Monthly Archives: April 2008

Visiting Sadije’s House

by Trish Tobin

I knew we were being hosted for lunch by one of our program graduates but the Albanian/English translation was too fast for me to pick up on who we were visiting. I was overwhelmed when I realized we were pulling up to Sadije’s house. It was like visiting a movie set to me, since I had seen this house in the film that PEF did about the trip that Sadije organized for her fellow graduates around Kosovo. If you haven’t seen it, please watch it on YouTube. Here’s the link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FSwwaiECAzc

We also did a newsletter story on Sadije’s trip – which was monumental considering half the women on the trip had never seen beyond their village let alone traveled around Kosovo (and with a group of women no less). Some women had rarely left their homes before – something I found hard to really, really believe until I drove through the villages and saw the farmers’ markets – all men selling and buying, no women. It was one thing to see only men on the streets – and another thing entirely to see them doing the grocery shopping. This is truly a patriarchal society.

Sadije welcomed us to her home in Drenas as did her husband – who is also in the film. It’s very courageous as a man to support and encourage your wife to do untraditional things too. I was very impressed by him. He took Sadije to the farmers’ association meetings where she is now active. After talking, I suggested to Sadije and to Faruk, Women for Women International’s agribusiness specialist in Kosovo, that they do another bus tour like Sadije had done for women graduates but this time do the trip for farmers to visit one another’s farms and associations to share knowledge, seeds and create a broader network for them – and of course it would include the women farmers. And this is why I love Hamide Latifi, Country Director in Kosovo, so much. She is not only for the idea; she wants to do it by the end of May! I like the way the Kosovars make things happen.

Sadije and her daughters made the most amazing cake for us – it was huge, too large to bake in any oven I’ve seen. And we had “flia”, a flour and onion layered dish that was kind of like a lasagna of onion crepes. Tasty. But the best part for me was when they showed me the newsletter that Sadije had on the bookshelf – right next to her Women for Women International graduation certificate. It was the newsletter where we featured her story. You can see the same newsletter on our website. http://www.womenforwomen.org/outreachwinter08/ Now I knew that we sent copies to the Kosovo office like we do for every newsletter – but to see that Sadije kept her copy…well, it was a good moment and I couldn’t wait to tell Teisha back in the office in DC who had worked on the newsletter story.

Sadije\'s graduation certificate The newsletter on Sadije\'s bookshelf

As we got ready to leave one of Sadije’s younger daughters – 12 or 13? – got brave enough to peek into the festivities. She blushed crimson immediately and could not be persuaded to stay no matter how much we encouraged her. Hamide explains that Sadije’s family suffered badly during the war and the children still have emotional scars that make meeting strangers more difficult. I’m reminded of what Sadije’s husband said in the film – that it was indescribable to not be able to protect your wife and children.

As we leave, I’m happy to see one of the Women for Women International greenhouses has arrived. This means Sadije has qualified for the small business package – given how healthy and happy her farm looks, I can see why.

The greenhouse parts - ready for assembly

There are reminders though as we leave. I see whitewashed areas on the house and ask Hamide what they are. As I suspected, the white paint covers up the slogans Serbian soldiers and police left behind to denigrate the family. Bullet holes are still visible as well.

But then there is the Women for Women International – Grate per Grate International (in Albanian) – sign in the window. It feels like a beacon to me – a proud one and I think it must be great for her daughters to see that, to see their mom on film and to know that there are opportunities for them too.

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The Milk Collectors: Women in Small Business in Kosovo

The vat for milk and Women for Women graduate with \

 

By Trish Tobin

 

On Thursday April 24th, we loaded into a van at the Pristina offices of Women for Women International for a trip to meet women in the program all over Kosovo.  Hamide Latifi is the Country Director for Women for Women International in Kosovo and, along with many of her staff, is our guide for the day.  Each time I visit with one of our Country Directors or in-country staff, I am more awed by the work they do, their perseverance and the unending optimism they have.  This visit has been no exception.     

 

Today we drive to one of the more remote villages that is still recovering from the war and where Women for Women International is still getting a foothold.  I can tell this for two reasons. 

