Published with permission from Cathy Breen
Dec. 25, 2016
Karbala, Iraq–It is Christmas day, and I am in Karbala with dear friends. We awoke to a second day of rain, and pictures of flooding, especially in Baghdad, are being shown on TV. Yesterday, on Christmas-eve, several tents caught fire in a camp for the internally displaced near Mosel. As I write you, I am looking at the charred remains of one of the tents on TV. Angry people are describing what happened, lifting high the kerosene heaters for all to see. And, of course, the conflict in Mosel is foremost in the news. I am missing a translator this morning as my host is at work. But I would like to relate something from last week’s events.
Over the years, we have made many contacts in Najaf through our generous host there, Sami. These include doctors, dentists, hospital personnel and University deans. On one particular morning last week two presentations for me had been arranged, one at a Medical college, another at a college of Dentistry. As Voices for Creative Nonviolence we are eager to hear from young people, and rather than giving a presentation, I welcomed the opportunity for an open exchange.
One of the questions that repeatedly arose was “What will happen under Trump to all Muslims in America?”
“We want the U.S. to understand one thing” said a student. “Islam doesn’t mean terrorism.”
When asked if there was any interest in the US elections, a female student spoke up. “The elections were not important for us, but somehow the U.S. rules the world and I think the elections for the U.S. president should be worldwide. I was really disappointed in Trump.” Another student felt that it didn’t matter who was elected, the U.S. policy would remain the same.
Both Najaf and Karbala house holy Shia shrines and thousands of pilgrims visit both cities annually. They are two areas which, thank God, have remained for the most part safe and stable. It is one of the reasons we can travel here.
One of the first students to speak in the lecture hall of about 150 students said “On facebook I get the impression people think we are dodging bullets and bombs every day. We live a normal life.” Someone retorted, but not harshly, “And in Mosel or in other parts of Iraq?” And there was a feeling of agreement in the room that Najaf has been spared the violence, destruction and death that beset most other parts of the country.
“We have to start by changing the corrupt government,” said one, “a government the U.S. put in. But I don’t know how to bring about that change.”
On another day, we visited the Middle Euphrates Cancer Center which opened in 2014 and provides radiation and chemotherapy. Fifty percent of their patients come from the middle Euphrates area and they receive patients from the internally displaced population as well.
They have entered a critical period in terms of budget cutbacks. As the incidence of cancer increases throughout the country, the Ministry of Health (which provides 90-95% of their services) is cutting their budget by 50% in 2017. In 2013 the budget was 3.7 billion dollars. In 2016 the budget was $1,2 billion dollars. The salaries are fixed, but the cuts will affect drugs, equipment and specifically cancer care. Last week 85 items in their drug stock were depleted; 50% of their overall stock is depleted. The Minister of Health can only provide 6% of their needs. This is indeed distressing news.
Just prior we visited El Sadder hospital. Walking through the halls, clean but in a state of disrepair, I was reminded of the time of economic sanctions. In one of the sitting rooms, a doctor sat down next to me and immediately began to tell me of two great needs: 1. deficiency in orthopedic supplies and 2. the need for training for their technicians. Could they come to U.S. for a month or more of training? I asked to see the prosthetic unit and was taken there immediately.
A personable young man named Hussein, 21 years of age, who had lost an arm (and had extensive scarring on his face) at 10yrs of age due to an explosion approached me. He spent time in Arizona receiving treatment, and his English was excellent. Hussein has many contacts with Shriner’s Hospital in NY city. I was given an itemized list of items they need. It would be a wonderful thing if Shriners could contact this hospital for some type of interchange and/or assistance.
I struggled with mixed emotions during the visit, feeling like a visiting ‘dignitary of importance’¯ being escorted through the halls and units. I remembered back to a young 12-year-old quadruple amputee, Mohammed. Four or five years ago, his father and prosthetic technicians brought him to the house where I was staying in Najaf. Could I help him get a prosthetic arm? For months on end I showed his picture and told his story in the states and in Jordan as well, trying to find some organization that could help. Coming home from school at six years of age, Mohammed had stepped on an electrical wire from a pole downed by a U.S. bomb. All of my/our attempts proved futile. I still find it painful to remember this boy, who had not been able to feed himself, itch his nose or embrace a fellow human being since he was six years of age. This experience has made me very hesitant to receive similar requests.
