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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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May 18, 2009: Baghdad – By Zainab Salbi

I lay down at the end of my first day in Baghdad in the deep darkness of a night with a beautiful summer breeze, the sound of crickets, and the smell of the Tigers River.  There is no electricity in the house, though everyone is happy with the improvements in the number of hours they are getting electricity which amounts to about 12 hours a day, give or take one or two hours, depending on the neighborhood.  Much has changed since I was last here in February of 2008.  The airport looks more organized, the staff are polite, doctors check passengers for any fever, something that looked more silly than cool, but it was still a change to a more professional airport, and nice, uniformed taxis are waiting at the airport door.  The streets are pale and dusty but there is something about the sand of the desert contrasted with the green of the palm trees that brings a soft breeze to the heart…a combination of sadness, nostalgia, and hope for the future.

Life seems to have relaxed a bit in Baghdad.  As I pass by the University of Baghdad, its doors are full of students, women and men, chatting, mingling, and flirting with each other; women drive in their cars, walk without a headscarf in the streets; scenes that were common throughout my life in Iraq but have become rare in the last few years before the security situation deteriorated in Baghdad. But that calmness is not without the presence of military, with the tanks driving through the city, men at the top with a machine gun that rotate as the soldier check out the streets.  Check points are still all over but with soldiers who are getting more of the people’s respect than ever in the last few years.  People are more willing to visit different neighborhoods where they were not willing to take such risk the year before, though the question of who controls that neighborhood is still asked.

On the way from the airport, I ask my colleague Ali to stop at a local bakery so I can get Samoon, a kind of bread that is a specialty in Iraq and many other parts of the world that was once controlled by the Ottomon empire.  I find the taste of home in it and it brings back my childhood memories.  More than that, there is a an Iraqi saying that when two people share a piece of bread together they are to be friends forever. I no longer know how much is left of such a concept of generosity and kindness in the country.  People here have gone through more 30 years of wars and some have not seen life other than in a war zone.  How much the people have changed, I no longer know.

By the time I finish eating my piece of bread, I enter our office.  Three security guards who staff our office, along with every house and office in the city, open the door for us.  That’s when I meet my colleagues who have been working with Women for Women International since 2003.  They have endured so much danger and insecurity.  They have seen bombs and explosions and continued to do work despite all odds in a country that that has terrorized half of its population.  Despite this, they have persevered, serving a total of 3,274 women since Women for Women International started its work in Iraq. We all get emotional, crying and embracing when we see each other. They, like all Iraqis who have stayed in the country, need a witness to their pain and to their work and determination and I am the only witness who can come and see that first hand from the HQ office as it is dangerous for others to visit.

I go around, hug and talk with all of our staff, and see the reports of our expansions in Baghdad and our work with socially excluded women here.  I am told of a woman who lives in a small room under the stairs of a building with her four daughters and how she is petrified by anybody around her.  As a single mother with four single teenage daughters, they are all vulnerable to various kinds of abuse.  So she hides in her hole, cleans some houses for money, and is too afraid to even join an organization that is trying to give her assistance.  The staff have been visiting her for weeks until she can trust them and join the group.  In a country where there have been so many killings, so many kidnappings, so many bombings and suicide bombings, and so much corruption, it is not easy to get the trust of anybody and it takes quite a lot of work just to convince vulnerable women to trust that there is someone out there who indeed wants to help and not hurt them.

I finally head to my family’s home, a ride that ends up being about two hours, as opposed to no more than twenty minutes six years ago. When I arrive there, I feel I am in a safe haven.  There is the Tigers, with fisherman calmly hoping to catch some fish to feed their family and maybe sell, there is the beautiful garden with flowers, and, yes, there is even a pool.  I sit with my family by the river, smoking Sheesha with fruit flavored tobacco, my uncle drinks his whiskey, a friend of the family sits with her headscarf and black robe as she mourns her deceased husband, and my cousins and their wives.  Just a small family and friends gathering in a summer evening in Baghdad includes Sunnis, Shias, and Kurds, and not one of us talked about this issue that seems to consume more attention from the outside world than in our own internal world.  The debate was anywhere from Bush’s policy towards Iraq and how some liked it and some didn’t, to how much Iraqis love President Obama, to Malaki and how Sunnis and Shia’as alike are starting to be comfortable with his policies, regardless of his own personal sect.

In the midst of our political discussion, there was a sound of a huge explosion.  There was a silence for only less than a second. We wondered where this bomb could be coming from and we resumed the conversation as of nothing happened.  My mother’s friend picked up her cell, called her family to check if they are alright and continued to join us in the conversation.  “We are used to that,” she said.  “We rarely stop life because of a bomb. Often activities resume, windows are replaced and the stores are reopened within no more than 20 minutes from any bomb [going off]”, she continued.  “The only exception”, she explained, “is when my brother saw dead bodies in the last bombing in Al Kademmya where 60 people were killed.  He saw many parts of people’s bodies and he was really affected and couldn’t eat anything for two days”.

It is amazing how life resumes back so fast, I comment.  My cousin, who never left the country, looks at me and says, “It never stopped Zainab throughout all these years”. In all of the discussions of the Iraq war, we have mainly discussed things from a front line perspective. I wish more efforts were taken to understand the back line discussion of what war is and what peace means for Iraqis.  Perhaps things would not be as destroyed as they are today.  I go to bed knowing there is hope in people’s hearts and I pray that we don’t lose one more opportunity of transferring hope to tangible improvements in people’s lives.

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