and her family lived in Syria, also because of the sectarian violence. She told me that her sister husband was kidnapped but was able to escape because he opened the trunk where they put him. He just took a taxi to the Syrian border and waited there for his documents to be able to enter into Syria. I met another guy that was also from Baghdad that told me that they lived here because his father was kidnapped and that they were lucky that he is alive, after they paid $150,000. “We are lucky that my family has money” he said.

There is a cool mixture of Arabic-Kurdish language, you have to pay close attention, because in a second they change from one to the other. I can't figure the Iraqi-Arabic and it feels as if I don't know any Arabic at all. Some of the Kurds speak Arabic and vice versa, it’s a very interesting mixture, but not everyone speaks both languages. Also there have been some historical clashes between the Arabs and Kurds, so its not like they are so close, but now with the war, there is a lot of internal migration to the north, because is a more stable area, an area that has not been touch by the war, and now is blossoming with development and outside investment. There is around 1 million Arabs and 4 million Kurdish in the Iraqi-Kurdistan, curiously, the same ratio of Palestinians to Israelis living inside Israel.

I’ve been reading a lot of UN reports about the situation in Iraq. There are about 1.5 million people that have been internally displaced and around 1.5-2 million widows. About 10% of households in Iraq are headed by female. 1 in 5 children are illiterate. There are a lot of issues of violence against women, including honor killings, trafficking and female genital mutilation, a practice that is prevalent in 74% according to a Human Rights Watch report that I read. This is a country that has been suffering the devastating effects of war and UN sanctions for the past three decades. The Iran-Iraq war, the Gulf War followed by sanctions against that Saddam Hussein regime, then the US-led invasion, and as I read all these reports and the number of people, especially women and children that are the most vulnerable, I just ask myself WHY?????? Why our money has gone to support all these years of suffering, occupation, violence. Well, I know WHY!!! It is because of the greed of a few that want to control the energy resources of this part of the world. Because of that Iraqis are displaced, they cannot travel freely to other countries; they cannot visit other parts of the world, because their country s blacklisted, and they are seen as possible terrorists. I CAN, because I have the blessing of being born American with all the benefits and opportunities that the Empire brings. An Iraqi has the damnation of being born in a country of terror and war, and therefore s/he carries the mark wherever s/he goes.

My organization, the Women Empowerment Organization, has a couple of projects including awareness and empowerment of women and youth, we run a small business development center, to train young people to start their own businesses. We just have finish setting up a radio station and we have a hotline to serve women victims of violence, we are also planning literacy courses to target the widow women and to engage them in income generating projects to make them self sufficient and economically empowered. So here I start a new year with a new learning experience, lots of projects for the future and lots of hope for the people of Iraq.