Last night my host read to me from the Koran the account of Jesus’s birth. It was a special way to spend Christmas eve, assuring, that our faith traditions share much in common.
As we continue to fund hygiene kits for Iraqi IDPs in the Iraqi Kurdistan region we think it is critical to understand the situation in the area. In May, we funded $2,500 worth of hygiene kits that were distributed by the Critical Needs Support Foundation. As people “far from the fire” our hearts, thoughts, and prayers are those “close to the heat”.
Below is a letter written by Cathy Breen who is currently part of a peacemaking team in Iraqi Kurdistan. Cathy is a N.Y City Catholic worker who first went to Iraq in 2002 as part of the Iraq Peace Team, a sub-project of the Voices in the Wilderness.
April 25, 2016
It is hard to put my feelings into words. Just the other day we visited a sheikh whom I had met in Fallujah in 2012. He and his family were forced to flee to Kurdistan about two years ago. Fallujah, as you probably know, is being held by ISIS. None of its residents are allowed to leave. People are literally dying of starvation.
We met in the rented apartment of another sheikh who also fled Fallujah with his family. Although he himself is sick with cancer, both he and our sheikh friend welcomed us warmly. The afternoon was balmy and pleasant, the room was airy and light, with cushions on the floor, a couple of plastic chairs and a bed which also served as a sofa. Water was fetched immediately and we were graciously served sweets and tea. In the course of our visit we were joined by yet another sheikh from Ramadi. The U.N. recently reported that the destruction in Ramadi, also in the Anbar region, was the worst they had witnessed in all of Iraq.
Outwardly everything seemed so normal that at first I forgot I was with people now counted among the hundreds of thousands who are internally displaced in Iraq. In the next couple of hours, though, we would hear many tragic stories that would dispel any thought of normalcy.
“We have lost everything,” our sheikh friend said. “We are like babies just being born. We lost schools, universities, houses, bridges, hospitals, markets. All gone. People in the U.S. need to know what their government did to the Iraqi people. All this pain, destruction and hurt.”
Our host told of a woman who had no breast milk to feed her baby as she herself was starving. However, she had a goat and, for a while, she was able to give this milk to her baby son. Then the goat died. At this point in the story, the Iraqi woman translating for me was unable to continue. Overcome by sorrow, she began crying and left the room to collect herself. I learned later that this mother searched desperately for someone to give her baby to in order to save his life.
After a lengthy open discussion, we were invited to join the sheikh’s wife, watching children with other women of the family in a second room. Again a very warm welcome belied an all-too-grim reality. This dear woman’s mother, sister and daughter are all currently trapped in Fallujah, and with ten children in their collective care. On occasion she is able to reach them by phone. The women in Fallujah weep to her across the line. They are reduced to eating grass.
“We can do nothing to save them!”¯ the sheikh’s wife said. “The government doesn’t help! We don’t know how this is possible!” It was incomprehensible to me -I find myself simply unable to imagine this family’s pain. “We have a saying,” she said. “People far away from the fire, don’t get burned. They don’t feel the heat.”¯ Across that phone line, and waiting for the next call, she feels it.
As we stood to take our leave, we embraced and kissed one another. One by one, I took the sweet faces into my hands. They thanked us for the visit. Photos were taken to remember each other by, and I recorded all of the names of their loved ones in Fallujah so they will not be forgotten. I would write these names here, and include the photo for those who read this, but I am fearful to do so. Their situation is already so precarious.
It was early the next day-that is, yesterday morning-that my driver and I left for Dahuk, about three hours northwest of Erbil. The road to Dahuk is dotted with many Yezidi, Christian and Kurdish villages. My driver and his family are themselves internally displaced from one of the villages surrounding Mosel, and our trip would take us close to his village. Actually we entertained the thought of visiting there, but the fear of random explosions and directed ISIS attacks caused us to decide against this visit.
The family that was to host me in Dahuk are Christians from the same village as my driver. They lost a house to ISIS in Mosul in 2008 when they fled after priests were murdered in their church. They had lived there for twenty years. They fled to a village called Teleskuf where they would live for another 6 years until ISIS took this village as well. Now it is a ghost town with only the Peshmerga there.
