The second PWD Steering Committee meeting took place in Suli and I asked the Country Director for permission to spend some extra time visiting projects and meeting with groups to get more context on Iraq – he was agreeable.
First I met with a group of women who head non-profits working on women’s issues. Two health organizations were represented, they work against female circumcision, social issues and recently, one of them did a project focusing on pregnant women and breast feeding. It was an educational project that explained all the stages and the benefits.
Another project, one group is working on is family planning, which the lack of creates a difficult social economic situation, particularly when there are a lot of children.
The group felt that the women they work with “get it,” but one of the main problems they face is a lack of health services. A second problem for women is the lack of knowledge about sexual relations between men and women. They said that women are very isolated on these issues.
They identified the main problem with female circumcision not with the mother’s, but with the grandmother’s who insist on following tradition. There is a committee that is currently working to draft a law in Kurdistan banning female circumcision.
Violence was identified as being endemic in the culture, handed down from generation to generation and honor killings still occur. The issue is that if a man kills his wife or daughter because she has “shamed” the family the punishment, if there is any punishment is less than for other types of homocide.
Finally, they identified the big problem that overshadows all the other issues is the difference between men and women in society. 23% of the women in Suli are illiterate and 80% off the violence is committed against women.
On the second day of my stay in Iraq I visited a women’s shelter. The addresses are kept secret and it was guarded by a female Peshmeger. It was very discouraging. The only real solution in the community for women who have to be taken out of a home situation is to work with the family to solve the problem and reintegrate the women back into their families. They then monitor and follow the cases until they think the problem is solved. I know that if you know anything about domestic violence and you are reading this you are probably shocked, I was too, but there is no other place for these women to go. Women in Iraq, who are unmarried do not live on their own – it is unacceptable. Often times even women who are divorced return to their families, but if the family blames the woman for the divorce than sometimes the family commits the violence against the woman. There are three women’s shelters in Suli, the one I visited has four lawyers on staff and a psychiatrist. They spoke of a need of education around domestic violence issues particularly for their social workers.
Two of the women, whom the shelter termed as cases with little hope shared their stories with me.
A young 23 year old with strong features and thick dark hair spoke of being married at age 15 to a 57 year-old man, this was her second marriage. She is uneducated, her family would not let her attend school.
I asked her what her dreams were when she was young. “I wanted to have a family and be secure,” she replied. No matter how much I prodded this was the answer and I realized that her dreams were simple, because she hadn’t been exposed to anything else. In Iraq, being secure and having a family is often the best a woman can hope for and if you can’t read or write and be exposed to different things how would you be able to dream of something different than what you know?
At age 23, she fell in love with a 25 year-old and her family had her arrested for infidelity, the police contacted the shelter and she has been there ever since. And it is highly unlikely that she will be able to be returned to her family situation.
“What will happen to her?” I asked. The response was she’ll stay here and there were really no other options.
I asked her how she spent her days. “Watching TV and DVDs,” she said. She can’t read so books are not an option. It seemed a very limited existence to me.
The second woman who shared her story with us had been at the shelter for two years. She sat right next to me in a pink jogging type suit. She also had beautiful long black hair, but she had fine features and could be classified as pretty.
When I asked about her childhood dreams, she replied, “To live a safe, secure life.” It made me sad that, that was her only dream, but it also underscored the fact that if you don’t have security and you aren’t safe it consumes your life and limits potential or even the ability to think about a life beyond your personal safety.
She had lived outside of Suli in the surrounding area with her grandfather and had finished intermediate school. She was 18 when she fell in love with a young man 25 years old. He asked her father for her hand in marriage, but her father refused him, he wanted her to marry someone else, another young man who was 23.
Her father and brother physically abused her and her father killed the man she loved. From time to time the father sends a threats to her, in addition the family of the boy her father killed wants to revenge his murder. She cannot leave the shelter at all, for fear of being killed by her own family and the family of the boy she loved.
She spends her time in the shelter reading and watching TV. A different type of prison.
The executive director of the shelter explained that they are trying to change society and traditions and beliefs that are deeply engrained. She explained that most of the cases they deal with start from arranged marriages and that their shelter has dealt with more than 350 cases that are similar to the stories we had heard. She also spoke of physical abuse and mutilation.
“We have a woman here from a small village who was forced into marriage. It was a swap with another family. The young woman was in love with a boy from the family, but her father gave her to the uncle. She was caught in a compromising position with the boy she was in love with, the nephew of her husband and they cut her nose off and his ears off. They fled to Suli and she wanted her lover to stay with here in Suli and build a life, but he couldn’t get a job so he went back to the village.”
