The Conference


Drakoulis & Paul the Country Director

I spent my first day in Iraq at the guest house preparing for the conference. Paul, Karen, Drakoulis and I had a meeting about the conference around 11:30 a.m.

I arrived at the guest house around 9:30 a.m. to find Drakoulis, Elena and Karen on the porch drinking coffee. I set myself up in the living/family room with my computer and Drakoulis made me coffee. He makes great coffee. During our meeting we went over who was doing what and the agenda and then we broke for lunch, which was leftovers from the night before. When I had been planning the conference, Paul had told me to work with Drakoulis on the logistics, so I asked him to recommend a hotel and then send me the menu. His response is:

The menu is all the categories of Kebab/tika and meat with rice … salads included as well . . .

I’m annoyed because I think he’s giving me a hard time, but he’s actually telling the truth, all they serve in Iraq is Kebab, Tikka and meat with rice and salads. Oh and sometimes you can get fish. But to make a long story short this e-mail sets off a chain of e-mails where Paul just keeps writing “Can we PLEASE, quit talking about the menu.”

So, for the dinner the night before we had kebab, rice and some grilled vegetables and for the lunch the next day the leftovers from that and then from there on out that was what I ate, at every meal, but breakfast. For breakfast I had bread, a triangle of “Laughing Cow” cheese and two types of jam.

After the meeting, I answered some e-mails and put together a list of things that I needed to do when I got back to the hotel. Then I had a long conversation with Paul about the program and a long conversation with Drakoulis about literacy and then headed back to the hotel. Once back at the hotel I found out that we didn’t have the meeting room and that we were going to have to make do with the room that they served breakfast in. So, I worked at rearranging the room and Shapol the deputy office director translated to the hotel employees what I wanted, they all spoke Kurdish.

I worked late that night printing out the next days agenda, which took forever because of the printer and the internet connection, which was spotty at best.

The next morning I got up early and went down to assure that everything was o.k. and I ran into a double-amputee on the elevator, he tried to talk to me, but my Arabic wasn’t that good. I did figure out that he played basketball and was able to convey that I did also through a picture. He was really intent on me and kept following me around, it made me uncomfortable and finally I escaped into the conference room. He was around 40 with wavy black hair and strong features, his upper lip accented by a mustache, he was very attractive, but Arab.

As the starting time of the conference neared, I was a little worried because Paul was there and he was going to kick it off. He rushed in right before it started, the first day of the conference went well and that night Karen, Jamal, Awat, one of the interpreters and me gathered in my room to translated the notes for the next day. During the first day of the conference the double amputee asked to speak to me later and I told him I would try and while I was working with the gang up in the room, there was a knock on the door. And there he was. I was on the phone so Karen came over and said in Arabic, “Can’t you see she’s working and slammed the door in his face. We ended up eating around 9:30, guess what we ate, yep that’s right Tikka, and finished around 10:00.

Awat left with Karen he was dropping her at the guest house and I started printing out the notes and the next days schedule. I got to be around 1:00 p.m.

The second day of the conference wasn’t as good as the first day, but we got through it. It is difficult to say something, then wait for the interpretation, then say the next thing on you mind it slows things down. Identifying resources was one of the items on the agenda, but the Iraqi’s were very good at identifying the resources they needed they just kept talking about what PWDs needed, not what they needed to accomplish there goals.

David, the regional director came in that day, along with Gretchen Ansorge, who supports us from the home office. Gretchen showed up that afternoon and then we all had to go back to the guesthouse for a meeting with David. So, as soon as the conference was over I went up to my room and grabbed stuff to change for the group dinner that night and then waited with Gretchen in the lobby for the driver.

At the guest house we went over the last days agenda with David and then I took a shower and changed for dinner. Just as we arrived at the restaurant my phone rang and it was Kari, it was so good to hear her voice. We were able to talk for about 15 or 20 minutes before my phone ran out of money. The group was in the restaurant and I hung out on the steps talking to Kari, while Drakoulis hung out about 20 feet away like he was keeping an eye out for me. As I was talking this elephant of a man came and stood in front of me, just staring at me. So I moved. And he followed me. I gave him a look of disgust and moved again and I don’t know if it was my disgusted look or Drakoulis presence that kept him from following me again. When the phone went dead, I went in to join the group. We hadn’t done a very good job on the seating and the office and the expats were all seated together, we really should have been intermingled.