We passed the area of the Mosul dam and later with my host family we looked together at a map marking the whereabouts of ISIS. “We all know where ISIS (Da’ash) is”, they told me. And lines were drawn on the map to show me their current locations. They were only kilometers away.
In Dahuk we visited with some Yazidis in an unfinished building where they are living. After a word of welcome we were given water, juice and sweets in a ceremonious manner, so typical of the graciousness in the Middle East. An elderly gentleman shared the terrible story of one of his granddaughters, who had been away from the area at the time of the horrific massacre in August of 2014 and the siege of Sinjar mountain. When she returned and learned of the brutality her people had suffered, she found it unbearable and took her life. How does one respond to such pain?
Seated on the mat next to this sorrowing grandfather was a young Yazidi man who is studying in the university. Together with other young Yazidis they plan to reach out to about 5,000 children on the mountain with the hope of educating them. I shared the story of my friends, the Afghan Peace Volunteers in Kabul, and the fruits they are reaping from their literacy program with street children.
Also in Dahuk we were able to visit with several internally displaced families living side by side in a church hall. Excited little children led me to the curtains which act as their front doors.
And then they drew back the curtains to reveal their living quarters.
The families behind the curtains like these, in camps or in unfinished buildings and compounds, have for the time a desperately welcomed measure of security. But they have lost everything they owned. The family I stayed with had fled here with only the clothes on their backs. Fourteen people in a car!
Because they are in Kurdistan which is officially still part of Iraq, they have no refugee status and are not eligible for resettlement. They are what is called IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons). They would have to go to Turkey, Lebanon or Jordan and register there as refugees. They would find themselves, however, at the bottom of the pile. And they have no money with which to sustain themselves.
The husband and father of my host family has a mother and several sisters in the United States. His wife has family in Canada, Germany and the U.S. They must feel the heat from here as few others in a comfortable West, author of so much of this region’s suffering, ever can. “What can we do?” my hosts ask. “We want a future for our children.”
It is hard to put my feelings into words. “People far from the fire don’t feel the heat.” Here in Kurdistan I am closer to the fire as I watch good people getting burnt.
Festival of Nations recap by IARP intern Jackie Myer.
As visitors entered the exhibit area, they to the festival were drawn to the beautiful blue replica of the Gate of Ishtar, the former eighth gate to the inner city of Babylon. The gate was originally constructed in 575 BC by the order of King Nebuchadnezzar II, and was considered to be one of the original Seven Wonders of the World. The other side of the exhibit was decorated with a replica of shanasheel, an element of traditional Arab architecture. The projecting windows frequently used in houses and palaces to provide privacy are typically made from wood lattice, and the design attracted attention from visitors to the Festival who wanted to know more about the origins of the design. As visitors walked inside, they were able to see beautiful carpets and pillows, multiple tea sets, and various other decorations from local Iraqis. Children in particular were attracted to the large blue gate, and were often lined up outside the entrance waiting to get inside to receive a stamp in their passport and their name written in Arabic.
It was enjoyable to work at the exhibit with local Iraqis and listen to them tell stories and answer questions from children about Iraq, as well as laughing with them as I made (frequent) mistakes while attempting to speak Arabic. The Iraqis were eager to share the side of Iraq that is not usually portrayed on the news. When asked what they knew about Iraq, most children responded by saying, “there’s a war there, right?” but typically did not know anything else about the country. At the exhibit, we were able to teach them about Iraqi culture, typical foods in Iraq, and the Arabic language, as well as explaining the rich history of Iraq, which was often prompted by questions about the Gate of Ishtar. As people increasingly only hear about Iraq in the context of conflict, this opportunity to share the other side of Iraq with the community was invaluable and I hope that it opened their eyes to a richer, more complicated picture of Iraq than what they hear on the news.
Soon after listening to an NPR radio interview with National Youth Orchestra of Iraq (NYOI) founder Zuhal Sultan, I found an e-mail in my inbox. A local Minneapolis resident, connected to Luthiers Without Borders, was interested in donating bows and some strings to the Youth Orchestra, if we could arrange it.
The organization I work for, the Iraqi and American Reconciliation Project, is a non-profit based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Our mission is to promote reconciliation between the people of the United States and Iraq in response to the devastation that has affected Iraqi families, society, and culture. We work toward our mission of reconciliation through the arts, education, cultural and professional exchange, and support for peacemakers in Iraq.
