Women in Bastan Village, Kurdistan

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

My First Day in Suleymania: A visit to Qalawa Refugee Camp, Suleymania, Kurdistan--062911

It was noon and the driver arrived to pick me up. I had accepted a new job and was moving once again, this time to Sulaymaniyah, after 4 months living in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi-Kurdistan. The modern city of Sulaymaniyah was founded on 14 November 1784 by the Kurdish prince Ibrahim Pasha Baban who named it after his father Sulaiman Pasha. Because it was founded as the capital of a powerful Kurdish principality, Sulaymaniyah has developed into a large city with a population of about 1million people. It is the cultural center of the Sorani-speaking Kurds and an important economic center for Iraqi Kurdistan.
A view from the Dukan Lake, Suleymania
I had a mixture of happiness and nostalgia, leaving Erbil, which I already considered home, even though it was very different from my home; language, culture, women’s place in society, but I had learned to accept it and love it, I had friends and had established many relationships. I was happy and ready to try Suli’s way; everyone I had talked to said it was better than Erbil, in terms of customs and traditions, they kept stressing the fact that people in Sulimania were more open and that I would feel better here.

Om Suli, I was invited to attend a puppet show in the Qalawa refugee camp and of course I was in, since I love anything that has to do with children. We arrived to the camp and were greeted in the entrance by a man. There was an empty, rocky and dusty lot and my first reaction was one of shock. I had only seen the Palestinian refugee camps which looked more like neighborhoods, with cements houses, being established more than 50 years ago. Blue tents served as roofs, held by big tires. I didn’t go inside the camp, since the children were practicing and anything could distract them; I perfectly new this from my experience working in a summer camp in Palestine. Instead, few girls came out to receive us and I greeted them in Arabic: Shlonish, How are you? Then I used a more colloquial expression: Shaku Maku, more like what’s up, and they replied; Kulshi Maku, Nothing’s up! This is a normal Iraqi response. We were all laughing!

Qalawa Camp was formed in June 2006 by a group of IDPs on an empty piece of open land southeast of Sulaymaniyah center. It is located in Sharwani area, near the Rizgari fuel station. We were told there are around 59 families living here. I approached two women that were near and asked them how long they were living in the camp, one of them said that she was from Baghdad and was living there since 2009. She said that there were no jobs and that they had problems with electricity.

According to a 2008 report from the International Organization of Migration (IOM), camp residents face poor conditions, as they have no sanitation, loose garbage around the tents, no electricity and no toilets. In addition, there have been cases of typhoid reported. IDPs have access to a mobile medical unit and water is being trucked in. The camp was formed when a large number of families fled sectarian violence in Baghdad and Diyala. During our visit we were told that the children from the camp do not attend school. According to a report from the Danish Immigration service from their visit to the camp in 2010, there were 27 children of school age in the camp in 2009. They were not enrolled in school, particularly if engaged in begging and lacking alternative sources of livelihood, declined UNHCR supported transportation to schools in the neighborhood. Only few of the camp’s children can read.
The children’s messy, untidy hair reminded me of their reality as refugees, but their smiles and beautiful eyes lifted me up. I started to ask their names, and they all took turns to tell me their names. One of them clung into my arm and kissed it, my heart wanted to melt but I smiled and kissed her head back. It was very hot and dusty, and we were trying to set up the stage for the puppet show. It was just a colored banner in Arabic and English welcoming everyone, but it was meant to serve as an interface between the public and the actors. We laid some blankets in the dusty ground for the audience to sit overlooking the mountains.
After some running around and playing, we were able to gather the children in a circle, to get ready to start the show. Then one of the AUI professors, who have been working on the camp arrived and our circle was destroyed. They all gathered around him to welcome him. The roles were reviewed by the volunteers and the children took their puppets and gathered behind the improvised stage. The show started and the puppets as well as the children’s heads were coming up and down. The narrators, a boy and a girl, who were able to read, took turns in telling the story and the children came on stage often times delayed, but we laughed and clapped and enjoyed the performance. The children were happy and full of energy despite the burning sun. It was the first time that they had the opportunity to show their abilities in public. The event was very simple, and yet empowering. It was a symbol of what can be achieved if we can give time, love, solidarity and hard work.