Dinner went slowly. First they served nuts, hummus and salad and then a bunch of meat dishes. Meanwhile, Kerwin from the office went around and took his picture with all the ladies. I was sitting next to Elena who was next to a Kurdish man who was trying to teach her his language. I wasn’t very interested in the food, all I really wanted to do was sleep.

I got up to use the restroom and I was pretty sure that the sign above the door I went in said ladies, at least the picture looked like a lady, but as I was coming out of the toilet stall, which was a hole in the ground surrounded by porcelain I saw the back of a man going out of the bathroom.

I rushed out of the toilet and checked the sign. I was pretty sure it was the ladies, but I went back to the table and told Elena the story in exhausted giggles.

After dinner we move outside and formed an oblong circle and the Iraqis started reciting poetry and telling stories. All I really wanted to do was go home and it was cold. North Iraq is colder than Southern Iraq at least that’s what they tell me. It was like a cool summer night in the northwest. I asked Elena if I could sit on her lap and Karen leaned over and whispered, “I know someone who wants you to sit on his lap, but he doesn’t have one.” She was referring to the double amputee.

At around 10:30 p.m. Paul started to get antsy because the curfew for expats in Iraq is 10:00 p.m. and at about quarter to 11:00 we had to excuse ourselves and we left the Iraqis there celebrating it felt odd to leave them there, but some of the national staff stayed.

The third day of the conference was kicked off by David, then we reviewed some points and David changed the agenda again. He said that they were ready to elect a steering committee and we should just leave and let them get down to business. So Paul outlined the criteria for a steering committee, representative of all areas of Iraq and one woman and we left the room. They spent about 2 hours, giving speeches and engaging in some heavy debate, but in the end they elected 5 members of steering committee to come up with bylaws and constitution for the group with 2 alternates. Paul, Karen, me and David made speeches, what David termed inspirational speeches and then the conference was over.

I had made plans with Elena to cook dinner and watch a movie at the guesthouse, but when I got there David had changed her plans. Originally, he, Paul and Gretchen had a meeting, but in the end Drakoulis and Elena ended up going also.

I was sitting out on the porch swing waiting for Elena when Drakoulis sat down to lecture me. This time it was about modesty. I guess I wasn’t dressed modest enough, I had smiled too much and I had leaned in on pictures with men. He loves to lecture me. Paul came out and sat down in between us and the discussion continued. I learned that it would have been good for me to have a wedding ring and also that the double-amputee had kept commenting on my blond hair which was very inappropriate. It would have been nice to know these things before I left for the Middle East. I wanted to purchase longer shirts, but the styles in the U.S. nowadays aren’t conducive to modesty.

Karen and I hung out on the porch and listened to music. I don’t know when she went to bed, but I fell asleep on the porch swing and was awakened by Paul’s voice saying “I bet she’s asleep on the couch.”

I was so tired, Drakoulis offered to sleep on the couch and let me have his bed, but it seemed suspect to me and besides I had to leave at 4:00 a.m. the next morning for the airport. So Paul and Drak trundled me into the car and dropped me back at the hotel.

At 4:30 a.m. the next morning the driver was there to take me to the airport. It was pitch black and as we navigated through all the barriers to get to the first check point at the airport, they searched our car and then brought in a dog. It turns out the dog smelled something funny, so they wouldn’t let the driver take us all the way into the airport. Instead we stopped at a second check point where we went through a metal detector and then were searched. Our luggage was also x-rayed. Then we got on a bus that would take us the last mile to the airport. Once at the airport, we went through another metal detector, our luggage was scanned again and once again we were searched. Then we had to go to a medical clinic. Currently the North is experiencing an outbreak of cholera so we met with a public health official, signed a paper and he gave us medication to take. It was interesting, he didn’t watch us take it and I’m sure a lot of people didn’t take it, but we had to have the paper to give to the officials in Jordan.

After visiting with the health official we went through passport control and then another metal detector to get into the gate and our carry luggage was x-rayed again. All in all it took an hour and a half to get to the gate.

At the gate they wanted to load me first so they took me out towards the plane, all of the luggage was on the ground next to the plane and they made me identify my luggage, I guess as an extra security measure. We boarded the plane at about 7:00 a.m. and left Iraq.

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