 

First, as we drive in I can see only men.  There is, in fact, an active and official soccer game going on with young boys – uniforms, coaches and spectators.  But there is not one woman, not one mother or sister watching the game – out of probably 100 people on the field.  This is an area where traditional norms keep women and girls inside – they don’t go out for a soccer match, they don’t make the trips to the market and they don’t go to school.  I ask Hamide why it’s okay if we visit and she tells me we are outsiders – out of context – so it’s okay.  I am dumbstruck.  I had read this in Hamide’s reports.  Somehow to see all these men in the village and no women makes the term “patriarchal society” much more meaningful to me.  When I ask what the women do, I’m told they do the housework. I am struck again at how impactful our job skills training must be for women whose traditions would tell them that housework is all they can do.

 

More cows amidst scarred landscape

  

Second, as we drive into the village it looks like a rural European village except in the beautiful fields I see cows grazing in and amongst heaps of trash. This pastoral landscape looks jarringly wrong.  Hamide explains to me that things have been devastated for so long, that this is normal.  As people and areas recover, “you will see it in how they take care of their land” she assures me.  Hamide shows me the farm we are visiting and sure enough I can see a clean pasture – Hamide tells me that this farm has received a loan for their milk collection business and that a condition of it is to clean their property.  I like the example this sets for the neighbors and that it also conveys hope and pride. 

 

 

The Milk Collection Vat

 

We visit the family the children all come out and so do a few of the neighbors to see what these visitors are like.  We see the large stainless steel vat for collecting milk that has been purchased with a loan from Women for Women International. The vat is in a pristine room that is clearly washed down regularly and kept to high standards. Women and men bring their milk in milk cans to this farm for collection.  It’s tested to ensure the quality and then added to the vat.  Then a truck comes take the milk from the vat and into the markets – mostly to the suburbs of Pristina I am told.

 

 

The Book

 

I am intrigued by a conversation going on between the two Women for Women International participants and the one woman’s husband.  It seems to be some teasing going on and talk about the book where milk transactions are logged.  I ask Hamide to tell me what it’s all about.   

 

The Book- note the separate piece of paper with women customers\' names and transactions

 

 

There is a piece of paper in the book where they tell me all the women who bring milk are listed with their transactions – but this is on a separate piece of paper, not in the actual book.  I ask why – only to learn Hamide has just asked the same question.  We learn it’s simply not custom to treat the women as customers – so even writing them on paper at all was a step for them.   

 

 

We all agree.  Though it seems like a small thing, the symbolism is important… the women need to be in the book too.  They promise and Faruk, who is Women for Women’s agribusiness specialist, confirms he’ll check up on it on his next visit.  I picture one of those women customers bringing their milk next time and signing their name in the actual book – and I am satisfied that this will be meaningful for them too.

 

 

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Education for Women in Kosovo

By Trish Tobin

While visiting in Kosovo, I had the opportunity to meet with three courageous women who, after graduating from Women for Women International’s program, decided to go back and finish their secondary education.  They came to Sadije’s house – Sadije is a graduate who hosts classes in her home.  Tina (28), Elmiahate (26) and Afrodite (30) are from another village though, the village of Llapushnik.

There is a whole generation in Kosovo who have missed completing their education because of the war and for some because of the oppression before and during the war.  After the war, the focus was on recovery of the basic needs – homes for those who lost theirs, returning to look for lost loved ones and basic needs.  Now the focus is on jobs, how to generate income to get by and to improve their standing.  Returning to school wasn’t something most could afford – if they didn’t go to school in the “regular years” people typically didn’t go back.  When asked, they tell me they “missed school”, a term that people understand means that they couldn’t go to school because of war.

Afrodite, Elmiahate and Tina - Women for Women International Kosovo graduates gone back to school

These women who I met used their Women for Women International funds to pay for transportation and school fees and even more importantly, they have been lobbying the 16 women in their village in their same situation to also go back to school – so far 14 of the 16 have returned to school.  

They wanted to visit with me to tell me that we shouldn’t invest only in young girls or grandmothers who are needy but that we should invest in the women.  I assured them they are our greatest asset for getting more women of their age into our program, back to school and into job training - that in doing by example and encouraging their peers, they’ve extended the impact of their sponsors’ support for them exponentially.

Their interests too are advanced – they are taking business classes in school and are less interested in handicraft training and more interested in small business training and microcredit opportunities.  As I reflect on the visit with them, I think I understand why Hamide wanted me to meet with them.  They are the future of Kosovo and they are the future of Women for Women International in Kosovo. 