I can’t wait to go back to Qalawa, it reminds me how blessed I am and why I am here; to share what I have with others and to make these children hope for a better future. It reminds me that I CAN do something to change the world by changing peoples’ lives, one at a time.

“To love. To be loved. To never forget your own insignificance. To never get used to the unspeakable violence and the vulgar disparity of life around you. To seek joy in the saddest places. To pursue beauty to its lair. To never simplify what is complicated or complicate what is simple. To respect strength, never power. Above all, to watch. To try and understand. To never look away. And never, never, to forget.” A. Roy

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Children of My Heart: The other face of Iraq, Israel, Palestine, Turkey

This is a photo essay that I made, which expresses much of what I feel about the situation here in this part of the world!!!

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Obama and Netanyahu vs. Normal People, Istanbul, Turkey---June 6th, 2011

I was reading the Israeli historian Ilan Pappe’s recount on how he threw a shoe at his TV, the moment Obama was justifying Netanyahu’s remarks that there would be no return to the 1967 borders. I don’t blame him; I wanted to do the same when Netanyahu said, on his speech to the congress that “We will be generous with the Palestinians”, referring to concession on Palestinian land.

We have Obama and Netanyahu in one camp and on the other camp the Palestinian leadership threatening to go to the UN to ask to be admitted as a member state with a unilateral declaration of a “Palestinian state”. What does this all means? The UN has not been capable of enforcing its countless resolutions, end Gaza’s blockade or exert pressure to end the illegal occupation. Moreover, all these initiatives are disconnected from the daily suffering of the Palestinian people.

As Dr. Eid Haidar states in a recent commentary: ”Depicting such a declaration as a “breakthrough,” and a “challenge” to the defunct “peace process” and the right-wing government of Israel, serves to obscure Israel’s continued denial of Palestinian rights while reinforcing the international community’s implicit endorsement of an apartheid state in the Middle East”. This pseudo state is just an attempt to silence non-violent resistance and the international support that the Palestinian cause has gathered in recent years.

This unilateral declaration takes for granted all the facts on the ground: the more than 573 checkpoints, the Jewish-only colonies that annex more than 54% of the land of the West Bank. In his article Dr. Haidar continues to explain that:”This same idea of “independence” was once rejected by the PLO, because it did not address the “minimum legitimate rights” of Palestinians and because it is the antithesis of the Palestinian struggle for liberation“. Once declared, the future “independent” Palestinian state will occupy less than 20 percent of historic Palestine. By creating a Bantustan and calling it a “viable state,” Israel will get rid of the burden of 3.5 million Palestinians. The PA will rule over the maximum number of Palestinians on the minimum number of fragments of land — fragments that we can call “The State of Palestine.”

But in this scenario, there emerges a third camp, the ones that Pappe call: all those who are unwilling to succumb and are telling the elites that its world and agenda is not theirs. As Ilan Pappe so rightly expresses: the support for the people’s effort in commencing a new phase in the popular resistance against the Israeli occupation is galvanizing the global Palestine solidarity movement with the similar energy generated before by the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. So much can still be done, in total disregard of the hegemonic discourse and inaction of western political elites on Palestine. So much has already been done in the continued resistance against the Israeli destruction of the land and its people.

This popular resistance is also expressed by the brave civil society initiatives in recent years that brought both the symbolic relief of empathy and human solidarity, as well as the token amounts of substantive assistance in the form of much needed food and medicine. One of these initiatives was last years’ Freedom Flotilla, which was so violently intercepted by Israeli commandos in international waters on May 31, 2010, resulting in nine deaths on the Turkish lead ship. Defying the first attack, a second Freedom Flotilla will set sail for Gaza, carrying various forms of humanitarian aid, including medical, school, and construction materials. It will consist of 15 ships - including the Mavi Marmara from the first flotilla - sailing from Istanbul, but also vessels departing from several European countries, and carrying as many as 1,500 humanitarian activists as passengers; doubling that of last year.