She explained that it is easier for a man to return to a situation like that than for the woman. She would be shunned and the gossip would follow her forever. She also told us that people had learned the mulilation from Saddam’s regime, as he used to cut the noses and ears off deserters from the army.
The young woman was 18 years old when her nose was cut off her face. She has had six reconstructive surgeries and is now 22.
The director spoke of these three cases as hopeless and complicated. There is no solution she explained.
In a society where unmarried women live with their families and it is unacceptable for them to live on their own, at this point and time it appears she is right. They have a limited future if any at all.
I left on January 13, to visit two smaller cities in the North where we have offices. The Head of Office Steve lives in one city where the office is and travels to the other. We left at 8:00 a.m. and arrived at the office where he doesn’t live around 11:00 p.m. We drove through the mountains and stopped to admire a man-made lake. Along the road were lean-tos built from bunched together straw – bus stops. And we would occasionally pass people who liked like they were waiting out in the middle of nowhere. The mosques that we saw were small square buildings, much different from the mosques in Kuwait and the larger cities that boasted dorms.
When we entered the city, eyes were drawn to our vehicle and Steve thought that maybe I should have covered my hair. Women with uncovered hair are not common and blonds are rarely seen at all. My guide that afternoon was a young married woman who works for MC and on PWD issues. We visited a clinic that MC had built which serves 600 families, living in small box like houses in a settlement out in the middle of the desert. They were returnees who had been displaced from the invasion. There were 99 houses and 86 tents. MC had built toilets for the settlement. In 2003, the town where our office is located, I’ll call it Town 2 had approximately 30,000 residents, it now has more than 110,000.
Our next stop was the Center for Excellence (CFE) built by MC where Iraqis and Kurds can take computer courses. We came in the middle of an excel course. It was small, but clean with about 15 computers. More than 1,500 people have received training there and the CFE also provides internet access to more than 15 high schools and the department of Education.
The last visit was to a PWD center that MC had built, my guide would not accompany me there, as the center administration has been taken over by a greedy woman and really no PWDs use it. They had new sports equipment and a nice facility, but she has arrived with a key to let me see it, there were no PWDs using the center at the time that I visited and I learned later that it is usually like that. It was sad, during my other visits to PWD organizations they were open and there was staff and the one in Suli was a bussle of activity.
We left to return to Town 1, where the head of office lives at around 4:00 p.m. We set up our computers to do some work and then Steve made dinner and I called it a night. Everything at the guest house/office in Town 1, smelled like bad flowers. The type of smells you get from scented detergents, in addition I think they used air freshener sprays in the rooms that left behind a sickly, cloy smell that assaulted my nose. I had to sleep with my towel over my pillow to block out the smell.
I woke the next morning ready to see projects and meet with people in Town 1. The Steve, the Head of Office would be joining me for one of my visits to the PWD association. In Suli, the pipes at the guesthouse were frozen and we had been showering by boiling water on the stove and mixing it with cold water from a barrel outside the bathroom. I was really looking forward to a hot shower. I turned on the tap and it ran cold.
I waited for awhile and then woke up Steve and asked him why I couldn’t get hot water. “Just let it run awhile,” he mumbled and then rolled over to go back to sleep. I let it run for 20 more minutes and it was still cold. I was loathe to take a cold shower. So, I knocked on Steve’s door in one last desperate attempt to have a hot shower. He stumbled into the bathroom in shorts and a t-shirt, looked at the shower and said, “Hot is cold and cold is hot.” I was able to take a hot shower.
The house ladies fixed us breakfast and we left for our meeting with the PWD organization. They were located in a small building that was fairly dirty and had disgusting toilets. The toilets were not western and therefore unaccessible for people in wheelchairs. We sat in an office for our meeting, the building has no heat and the cold was barely dented by the Kerosene heaters in the office. I kept my coat on the entire time.
The group we met with is associated with a larger group that is headquartered in Suli and has 13 branches throughout Northern Iraq. This branch was established in 2000 and serves 4,000 people with all types of disabilities except the blind. It is staffed by eight volunteers.
