Thursday, December 3, 2009

This Is Iraq

Sunday, November 22, Erbil, Iraq

I'm in the workshop room now, the participants divided into three groups, each analyzing their answers from a previous activity in which they identified on different coloured cards different levels of change. The yellow group is looking at changes amongst themselves at the individual level, the blue group looking at change within their organizations, and finally the pink group looking at change at the broader societal level. It was a simple exercise where they placed their cards in concentric circles (yellow, blue, then pink) and are now figuring out what it all means.

I'm in Iraq. Somehow writing this obvious fact helps me realize that what we're doing is real. I took the 1 AM flight from Amman to Erbil just over a day ago. The Royal Jordanian plane was as comfortable as it could be. Seat 14H was my aisle seat, a must when I travel owing to my height. No one sitting in the window seat next to me. As we were approaching the city, I snuck over to the seat next to me and searched for any signs of activity on the black landscape below. The occasional spot of orange flickering in view, probably someone stoking a fire to keep warm. The slight moonlit glow off the clouds reminded me of those chilly October evenings back home. Only passed by two police checkpoints on the way to the hotel, the officers standing next to their Chevrolet pickups, fires keeping them warm.

The monikers “participant”, “facilitator”, and “Equitas staff” seem of less value in this surrounding, replaced more genuinely by “Equitas family”. The designation is not mine, but everyone else's, and it speaks to to level of comfort, solidarity, and care this group has for each other. Getting started for this workshop was like putting on an old shoe. Clumsy introductions replaced by affectionate smiles, “My name is” replaced by “I miss you”, a handshake replaced by a hug.

Being here together is nothing short of remarkable given the descent into chaos that Iraq has suffered over the last few years. The group shared their elation at holding this training of trainers here in Erbil, an expression that solidly established a positive workshop environment and filled everyone with a “Let's go!” attitude.

The facilitation team had prepared for the workshop the day before. This TOT marked the first time I attend a workshop where I was not part of the facilitators' briefing. I was relieved to see I was not needed. Granted, there were a couple of facilitation techniques I would have done differently, but my contribution would not have significantly made things any better. There were a few times where I felt the discussion could have been managed more effectively, or that we could have gone more in-depth, or the synthesis of the issues discussed could have been done better, but in the end, we ended up where I thought we would be the end of the day.

The debrief at 6 PM, minutes after the close of the day, did surprise me. Three participants volunteered to attend, and despite the burden that colleagues had in translating for me, there was a lively discussion on what we had done on that first day (and what we could improve). That lasted about an hour, then we moved from sitting on our chairs in a circle to sitting around a table, and at that point I distanced myself and let the briefing for Day 2 go on without me. I stayed outside the circle and piped up when necessary. After almost three hours and nothing to eat except Salam's Galaxy chocolates (a lifesaver), the group ended the meeting, everything set for the following day. And so far, the day has been a success, and they are working in small groups to discuss HRE projects they will develop and undertake.

Last night brought a welcome opportunity to get out of the hotel. Two friends from our host organization took two of the facilitators and I out for dinner. We drove past a busy market street a few minutes away from the hotel. Despite the cold, people – well OK, almost exclusively men – were walking about, sitting down for a bite to eat, talking on their mobiles or chatting with friends. Most shop vendors stood outside their shops in the cold drizzle. Restaurants with high ceilings and harsh fluorescent lights welcoming the prospective client with images of fish, meat and vegetables; clothing shop owners standing next to their aged mannequins standing slightly crookedly in the display windows, offering the window shoppers a glance at the latest fashions, or at least what's available now. Past the market and onto main roads, driving by elementary schools with walls on which were painted pleasant scenes of children playing or learning together. Keep on going past a mosque, its minarets standing out in this exceptionally flat city. Finally, our destination, a restaurant with the kitchen visible from the street. To call it a kitchen is not entirely accurate. On the left wall sat 6 tandoor ovens, half of them sweltering. On the right was a small pool filled with dinner: a selection of fish to choose from. One of the young men working there scooped up our choices, dumped them in plastic baskets both green and pink, and then we sat in the dining area and waited while the fish met their inevitable demise.

Our hosts gave us a history of Erbil, one of the oldest continuously habited cities in the world. Waiting for the fish to cook gave us enough time to discuss the history of the Kurds, their traditions, their links to and distinctions from the rest of Iraq, their location and relative peaceful environment, their position related to elections, their relationships with Sunnis and Shi'as, and the discrimination and human rights violations they faced under Saddam's rule. (The fish took a long time to cook.)

Earlier this morning, having breakfast with two participants, one of them telling me her teenage son was kidnapped a few years ago. Taken away from his home, a 15 year-old child kidnapped and abused. The ransom was a preposterous amount, but the mother called upon the generosity of family and friends to raise the required amount and give it to the kidnappers. Her son was released after 10 days. I cannot, simply cannot imagine the feeling of having a child taken away from you. I think of my own children being taken away and the thought shakes me to the core. The mother told me of others who are not so fortunate, the kidnapped children being killed despite the ransom being paid. Both participants agreed that the human rights situation has deteriorated since we saw each other last in May 2008. While that's hard to imagine, impunity and corruption are growing hand in hand with efforts at building democracy. There are more problems than that, but perhaps that can be a story for another time.

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