Is a name enough? Probably not, as in the weeks to come I’m here to give my point of view on what’s happening around us in Kurdistan. However, it might help to know a little about me, and what has bought me to Kurdistan – certainly it’ll give you a start that I didn’t have when I arrived here over two and a half years ago.
I’m an English teacher, currently instructing adults in Erbil, although I’ve only been here for a year. Before that I was in Sulaymaniyah, so I have a limited understanding of both cities – although I’d be the first to admit that I’m less integrated with the local community here. The expat life has a stronger gravity in Erbil, especially in Ainkawa, and I felt more assimilated in the east. Whatever I express here, I ultimately express from a certain point of ignorance, so please feel free to educate me in the comments section below – I’ve been subjected to enough people’s opinions about Kurdistan on The Guardian website (based in the UK) to know that feelings run high when discussing this sensitive part of the world. Things are changing, at a pace that can feel giddying at times, and it’s all the serious journalists can do to keep up – most of us don’t catch every last crumb of news, especially when the headlines are of such importance.
I’m not a complete newcomer though. I’ve been here long enough to learn a little of the language. I learnt that chicken livers are referred to as ‘jigga’ when I attempted to beg a cigarette from a stall holder on Saholaka one evening. I have what we could refer to as taxi Kurdish – I can hold a respectful conversation about my home country, job and marital status, assure the driver that Kurdistan is very nice and direct him to my location. It’s now at a more advanced level than my Russian, and I was doing a great job at not learning that very well for the two years I lived in Ukraine (it was in Kyiv that I read the biography of Gertrude Bell, Desert Queen, without a second thought). I’m now confident enough to cross the shasti alone, rather than cloaking an unsuspecting guide on their dasti rast. Speaking of hands, I’m a great fan of Langa, where second hand clothes shopping is a more spacious affair than the covered market of Suli. I’ve read (most of) Qil Lawrence’s Invisible Nation, the ultimate primer for the region. So, you know – I’m trying and sometimes winning, sometimes being left confused and frustrated. Whatever happens, I’m almost daily amazed.
‘Amazed’ of ‘amazing’ are popular descriptions out of the mouths of Westerners I’ve met, who’ve just recently arrived. Be they backpackers heading east or arriving from Iran with Persian Tales, or people, like me, that came to work with little previous knowledge of the place. When I phoned my mother from Russia to tell her that I’d “accepted a job in Iraq, but in the north, Kurdistan, the safe bit”, she was not convinced. In fact, I think her mind played a trick on her, because the next time I spoke to her she asked, “How are the plans for Kazakhstan coming along?” She plays cards with some other octogenarian friends a couple of times a week, and they of course muttered and tutted about danger. I’m the youngest of four, and us babies tend to get away without worrying our folks so much, and as long as I was happy, my mother was too. At the end of my first year here, my mother celebrated her 80th birthday. And what else does a middle class lady from England want on achieving such a milestone? Why of course, a trip to Iraq, but in the north, Kurdistan, the safe bit. Without hesitation I can honestly say that Kurdistan bought my mother and I closer together. She’s an incredibly open person, very interested in people from across the globe (the joke in our 1980s household was that she wouldn’t be happy if I married a white girl), and from the moment she landed and was whisked away to Akre for Newroz, to the day she departed having just spent two nights on the concrete floor of a house in the Kakayee village of Hawa, she laughed and smiled at the generosity shown and loved her chances to show her appreciation in return. It was uniquely special, and she is constantly curious about life here, and a stanch proponent of the Kurds – and like mother, like son, so am I. I find life tricky sometimes, I feel a little like a fish out of water (although not quite as hot as masgoof), but I’m always grateful to be here; I’ve never been made to feel so welcome in my life, and for that, I will love an entire people.