They don’t have any support from the government and to date most of their projects have been distributions, wheelchairs, non-food items, Kerosene. They recently completed a bird flu awareness project, which I thought was odd because Iraq has not had issues with bird flu. They have also been doing awareness trainings for PWD women with children. They held a chess tournament and have participated in Suli projects. They had a list of projects that they are interested in pursuing with MC, computers with internet connection, sewing project for women and of course they want to build a sports hall.
These meeting invariably end up with a list of requests, which is why we need to focus on training for these groups so they can become self-reliant. They also asked to have the bathroom renovated.
After lunch I visited three other projects, a refurbished swimming pool. It was designed to be accessible and it had a ramp down into it. It was the first ramp I’d seen in a swimming pool and I wondered how people would use it. It was made of slick tile so it would be difficult to get a wheelchair down and in addition, the wheelchair would be all wet. It highlighted the need for really good rehabilitation where people learn how to transfer and deal with inaccessible situations. We visited a park with an outdoor stage and walking paths and we visited a playground for children, there were at least six swing sets, a basketball court and a small building where they could have classes. A young boy was swinging and I joined him. His name was Ayat and after we had swung awhile another young boy named Huner joined us. The swings were metal with side arms and it was difficult to get my butt into, but with a little manuvering I was able to.
That evening Elena, the director of M& E had come down to do some training for the staff. She, Steve and me ate leftovers, talked and worked. I left to go back to Suli fairly early the next morning. I had to prepare for the last Steering Committee meeting for the PWD Union.
The Steering Committee arrived on Jan. 16 and we started meeting on January 17. The Suli office had converted a garage that was accessible into a meeting room. They had actually done a nice job, except the interior had been painted a Pepto Bismol pink. I thought that it would take us a long time to get to a final draft of the bylaws, but actually it went quite quickly. So quickly that we finished early a couple of days. On the first day we visited Rozh Societies headquarters and the new sports facility that was built for them. What struck me about Rozh was that it was full of activity. PWDs everywhere, people doing things. Members of the Kurdish Paralympic Committee came and I got to meet about seven young women, most who had become disabled due to Polio. It was interesting speaking to them, one was a singer and she was very impassioned about how PWDs are treated and the lack of opportunities. I hope I can work with her on a project.
After the discussion and once the electricity came back on we moved into a larger hall, where I played ping-pong with one of their national champions, he went easy on me. And then the young woman who had been so impassioned in the meeting sang for us. She sang songs in Kurdish and then especially for me she sang the theme song for the Titanic. She is a singer of some reknown in this area. One of the things that she had been so up in arms about was the lack of arts opportunities for PWDs.
On the last day of the meeting Paul joined us and he discussed the bylaws with the group and then we discussed the next meeting. The group was really adament about having it outside of Iraq and not in Kuwait, but really our three choices are Iraq, Kuwait or Jordan. They didn’t want to go to Jordan, because it is difficult to get into Jordan if you are Iraqi, they didn’t want to go to Kuwait and they didn’t want to have it in Suli. They kept asking where we had offices in the Middle East and the answer we kept giving was Jordan, Kuwait, Suli, Gaza and Lebanon. Even after we said it over and over again they kept asking about Turkey and Egypt.
I was starting to get annoyed and what was the most annoying was I felt that they were completely focused on the wrong thing. They told me they would give me an answer in about where they wanted the next meeting in a week. We would end up having it in Suli, because the regional director decided and wanted it to coincide with a visit from the MC communications team in the U.S.
The last night of their visit the PWD Steering Committee and I had dinner with the Kurdish Paralympic Committee. None of the other expats were up for it. The group left for Baghdad on 20th, but the first flight out of Suli to Amman wasn’t until the 21st. I had done a lot of cooking for the gang while I was there. I made Green Thai Curry, pesto spaghetti and on the last night of my stay we had bacon burgers. They were soooo good. The neighbor Sharizon had brought the bacon from Dubai, as you can’t buy it in Iraq or Kuwait.I also made brownies and chocolate chip cookies. The chocolate chip cookies didn’t last long because the guys, Paul, Steve and Sean kept detouring through the kitchen to sneak them, but there were enough for dessert.
Photos in order
2. Meeting with the heads of NGOs that servce women.
3. Gas lines.
4. IDP Camp
5. Traffic jam.
6. Electricity or perhaps phone lines.
7. Swimming pool with a ramp, accessibility in Iraq.
8. Swinging with the children.
9. Small town in Kurdistan, passed through on the way back to Suli.
10. Women of Rozh Society.
11. Construction in Iraq.
12. The Turkish Bath that I always visit on the way back from Iraq.