I can see these women criss-crossing the country one day soon offering consulting on business plans, making women aware of lending and funding opportunities and getting more women enrolled in the program.  The last question Hamide asked the women is a poignant one.  “Once you have a steady income, would you consider supporting a woman in the program yourself?” Their answer was a resounding yes – and I can see that desire to support one another already in the way other graduates like Sadije have opened up their homes for classes in the rural areas where no community center is available. I can see it in how the women I meet all day have formed small groups with one another whether for their business or for their friendship. There is a support network (dare I say movement?) growing in Kosovo of women.  Women who perhaps had not considered the strength of their numbers before and the impact they could have.  But they are seeing the fruits of it now and are doing everything they know how to keep it growing. 

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Always be strong

By Erica Tavares

Today was a day of hopeful beginnings and joyful celebrations.  We traveled 90 minutes outside of Kigali to Kayonza, Rwanda.  There, we met with more than 250 women as they waited, in the sun and in the rain, to be enrolled in our program, eager for their chance to rebuild their lives.  They came early, walking up to two hours to arrive by 8 am.  Some would wait for 5 or 6 hours for their chance to meet with our trainers for their enrollment interview.  While the women waited, they were divided into groups of 20, gathered together by village.  These women, neighbors in their communities, would become a future “training group,” attending their bi-weekly rights education classes together and providing the powerful emotional support to each other that so many say is critical to their success in the program.

At the end of the day, we celebrated with 160 women who had completed their 12 months in the program.  With the strong beat of African drummers providing the powerful backdrop, women danced, sang and shared their courageous stories of how they found the strength to rebuild their lives after joining Women for Women International:

 

“I now have an opinion about the status of my country,” said one.

 

“I’ve learned how to save money for the future,” said another.   

 

“Now, I vote.”  “I have started sending my daughters to school.”  One after another, women stood and told us of the large and small ways they have changed their lives and the lives of their families.  And after two hours of joyous celebration, we departed, with the women continuing to dance and sing as we walked toward the door.  As we reluctantly prepared to head back to Kigali, Zainab left the women, our graduates, with this message: 

 

“Always be strong.  I want you to always be strong.”

    

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Our Mothers are the Heroes of this Country

 

by Erica Tavares, 4.23.2008

 

Today’s experiences during our journey to Rwanda was a surprising one to me.  I’ve traveled here with Women for Women International before, and thought I had prepared myself to hear the stories of the genocide survivors, of women who continue to display amazing courage and strength of will in the aftermath of violence that I cannot even imagine.  I did not realize how unprepared I still was to face the truth of what happened in Rwanda; I did not realize how traveling to the field for the first time since I became a mother would affect my experience.

 

Today, we visited the Nyamata Catholic Church, a memorial to the genocide.  The church was the site of one of the country’s “church massacres.”  In the face of genocide, Rwandans fled to their site of worship, sure that they would find refuge from the violence.  Instead, the churches became a lure to help gather those that were to be killed.  Once full, churches were systematically and repeatedly attacked, killing all of those who sought safety inside. 

 

In the Nyamata church, 10,000 Rwandans were slaughtered.

 

When we arrived, we found the church much as it was following the genocide.  Although the bodies have been buried, the hole in the church door created by a grenade remains.  Hundreds of bullet holes riddle the church doors, walls and ceiling.  Blood still stains the floor, walls and alter of this modest house of worship. 

 

Perhaps most chilling, the clothes of all 10,000 victims killed at the church remain inside, piled on the wooden and metal pews.  It was an overwhelming site to take in, especially when I saw the shorts from a young boy, shorts that looked like they could fit my own small son.  It was at that moment that I broke down and cried.  The wave of emotion that washed over me, the tears that came so suddenly took me by surprise.  My mind starts to wander to “What if that had been me and my son, my family who sought refuge here?”  But I can’t even finish the thought – it is too painful, too paralyzing to think of ever being in that situation.  Words can’t express the pit in my stomach, the grip on my heart that even that thought alone brings to me. 

 

Last night at dinner, one of guests commented on the courage of the mothers who have rebuilt Rwanda.  “Our mothers are the heroes of this country,” she said.  It is such an honor to have the opportunity to be among mothers and women who have sacrificed to rebuild their families, who work each and every day to build a stronger future for their families and for Rwanda.  I ask myself, “Would I have the strength to do the same?”

