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More Alike Than Different

One of the most interesting things about my job is the places I get to do it in. Global public health/humanitarian work is, by definition, well . . . global. And if the places I live and work aren’t your average vacation spots, they more than make up for it in other ways, from the archetypal ridiculous to the sublime.

Take Kurdistan. The struggle of the Kurdish people in northern Iraq is fairly well known, and the autonomous Kurdish Region of Iraq (KRI to those of us who live here) came into being in 1970. Its existence was sanctioned again in 2005 in the Iraqi constitution.

There are a large number of Kurds scattered across this region between the Zagros and Taurus mountain ranges, with large populations in southern Turkey, eastern Syria, and western Iraq. However, our region in northern Iraq is the only recognized self-governing province.

This isn’t to say that there isn’t tension between Erbil, the capital of KRI, and Baghdad, the capital of Iraq proper. There is. Oh, man, is there ever; particularly after KRI held a non-binding independence referendum in September of 2017—against all recommendations from both the national and international authorities. This referendum had actually been planned for years, and was supposed to have been held in 2014. However, with the rise of ISIS, it was put on hold, as the Kurdish forces fought with Iraqi forces against this common enemy.

I’m simplifying here. This is nowhere near as cut and dried as I’m making it seem, because all the players here are human—unless the Daleks have slipped in somewhere—and humans are inherently messy and complex. Suffice to say, the referendum was held; 92 % of Kurds voted for independence, and Baghdad wasn’t happy. This political posturing had many results, and now in March 2019, things are still tense.

So where is KRI and where do I live?

I live right there outside of Dahuk, on the outskirts of our Yezidi village, shown here as a little blue dot. It's about a 20 minute walk to camp. My housemates and I have made it a game to count how many people pull over and ask if we need help, or a ride. Rarely is it less than two or three.

Women walking here, just to walk, is definitely not a thing. Even within the camp, our organization’s van makes the rounds picking up women to bring to our programs. Of course, the internal prohibition against getting in cars with men you don’t know is very strong, so rarely do we accept these rides, unless we know the driver. The aforementioned van driver will sometimes take it upon himself to drive our route if it is raining, looking to pick us up. In this case, it would be very rude to refuse, even if I actually love walking in the rain.

That, I think, is one of the most challenging things about living here: negotiating the politics of politeness and navigating cultural expectations against safety and personal autonomy. The Yezidi and Kurdish cultures are highly patriarchal. As an experienced humanitarian worker, this is not new for me or my team, but it's always there, influencing everything we do. In our Yezidi community, both in our village and in our camp, many girls still do not go to school. Many women are illiterate. Child marriage is still prevalent.

One of our beneficiaries, a young woman pregnant with her second child, shared that every time she had intercourse, she passed out. She has never been present in her body at the conclusion of the sexual act. She had been married at 13. There has never been consent in her physical relationship, but she did not feel this was unusual.

Me inside our clinic with our clinic manager, Waheeda.

We also sometimes have mothers in the clinic who cannot attend their appointments regularly, as their husbands won’t allow it. This could be a power play, or it is also often the case that they are simply too busy cleaning and looking after other children, and the husbands do not see the value in regular antenatal care. However, we have had definite instances of domestic violence and/or emotional abuse. Some of these issues predate the genocide, certainly, but others are a stress response to very difficult conditions.

If it is the latter, we offer counseling for the women and a referral for men’s counseling at other organizations, as we do not offer this. The stigma around mental health is still intense here, as it is all over the world. I do think it is getting better though, and camp residents are beginning to see the value in counseling and other psychological services.

My housemates (Lara, Global Motherhood Initiative’s Clinical Director; Martina, an Italian-American psychologist working with Free Yezidi Foundation; and an assortment of short-term volunteers) and I are certainly not the only Western women working in the camps in Kurdistan, but we are the only ones in our camp, and certainly the only ones living in our village. We are here, working alone, without the protection of men, and this is . . . unusual, to say the least. We get a lot of stares.

A Global Motherhood Initiative beneficiary, in traditional dress, being interviewed about her experiences after the genocide for Iraqi TV.

What we don’t get a lot of is harassment. I get more catcalls walking down the street in Seattle or London—two places I consider home—than I EVER have here. Now, my Kurdish isn’t good enough to know what the men we pass are saying about us. It could be vile. But I know what they are shouting at us from cars or from the side of the road, and that is nothing. It's quiet. It's, dare I say, restful.

We do talk a lot about it, with our community, as people are definitely curious. Our landlord’s mother, a spry woman of indeterminate age, can’t quite understand how my husband “lets” me do this work. “It's just so different,” she kept remarking one day, as we shared a holiday meal with the family. “Here, women stay with their men. Unless they are captured.”

Yes, we agreed, there were many differences between us. But, there are so many similarities. I pulled out my phone and shared pictures of my beautiful, twenty-something daughter, and she did the same, tearing up as she expressed how much she missed her children, some of whom were now living in Germany.

Later that afternoon, she received FaceTime and WhatsApp calls from this so-distant but so-loved family.

“Happy Eid. I miss you. I wish we were together,” she repeated over and over, holding her family together through her words and her love, in exactly the same way as my own mother does when I call her on Mother’s Day or Easter from across the world.

Again, I’m reminded that all of us little humans have more in common than we do not. We just have to make the space to recognize it. And we can do that intentionally and safely, making home wherever we happen to be.
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