I push the faders on the mixing deck up to 11 and watch with a childish grin on my face as about 20 youngsters snake around the tent, led in a conga by my friend and fellow volunteer Beebo. Others throw some shapes and bust their moves to Hiya Hiya by Cheb Khaled. It’s the second weekend in a row that the end of the film has signalled the start of a brief rave.
Welcome to the RISE Foundation cinema project at Arbat camp, east of Sulaymaniyah, in the child friendly tent that I’ve nicknamed The Arbat Odeon. On Thursday and Friday afternoons, 3 o’clock sees an orderly queue of children gathered in anticipation of whatever modern or classic animated movie we have available that week; the most popular so far was Madagascar 3 with its in-your-face style and frequent chorus of I Like To Move It, It Move (it should be no surprise that this tune was the genesis of the post-picture party tradition).
So, what’s the benefit of showing young people Arabic-dubbed cartoons twice a week? Admittedly, this might appear to be insignificant, inconsequential and even a waste of funds. But the small cost of implementing this project, in unison with other NGOs working at the site, is worth every last dinar when one considers the joy given to the children and the precious few minutes their parents have to themselves. And over the course of the project, which is nearly self-sustaining, the cost will be a great deal less than $1 per child per month. Other, incidental, benefits have been seen; many of the children are learning English and love to take the opportunity to practice with a native-speaker. We are a large roster of volunteers, and it appears that meeting new adults, being able to trust and play with someone who has come there for that reason, and that reason alone, brings as many smiles as an animated bunch of penguins piloting a flying machine (if you haven’t seen the Madagascar films, you really must. Even though I didn’t understand a word of the dialogue, I loved it). On our first visit, we noticed that the majority of movie-goers were sockless, so we resolved that the following week, handing out 200 pairs of socks and many hats and scarves. At the camp, we are able to pay a small amount to four adult refugees who organise the children and help with the ‘crowd control’ once the film is running. The hope is that eventually this will be their project and we will be able to investigate and implement other ways to help. Our lead helper, Jiyan, is a teacher at the camp school. Housed in the only permanent structure on site, the school is a series of tents within a large agricultural building. Jiyan is invaluable in getting the film project to work; he musters the kids and then, once in front of the screen, he is able to marshall them with just a few words. And whilst he doesn’t join in, he clearly loves the dancing at the end. For him, it’s an opportunity to spend time enjoying the company of his charges, having fun with them, not just teaching. In this tent (loaned to us every week by STEP and UNICEF), he is able to reach out to children who have perhaps abandoned the idea of education. For some young people, damaged by loss and having seen far too much for any life, let alone their short ones, this tent is essential. Run by social workers from The Netherlands, STEP assists not only those at risk, but any youngster who wants support; it’s fair to say that to some extent every individual fleeing Syria is vulnerable.
Now that we have The Arbat Odeon running well, and our organisation is known to both the residents of the camp, and the other NGOs working there, we are starting to consider what we can do next. Already on camps around Erbil, the RISE Foundation is knee-deep in winterisation schemes, building drainage channels and gravelling secondary roads – improving conditions and providing work for some of the people living there, engaging with the community. Unfortunately at Arbat, we cannot begin something like this, as the camp is moving across the road to a permanent settlement with concrete standings and better amenities. The move was meant to take place before winter, but as with a lot of building work, there have been delays. In the first month of the new year, UNHCR assures me that the place will be fit for purpose. We will know what is required when the move has taken place. In the meantime, we have identified another group of people that need assistance. Whilst there are over 3,000 settled in the Arbat camp, the UNHCR estimates that there might be as many as 22,000 urban refugees in Sulaymaniyah. Working with a Kurdish friend of mine, who himself was once a refugee and has experience of running programs that integrate newcomers with their host cities and towns, we aim to establish a weekly event that will allow people from the different communities to come together and share their experiences. We have a strong idea of what we want to do, and I hope in the future I will be able to bring you more good news from a different project. In the meantime, I’d like to thank everyone who has helped, either through the RISE Foundation of some other project. And to those of you celebrating, Happy Christmas!