 

I go to sleep tonight with a deeper emotional connection to what happened here.  And I look forward to tomorrow, when we will join a graduation ceremony for women completing our program.  I look forward to the dancing, to the singing, to the joy that comes with Women for Women International’s graduations.  I look forward to celebrating all that Rwandan women have accomplished.  I have not ever come close to overcoming the violence and obstacles that Rwandan mothers and women have faced.  But today, I am so much more grateful that I have been blessed to spend even a short amount of time with these courageous survivors.  I am honored to have the opportunity.  To the women of Rwanda – murakoze – thank you, thank you for all that you have taught me.

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Journey to Rwanda: Refire Your Spirit

Learning the Lessons from Rwandan Women

By Zainab Salbi

In the minds of many, Rwanda is fixed in time – frozen as it was in 1994 at the end of a genocide that claimed over 800,000 people and saw nearly 500,000 women raped in 100 days. Perhaps we have not revisited this country’s story because the truth was so painful; Rwanda is, after all, a shameful reminder of how little the world did to help as millions were murdered, tortured, and displaced. 

It’s time now to look again at Rwanda. Just fourteen years after the horrific genocide that tore this nation apart, Rwanda is a country rebuilt and revived. Its triumphant success story holds many lessons for the rest of the world: namely, that women are crucial in the rehabilitation and healing of any war-torn country.

The genocide in Rwanda literally left the women behind to pick up the pieces. After the violence subsided in 1994, 70% of the remaining population of Rwanda was women.  If communities were going to survive and if the country was ever going to recover, it was up to them to make it happen. They forced themselves to face the inconceivable and they rebuilt. It was women who cleaned the dead bodies from the streets; women who rebuilt the homes; and women who solved the national orphan crisis – over 500,000 children with nowhere to go. Nearly every woman took at least one child into her home.

When Women for Women International began working in Rwanda in 1997, it was clear that women needed the skills to rebuild their country. Over the past eleven years over 21,000 women have gone through our intensive one year sponsorship program where they were matched with a “sister” overseas who sent them $27 a month and a letter to support her emotional transformation. The direct aid each month addresses the woman’s immediate economic needs such as feeding her children or paying for school fees. During her intensive training she is grouped with twenty other women from her community and receives job skills trainings and women’s rights education. At the end of the year the woman is able to stand on her own feet and has moved from a victim of war to a survivor and an active citizen in her community.

After just one year in Women for Women International’s program participants’ lives have improved tremendously. 71% say their economic situation is better, 49% say that they plan to start their own business and 99% of the women feel that their health and families’ health have increased.  

Each year I invite supporters of Women for Women International to join me in an excursion to see the beauty and learn from the strength of Rwanda. This year, I am also joined in the field by our new US Executive Director Rania Atalla and Women for Women International staff member Erica Tavares.  We will share our journey, our photos, our memories with you.  We also have the pleasure of sharing our experience with Divine Caroline contributor Lisa Nastasi; I encourage you to read her journals at http://editorial.divinecaroline.com/

During the trip we will meet women who have risen up against their horrific memories, damaged bodies and pain to rebuild their lives and their communities after war. We will be inspired in discussions with Rwanda’s women leaders, who put in the place one of the world’s most progressive gender policies so that the country’s women could build  a more just and peaceful future, making Rwanda a model in the global arena. Currently Rwanda boasts of a parliament that is made up of 49% women.

It took the world more than a decade to start talking publicly about the genocide in Rwanda and to face the world’s passive acquiescence to the horrors that took place there.   Let us not wait another ten years to acknowledge Rwanda’s lessons about the importance of women’s  our participation in the rebuilding of a country, and implement those lessons as we focus on the humanitarian crises before us today and those that lie ahead.  I hope to share here the courageous stories of the women who inspire us.  I hope we inspire you.

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Four Years in Four Days – Iraq – Day One


Day One

At the beginning of February, I returned to Iraq for the first time in four years. The night before I left, I could not sleep. And I couldn’t stop crying. Was it sadness for my country? Was it fear? What exactly, I don’t know. I just know I was worried, nervous and could not control my tears. In the morning, I realized that up until that moment, I had never been afraid of doing my work.

