Category Archives: Iraq

Notes from Women for Women Internationals colleagues recent trips to the countries we work in.

Life for Iraqi Women since the US Troop Withdrawal

George Nichola, WfWI-Iraq’s Life Skills and Sponsorship Manager, recently shared his thoughts on the challenges Iraq’s most vulnerable women face and the security situation in the month and a half since the US troop withdrawal from Iraq.

The US completed withdrawal of all military troops before the end of 2011. It was a great moment in modern Iraqi history, a step toward complete sovereignty for the Iraqi people. After the old regime was defeated by the US troops and allies, people wanted more independence in a free and democratic country where people of different religious or ethnic backgrounds could live peacefully. Day by day, this dream has been fading away, even before the US government announced the plans to withdraw troops from Iraq.

Before the withdrawal, the Iraqi people, especially women, grew concerned by what seemed like a lack of focus on doing what would be best for Iraq and its people. Because everyone was concerned about the security situation, they worried whether the withdrawal was happening too soon.

Elderly Women in Iraq.

In the days after the withdrawal was complete, most of the participants in our program were very concerned about the security and safety situation. Our graduates in Karada who met to discuss how they can improve the services in their communities feel that the service needs of the local communities are not being addressed. There is no help for the elderly or those who are sick, who often have few shelters from the hot summers and rainy winters.

Baghdad and other provinces have recently witnessed a series of bloody explosions in the very poor areas; in Baghdad roughly 11 cars exploded and killed more than 55 people, many of whom were breadwinners for their families and simple workers who were just waiting for public transportation.

In Sadr City, a participant told us with a trembling voice and eyes filled with tears that her daughter was at her university when an explosion happened and some of her daughter’s friends were injured and others were killed. She asked her trainer if she should let her daughter continue to go to university or keep her at home, adding ” I lost my husband in an explosion in 2008 and don’t want to face the same situation with one of my children.” The daughter’s friends were waiting with a crowd of people for public transportation in the early morning when the bomb went off. Another participant in the same group asked why the bombers are targeting gatherings of Iraqi workers and those with no connection to the conflict? This question is often asked when explosions happen. Since the US troops’ withdrawal, the victims of these attacks are often poor Iraqi families who are struggling to have daily bread.

Women walking in street in Iraq.

In general women are more concerned about what will happen in the coming days, as extremists on both sides will use violence that will hurt uninvolved civilians. Educated and uneducated women agree that the coming days will be more severe and more difficult. They worry whether the Iraqi army will be strong enough to protect Iraqis and how far the violence will go.


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Rays of Hope: A Social Report from Iraq by George Nichola

The most three common phrases that we do here frequently everyday are; “Its to unsafe in Iraq’, “dangerous nationality” and “Look how savages are the Iraqis”. I myself sometime follow the echo of these words, some of my close friends do already believe so…

I was about to believe these three awful phrases, but each time I discover that Iraq is not safe yet its people “the original ones” are kind, tender and supportive… yes believe me when I say this, perhaps you hear or see things about Iraq, which can be true or can be not true all the prospects are possible, some of you will not convinced with my idea and you may think that I am trying to decorate the Iraqi scene; I am not and sometimes I do agree with these three phrases yet sometimes I found myself not so sure for  particular events appear on the ground that make me not sure of what I feel towards Iraq. Well try to follow me in order to see whether there is good Iraq or it’s bad from the start…

One day as friends of mine and I were in our way back to home from work, in one of the most hot and sunny summer days of Baghdad, the car we were riding broke up suddenly in an area crowded of workers and simple people who gathered near my window looking curiously at us, my own concern was the ladies that were with us, how should I act? Should I send them by taxi home by their own selves? Or accompany them? Should I leave the driver who is my friend alone facing these people? I was truly confused the heat of the sun increased my tension… Suddenly, one of these who come too close and examined the hot parts of the car which were burning, trying to touch them by his bare hands… while everyone around us were laughing at him as he suggested to fix the machine after he knew that there was something wrong with the gear of the car, he at once asked one of the crowded guys to bring a peace of clothe in order to catch the hot parts; at first I did not believe he could help us and that he is massing up but what can I do I can not go and see what he is doing as I was standing near my colleagues window for other guys were getting close to the windows in an attempt to look inside the car, these humble people were too curious which annoyed me a lot, so I was like a guard watching the guys and the car as my friend disappeared, I terrified and I asked about him a boy who was standing near by me, he responded with a smile that he went to by Hydraulic acid for the gear…

Satar was the name of the guy who offered to help, he insisted on helping us while I and my friend asked him just to show us from where we can get a crane to lift the car to the mechanical; he was young guy about 29 – 30 years old, so active and optimistic that he insisted to have a shot to fix the car…

From time to time I was hearing “Ouch.. It’s burning… I can not affix this… hot to hold…”, while I was watching the guys, I was afraid that they would rob anything from the car or even from my friend’s pocket, I expected anything from them accept being good to us. After about quarter of an hour, the sun heat was still striking straight on my brain, sweating from every part of my body, I heard Satar saying I fix it… I could not believe that until did my friend drive softly in the road…

My friend offer or tried to give Satar any amount that he would demand but he refused to take anything, anything at all… while he was looking like need some.. he was a driver “services cars driver”.

I guess no one would do such help, exposing his hands to heat and they were burned several times and laid on the hot pitch of the road, which seemed to be burning for nothing…Do not agree with me?

Iraqis my friend, are well known maybe not in the western world but in the eastern world in general and the Middle East in particular with their pure spirit and their eagerness and readiness to help not only the native citizens but the strangers as well, perhaps they do help them more than they do with the natives, so my friend I do not know how to explain what is happening now in here… but I can tell you only this Iraq still had his own original feature, that’s why I still love my country, still need to smell his soil and try to help in restoring his old glory…

These guys I expected nothing good from them, I was thinking they may harm us but the fact was something different… Perhaps there were bad guys who wanted Iraq and it’s people to look savages but always the truth appears on the surface. The truth that Iraqi people are helpful, peaceful and like to live in harmony with each other;

I know some will not agree with me, for those I may say: its ok time will prove my words… yes it will!


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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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