Like many other global citizens, I am one of those participating in these civil society initiatives, by living and working in Palestine and Israel, and supporting grassroots initiatives from local organizations working with women and children. Contributions like this serve as a bridge between east and west, and provide an alternate source of information, coming directly from the ground. They also support Palestinian daily struggles such as being arrested for farming their land, tree planting to prevent more land confiscation, or visiting families that have been victims of house evictions and demolitions.

Oftentimes, I feel my small contribution is useless. But in this historical moment, I feel part of a bigger movement; the movement of those who are opposing power, dictators and leaders speaking out of their own interest and not that of their people. I feel part of the popular struggle, an Arab Spring that will overcome what Ilan Pappe calls the “Obamafication” of our world.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

One Year from İsraeli raid on the Mavi Marmara will not Disuade New Flotilla

İ am in the south east of Turkey therefore unable to participate in the one year commemoration events in İstanbul but here is an extract from the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet:

From Hurriyet Daily News:

Cries, shouts and slogans against Israel echoed down Istanbul’s famous İstiklal Avenue on Monday night as thousands gathered to commemorate the nine people killed last year on a Gaza-bound aid flotilla.

The marchers also came out to express their support for a new flotilla set to depart at the end of June, a group of ships that includes the same vessel fatally raided by Israeli commandos May 31, 2010.

On the eve of the first anniversary of last year’s raid, thousands of people marched toward Istanbul’s Taksim Square, shouting “Allahuekber” (Allahu Akbar – God is the greatest) and carrying posters reading, “Cooperation with Israel is a crime against humanity” or “Palestine’s resistance will win.” While many protesters were supporters of the İHH, some foreign tourists also joined the march.

Here we go again: A Second Flotilla

Some 15 ships will sail toward Gaza in the last week of June, carrying approximately 1,500 activists from about 100 countries. The first flotilla, which set sail in May 2010, contained about 700 activists from 38 countries on six ships. The Mavi Marmara will be among the 15 vessels carrying humanitarian aid, as well as medical, school and construction materials, along with other ships departing from the United States, Canada, Spain, France, Italy, Greece and Ireland.

“We do not believe that Israel will make the same mistake [as last year, to attack the flotilla]... We will sail peacefully, everything will be open,” said Hüseyin Oruç, a representative of the Humanitarian Relief Foundation, or İHH, which is one of 22 national networks in the coalition organizing the international flotilla.

Oruç also responded to the Israeli government’s efforts to get other countries’ governments to stop their citizens from participating in the flotilla. “We are living in democratic countries, where all rules are defined. No government has the right to tell us not to join the flotilla,” he said, adding that the activists are acting within the norms of both national and international laws.

“Even though people died last year, the flotilla managed to draw the world’s attention to what is happening [in Gaza]. Therefore it is important to go there again,” protester Muhammed Gün said to the Turkish newspaper.

İHH head Bülent Yıldırım made a similar announcement earlier in the day. “As you know, Egypt just opened its Rafah border against Gaza, but it is just for people to pass, there is no development on humanitarian aid,” he said. “Therefore our mission is still critical.”

The Mavi Marmara is set to sail to Gaza again in late June as part of an international group of 15 ships. According to convoy organizers with the Humanitarian Relief Foundation, or İHH, 500,000 people applied to join the second flotilla, which will sail toward Gaza in the last week of June, carrying approximately 1,500 activists from about 100 countries, as well as carrying humanitarian aid and medical, school and construction materials.

“We contacted the U.S. government last Monday, and the first thing they gave us was a travel warning to Gaza,” Ann Wright told the Turkish Newspaper Daily News on Monday, adding that more than 60 U.S. activists would join the flotilla nevertheless. She said they would ship 10,000 to 15,000 letters from Americans to the Palestinian people.

“We are going to carry the thoughts of the American people [to Gaza],” Wright said.

Turkish FM warns Israel not to repeat last year's flotilla 'mistake'

“We think Israel has enough experience not to repeat such a mistake again,” Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said late Thursday in a televised interview.

The foreign minister said the government was working on all scenarios, including worst-case scenarios, in regard to the new flotilla bound for Gaza next month.

The Israeli government has so far only contacted the Turkish Foreign Ministry in an attempt to avert a repetition of last year’s crisis on the Mavi Marmara aid ship, well-placed sources said, adding that no other diplomatic initiative had been taken since that time.