After many weeks of trying to find the right person to contact through Twitter, Facebook, and e-mail leads, I finally got a hold of Majd Al-Azzawi, Chairperson and Project Manager of NYOI.
He told me a little more about the orchestra and of its hopeful beginnings and current struggles to stay functioning in the current climate of Iraq.
The National Youth Orchestra of Iraq is the brainchild of Zuhal Sultan, a young pianist from Baghdad who founded the orchestra in 2009 when she was just 17 years old. She now lives in Scotland and is studying law. The orchestra is comprised of 45 musicians from different parts of Iraq who have to audition each year. The orchestra has performed concerts in Iraq, Germany, Scotland, and England. In 2013, NYOI became a registered NGO in Iraq. However, starting that same year they faced cancelled concerts in the US and France due to visa denials after the rise of ISIS in many cities across Iraq. They have been unable to leave the country for concerts since.
Currently, in addition to a 4-week workshop for musicians and annual concerts, NYOI plans to hold music workshops for children in schools and orphanages in Basra.
Despite the talent and dedication of the young musicians, many do not have the funds for instruments and NYOI is struggling to provide the necessary instruments and parts to these musicians due to lack of funding.
In addition to bows, Majd let me know that the orchestra was in need of the following:
- Sets of strings for violin, viola and cello
- Rosin for the same instruments
- Bow hair
- Reeds for oboe, bassoon and clarinet
- Pads for the woodwinds
- Oils and slide creams for brasses
- Full-size violins
If you can provide any of the above or would like more information, please contact IARP Deputy Director Jessica Belt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 763-710-0427. Any additional donations will be given to NYOI to support programming. You can send a check or donate at reconciliationproject.org/2012/donate/. If donating online, please send an email noting the donation amount and purpose. All donations are tax deductible.
Learn more about NYOI at: www.facebook.com/NYO.IRAQ/
Learn more about IARP at: www.reconciliationproject.org/
Listen to the original NPR piece here: http://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2015/09/28/443214847/-we-need-to-be-human-zuhal-sultan-on-starting-the-iraqi-youth-orchestra
IARP would like to share the following link, information via The New York Times of interest: non-partisan, informative pictures/maps.
Iraqi lawyer Suaad Allami recently wrote an article on the current status of women’s rights in Iraq. To read the full article on CNN iReport, click here.
“The last US troops left Iraq December 18, 2011, leaving 4,485 military dead, billions spent and democratic ideals floated including uncountable women’s rights initiatives. There have been modest gains for Iraqi women but there is little actual progress and even less protection for women despite the glossy legislative protections spurred by the US State Department. More powerful and pervasive cultural and religious forces continue to contravene women’s equality, neuter women’s rights as a toothless slogan, and dwarf the Rule of Law mindset we tried hard to instill…”
(Reuters) – The World Bank pledged $900 million to Iraq over the next four years to help it create jobs, build stronger institutions and improve social inclusion, the global development lender said in a statement on Tuesday.
Iraq’s government developed the strategy with the World Bank, the private sector, and other stakeholders to focus especially on better management of Iraq’s vast oil wealth and improve its investment climate. The programs will also focus on inclusion of women.
The following is a press release from the Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) in Kurdistan, Iraq.
On the 8th of November the CPT Iraqi Kurdistan team met with Rebaz Ahmed Ismail and his family at a hospital in Sulaimani. Although losing one leg, Rebaz is a survivor of the renewed Turkish military attacks within Iraqi Kurdistan.
Below are a few recent articles on the developing health crisis in Fallujah, Iraq. One of the authors, Ross Caputi, argues that, “To research a possible link between US bombardment and rates of birth defects and pediatric cancer in Iraq is a moral imperative.”
The following article is recommended to IARP supporters by one of our Board Members. The article was originally posted on The Shalom Center at https://theshalomcenter.org/ben-ghazi-yom-kippur.
From Ben-Ghazi to Yom Kippur
Rabbi Arthur Waskow | 9/14/2012
On Yom Kippur, synagogues should read the story in Genesis 25 of reconciliation between Ishmael and Isaac, and for weeks and months synagogues, churches, and mosques should visit each other en masse to break the cycle of fear and hatred and violence between the Abrahamic communities that broke into murder in Ben-Ghazi, Libya, as it did weeks ago in Oak Creek, Wisconsin.