I have traveled to many places that are considered “dangerous” by any standard—from the besieged Sarajevo, to DR Congo, to Iraq, to Sudan. I am so acquainted with the sound of bullets that I can sleep in the midst of gunfire. But that morning was different. That morning I actually felt fear and it was fear of dying. I never minded the concept of dying. We all die one day and if I have to die, I thought to myself, then I would love to die in my own homeland so that I may be buried next to my mother, next to my grandmother, and next to all the women in my family who are buried in our mausoleum in Iraq.

My plane landed at Baghdad International Airport around the same time as a flight from Iran. Iranians, Iraqis, Americans, Irish, British were all swirling together in the crowd that was arriving in Iraq…a land so confusing… so destroyed… so tired.

Ali, one of our staff, met me at the airport and rode with me over to my hotel. I can’t describe the pain of watching such destruction of one’s home country…the death and displacement of so many Iraqis, and now the news published by the Ministry of Planning that suggests there are two million widows in Iraq among a total population of 27 million. It is one thing to read about the changes in a place you once called home, seeing it up close is almost too much to bear.

My colleague who picked me up turned to me and said: “Zainab, remember the basketball hoop your family put in the cul-de-sac in front your home? Al-Mahdi militia has been using the basketball pole to execute Sunnis.” I couldn’t believe what he was telling me. “Zainab,” he continued, “every day I saw tens of bodies lying in front of your house after being executed. Every day there was a body hanging from the basketball pole. Your home has turned into an execution center.” I was going to throw up. All my childhood memories were in this house. Memories of laughter, tears, sorrow, fear, love and joy have all been violated.

As we hit a traffic jam, Ali explained to me that it is because they are having a car race nearby. He turned to me with a smile, “things are improving little by little. We have hope.” I couldn’t help but wonder about that hope. How real is it? How strong? It could be like the pretty paintings on the walls surrounding the highway for security reasons…. Paintings of Bedouin life style, Arabian heroes riding their horses, pretty women with headscarves, without headscarves, sunsets, all kinds of scenes painted on a concrete wall built for security reasons. I wondered if Ali’s hope is like the wall in its solidness or like the painting in that it is simply layer of covering the concrete wall?

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Four Years in Four Days – Iraq – Day Two

Day Two

The second day of my stay in Iraq, I traveled about 80 miles south to Karbala, where we work with about 1,000 women. The road we travel from Baghdad is filled with memories. My grandmother used to live in Karbala when I was a kid and it was always fun when we went to visit her, which we did quite often. The trip took about an hour and a half and we never thought twice about it. I remember once my mother drove it in the middle of the night when she was mad at my father and wanted to stay with her mother. Now, this road is so dangerous that one section is even called the “death triangle.” We passed by old scenes, old memories, except now they look so very different…. Everything looked destroyed. I even started doubting myself and my memory and asked my colleagues for affirmation of what I was seeing and observing. How could it be that a country goes backward instead of forward in every single way?

On the way to Karbala we talked about everything—how expensive and dangerous life is, all the friends and colleagues who no longer live in the country—until we approached the “death triangle.” Everyone suddenly went quiet, leaving the driver to focus on his own driving. “Not too long ago, we feared that we could not pass this area alive,” a colleague whispered in my ears. “This used to be an area that was Al-Qaeda dominated and since most people who would pass this road are assumed to be Shi’ah visiting Karbala or Najaf, there were often random shots that we would get as we drove. But the most dangerous were the fake check points where they asked people for their ID cards and try to guesstimate if they were Sunni or Shi’ah from their names. If you were Shi’ah, they would drag you from the car and slaughter you. It didn’t matter if you were a woman or a child. They slaughtered all,” she continued.

Once we passed the “death triangle,” the road changed. It is now filled with white, black, yellow, red and green flags in commemoration of one of the most important months in Shi’ah history, the very historical moment that made the division in Islam between Shi’ah and Sunni. The driver soon asked us to cover our hair and put on the abaya, a black piece of cloth that covers a woman’s body from head to toe. I am familiar with these traditions, for since my childhood, no one could enter Karbala, a religious town with two very important historical mosques, without wearing the abaya. I used to be excited about wearing my child-sized one and was always so disappointed when everyone on the street was able to guess that I was from Baghdad and, like most of the women in Baghdad, I was not used to wearing the abaya.

Aside from its religious characteristics, Karbala feels very different from Baghdad in terms of security and people’s movement. In Baghdad almost everyone goes to their home by no later than 7 pm, but in Karbala people walk at night more freely and in a relaxed way.

