There was a lot of anxiety around this trip to Kurdistan. The UK Government advice was not to travel due to the ongoing political situation in Iraq. It was a struggle to find insurance, and our trustees had many questions around the value of the trip compared to the risks.
What I found when I arrived however, was very different. I felt welcome, I felt safe and ultimately, I felt excited to be in country that was very close to our heart as a charity. Trips like this are so important, and I knew that despite all the reservations it had to go ahead. This wasn’t about being stubborn and thinking we knew better, or that the advice didn’t apply to us. If we cancelled trips such as this, I felt it set a precedent that would define us very differently as a charity moving forward. I won’t allow us to be the charity that supports at arm’s length. We can’t allow our partners, friends to take the risks and do the work on the ground whilst we do the easy bit and send money and ask for feedback and updates. That isn’t who we set out to be and it isn’t who we will be in the future.
The risks are real. In the past month a number of ISIS members were captured in the surrounding area of Sulaymaniyah. There are over 2 million refugees in Iraqi Kurdistan, making up nearly 30% of the total population of the country. For many of them their time in the camp is all they have known. When needs are great, stress levels are high. I don’t intend to glamorize the risks – not once during my time there did I feel unsafe, unless you include the 40degree heat that I struggled to acclimatize to!!
I loved spending time in the ‘Hope for Communities’ center. Positioned just inside one of the old camps. We drove around the community to get sense of what people’s lives looked like. The UN had invested in roads, there was schools (although only open for a few hours each day), small shops and children playing outside – a community had been built out of nothing.
The center itself was amazing – and children appeared out of nowhere ready to learn, do activities and interact with staff. It wasn’t sad, it wasn’t bleak, it was full of joy, laughter and hope. That is the story we have always tried to tell – the challenges that these children face speak for themselves – the negative images are all over the news. We always want to be part of the solution and working alongside Hope for Communities, we definitely are. The children spoke to me about their hobbies, they showed me the library, they tried (and failed) to teach me some Kurdish words. They shared their aspiration’s to be doctors/ nurses/ teachers - inspired by the adults around them at the center.
I mentioned before that for some children, life in these camps is all they have known, and the reality is, it maybe all they know and see in the future. For some It’s hard to see a break in the cycle. I met one boy who had dropped out of school – he was clever, confident and had a great personality – when I asked him why he no longer went to school he said he didn’t see the value in it. He is now working in his uncle’s restaurant washing dishes, with one day off every two weeks. Schools are open for three hours a day but the teachers are not being paid regularly, they are underfunded and out dated. The generation that can change the future of the country are being let down by other people’s decisions.
We spent a day with the teachers from the center. We told them that they matter! We had fun and laughed a lot. We explored topics such as the impact of trauma on learning and development. We shared ideas around behavior management and building relationships with students. I will never fail to be inspired by teachers who work in the conditions that these guys do.
The trip itself was a success. I left feeling like I had done what I intended to do. To invest some time into our partners, to strengthen relationships and to get a better understanding of the community and how we could continue to support in the future. We always want to stand with our partners and show them we are with them and will continue to walk this walk with them.
But its not enough….. I am struggling after coming home to gather my thoughts. I’m struggling with the fact that I can get on a plane and return to ‘normality’, and only a few hours behind me such need and poverty exists. Even though it is masked with smiles and laughs – there are children living in situations that they don’t deserve. Their lives are worth much more.
I also leave with a feeling that the work of KnownValuedLoved has to be more impactful, it has to go further. We need to be more active! And anyone who knows me will know that’s it is feelings like this that started this charity! I don’t know what’s coming next but I know it’s going to be good!!!