Sophia's Peace Work

Wednesday, June 23, 2004

I had a good meeting today and a bad one.

I've been seeing posters around town that have been put up the a group called the Iraqi Free Observers ... the one that caught my attention was a poster about the concrete blast walls that are everywhere around town. Each section of these walls costs between $800 and $1200 ... The group estimated that there are over 230 of these sections set up around a typical building in Iraq. That's a lot of dough being spent on something like concrete and rebar. The poster started by saying "Concrete Shield ... Until When? ... An Actual Obstacle in the Face of Reconstructing Iraq"... I saw the poster right after speaking to an advisor to the Ministry of Agriculture who had told me pretty much the same thing, but I wasn't sure if I should believe him or not. When I saw the groups poster, I knew I had to talk to them.

I sat down with three members of the group today and was not disappointed ... they are a group of young professionals from a wide variety of fields. They've formed a kind of watchdog group and have put out three posters so far, using only their own resources. One concerned the blast walls I just mentioned. Another, featuring colorful graphics, focused on the take over by the American Military of an island on the Tigris that was an amusement park. It stated "Where are Iraqi's Children Playing in Holiday!?" The third poster featured bomb-carrying, cartoon terrorists entering Iraq and pointed to the lack of secure borders which had led to an increase in the drug trade and smuggling, the spread of Aids, the importation of expired foods, and the deaths of innocent people because of terrorism.

They were interested in the Tigris River Boat Project and wanted to know how they could help. This blew my mind because on more than one occasion I have been faced with a group that wants to know how I can best transfer money to their pocket. After meeting with the Iraqi Free Observers, I ran off to another meeting with an Environmental NGO that proceeded to do just that.

"We have lots of projects," said Dr. Al Shakarchi, an Environmental Engineer who retired in 1994 and now heads the newly formed Green Iraq Organization, "We just need the funding to do them. We are ready to work with you. How can you help us?"

Shaking my head, I can only say what I have said a dozen times before, "I am just one person, working as a volunteer for a small peace organization. I do not have any money to give you. All I can try to do is to connect you to groups working on similar issues in the West and help get you some exposure so that you can potentially attract support in the future."

Dr. Al Shakarchi was clearly disappointed in me.

Still I invited both groups to participate in the Tigris River trip and to join me for a pre-survey of the upper river on Friday. But I had to agree with my translator, Mazin, who said, after we were driving away, "That first group gives me hope that there are still people working in Iraq to make it a better place. But this last group, I don't know. Are they really trying to help Iraq or just help themselves?"

I have written about this issue before but it's worth repeating again: Westerners with western notions of what an NGOs (Non-governmental Organizations ... i.e. Non-Profit Organizations) should be like (i.e. grassroots, activist-oriented, and often peopled by young, dedicated individuals) are going to be disappointed. Iraqis have no tradition, knowledge or understanding of such organizations. Everything in Iraq has always been government-sponsored (or repressed). Research and credentials in a safe, academic environment tend to be emphasised more than individualistic, action-oriented projects that push the comfort levels of the powers that be.

If you ask an environmentalist in the West why they are working in such issues, you'll get a long story complete with vivid recreations of childhood romps through pristine forests. Or perhaps the horror-stricken details of a spiritual revelation set in motion upon seeing some environmental disaster. You ask that same question to an Iraqi environmentalist, as I have done on several occasions, and you'll be lucky if you get, "Because I like the environment."

It's not because they can't trump your environmental disaster story by a hundred fold and it's not because Iraq isn't (or can't be) a beautiful place. I suspect it is because these people are so trodden upon, so beaten down and tired, and so hopeless in their outlook for the future, that they simply don't have the energy to wax poetic about their love for the environment. They are struggling just to survive and they are working in the only way they know how.


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