When I asked a woman in our program what she would do if she was in charge of the country, she said “I would make filling the stomach of the people as my utmost priority. We are dealing with a situation in which you can not get a job anywhere without paying a bribe. During Saddam’s time, our sons used to run away from the military and he would punish them in all sorts of ways for that. Now, we have to pay all that we have in bribes for our sons to enter the army for that is the only job available in the country,” she added. Electricity and education were also on the top of the list for what women wanted to change about their country.

The women also spoke at length about the incredible challenges faced by the widows and divorcees, many of whom do not have proper papers for themselves or their children due to either the death or disappearance of the father or the lack of cooperation from the father if he divorced the woman. The papers are of vital importance because the formal registration gives their children legitimacy and the right to go to school. Many of the women talked about the challenges they do not know what to do with their children’s education and future since they can not issue the children proper papers. This is a challenge that is spreading throughout the country, leaving many of the estimated 8 million widows and orphans with ambiguous futures regarding their status in the country.

As an Iraqi American, I know I am often asked how the situation in Iraq now compares to Saddam’s time and which one I prefer most. My answer has been consistent—“It is an unfair question.” Neither situation was/is good and I refuse to choose between two bad situations. I prefer neither and I want a better future for Iraq.

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Four Years in Four Days – Iraq – Day Three

Day Three

I no longer recognize Baghdad. The physical landscape has been destroyed and the social fabric has been shredded. The city looks different with each neighborhood controlled by different militia, with Sunnis killing Shi’ah, Shi’ah killing Sunnis, Shi’ah killing Shi’ah, and Sunnis killing Sunnis. This is NOT the city I knew. We never talked about Sunni/Shi’ah as much as everyone is talking about it today. We never thought about the idea of splitting the country into federations that is more or less divided along sectarian lines. We never had as many religious symbols as we have in the city now, so much so that a new visitor would probably never believe that Baghdad was once a secular city where religion was seen and respected as part of its citizens’ private lives but not in the public definition of the city.

None but a very few of my relatives and friends are still in Baghdad. My parent’s friends who we used to go out with them to the museum or the opera house, or galleries have all gone… My friends that I use to go swimming with or to the movies have all gone… my father’s tennis partners have all gone. Baghdad is a city that has been abandoned by the educated professional community, because it simply was not safe for them. The ongoing violence means that now doctors are afraid to go to the hospitals, lest they be killed, professors are afraid to go to the universities since they too have been targeted for killing, and people are afraid to express their political opinions loudly for that too can make you a target.

The culture of spying on each other that was propagated in Saddam’s time has stayed intact. Except that instead of writing secret reports on your neighbor or friend to the government secret service, people now submit their report to the militia. Saddam’s regime often killed, tortured or imprisoned people based on these reports, the current militias often just kill. The system is intact, the punishment is even more random and more severe than it was during Saddam’s time and the people who had held onto their hope for the country are no longer there.

I don’t have time to meet many local organizations and I am sort of scared of publicizing my visit less I intrigue the interests of kidnappers. But I do ask to visit Hana’a Edwards, the founder of Al Amal Association, an organization with a wonderful mission and a great leader. I met Hana’a about five years ago and I am familiar with her work throughout the country, even during Saddam’s time. I consider people like Hana’a, as well as the staff of Women for Women International in Iraq, heroes for staying in the country and continuing the struggle. I share with her my sadness at the country and ask her for her source of hope. I am most worried about the future, a future that does not have those educated, professional, artists, intellectuals, activist as part of it either because they have been killed or because they have escaped with their lives.

I know at Women for Women International-Iraq’s office, we are getting the hope by simply knowing we are giving women some venue for hope and an opportunity to stand on their feet. The women we are working with are survivors and economically and socially excluded. They may be able to rebuild their lives by getting a job and knowing about their rights. They do not replace, however, the country’s need of the middle class who is disappearing rapidly in the country.

There are pockets of the educated middle class still holding on in the country, pockets that are trying to survive in silent, subtle ways. Pockets that are afraid to be loud, out of fear that they will be killed like so many of their friends, colleagues and relatives. The situation in Iraq is far more than the mere argument of whether or not we are having a civil war. What we are having in Iraq is an “intellectual cleansing,” where those with education, professions and skills are getting killed. I thought of my mother’s stories of how the Mongols, when invading Iraq in the 13th century burnt all the books in all the libraries and killed so many professionals that the Tigris river ran red with blood, came to my mind. This story is very much a part of Iraqi oral history and is passed from one generation to another. If my mother was alive, I know she would tell me we are going through another such massacre of everything intellectual in the country… I am thankful she is not seeing what I am seeing.

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Four Years in Four Days – Iraq – Day Four

Day Four

On my last morning in Iraq, I eat breakfast with all of the Women for Women International staff at the Baghdad office. Each one of them is a hero by their own merit.

There is George, a young man who speaks fluent English and wishes desperately to leave the country. “I am afraid of being called by my name when I am walking the streets, lest I get killed because my name is George. I ask my friends to call me Amjad or something like that. It is too scary to be identified with a name that could be a foreigner.”

There is Samira, an Iranian woman who escaped Iran during the revolution, fell in love with an Iraqi man and lived her married life with him in Jordan. When her husband went back to Iraq after the invasion in the hope they may have a better life there, she followed him with their two teenage boys who were born in Jordan and grew up with a Jordanian accent. Two months after they arrived in Iraq, Samira’s husband died. Now she and her children have no place to call home as Iranian law states that an Iranian woman married to a non-Iranian man may not pass on her citizenship to her children. And since her kids have grown up in Jordan their whole lives they don’t fit into Iraqi culture either.

“My children and I are afraid to walk the streets, to talk, to have friends. We are strangers in a country that none of us belong to but can’t leave.”

As I hear Samira’s story and every part of me wants to reach out and help, I wonder how to explain to people in America the situation in which Samira finds herself. We are all seen as one outside of our region—looking the same, behaving the same and believing the same. How can I explain that we look different, that there isn’t such a thing as one Islamic culture, that we can love or hate each other and sometimes we have the both feelings at the same time. How can I explain Samira’s story, or George’s story, outside the confines of our office in Baghdad?

As we wrap up our breakfast, my colleague Nouri tells me that he just got an email about the earthquake in Rwanda and DR Congo. “Don’t worry Zainab. All the staff are OK except for one who had to go to the hospital.” Everyone else is now worried about their colleagues in DR Congo and Rwanda. My heart drops as I hear the news. I pray every day for the staff safety in every country we work in. The work comes with responsibility and having our staff safe is one of the biggest responsibilities I feel towards them.

When it was time for me to go to the airport, I kissed everyone goodbye. I don’t know when I will be able to go back to Iraq. I know I think of them all as heroes—not only for their dedication to helping the women who are the most vulnerable and marginalized but also for staying in the country.

As I sat in the airport in Baghdad about to leave Iraq, there is sadness, fear, love and anger every day coming at you in every single direction. There is gratitude, humiliation, theft, honesty, incredible hate, and incredible love all at the same time. Which one is Iraq? Which one is the full picture? I do not know.

I started talking to a man about the “death triangle”—the section of road our staff drive regularly between Baghdad and Karbala, where you could be killed just for being Sunni or Shi’ah, depending on which part of the road you were on. He told me he bribed a government official so he could get another citizenship card with a common Sunni name. This way, he would have two forms of identifications: one with a Sunni name and one with a Shi’ah name and he would present it as appropriate depending on the part of the street. When I asked him how easy it was to bribe someone to get a new ID, he answered by saying “Oh, but God had blessed us with plenty of corruption in this country. You can get anything you want my dear.”

It has been five years since the American invasion of Iraq and while the mistakes made there continue to accumulate still no one has stopped to listen to what this critical mass of the population, women, have to say about solving the problems of Iraq. As I traveled the country it became clear that women know exactly what they want and what they need to take care of their families and communities. It is time to hear what the women have to say and have the humility to stop pretending that we know all the answers.


The plane is called and I get up to leave with a sense of sadness at the loss of a country at a destruction of a nation and its people. I have no words to console me except the phrase In Sha’a Allah (God Willing). In Sha’a Allah I live to see the day where
Iraq is back on its feet and is once again a prosperous country that can be filled with hope to fulfill its potential. In Sha’a Allah I can do something to help it no matter how little it may be. In Sha’a Allah there will be peace in my homeland and the home I now have in America soon. In Sha’a Allah very soon.

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