The young surgical resident had kept his grades up all through school, ignoring the war as best he could in order to qualify for medical school. “It was bad, horrible, friends and colleagues were killed and kidnapped before your eyes. What do you do? You must live. You must go to work, to school…go have fun.”
He shifts a little in his seat when asked about the Saddam Hussein generation. “The people who grew up and reached adulthood under Saddam Hussein… they don’t know how to affect change. They – we – should have gotten rid of Saddam, but we didn’t. The factions couldn’t act together.” He stops and makes a touching gesture to his heart. “Americans had to do it for us.”
He is hopeful but unsure. “Now these men are in power and they still can’t act to change the system. They’ve never seen another way of doing things and they lack the imagination to see it differently. We need a new system… money being spent on healthcare and equipment and training. We’ve got oil – money isn’t the problem.”
He’s right. Technical training in Iraq is good, but very little of it has been applied. “We’ve lost a generation; we don’t know how to use what we’ve got.” He looks at a little boy in the ICU and laughs tragically, “I’m afraid that we will have to wait for that generation to die for things to change.”
NADWA QARAGHOLI CAN’T WAIT THAT LONG.
Originally from Baghdad, she splits her time between Iraq and the United States where she works as a liaison between often-rival directorates within the new Iraqi government and various Western NGO’s serving the country since the American military withdrawal. With a near lethal combination of kindness and determination, she has handled the often byzantine logistics required of American pediatric cardiac and oncology teams who conduct medical and training missions with Iraqi doctors in cities like Nasiriya, Najaf and Sulaimani in Kurdistan. Internal pressures take their toll too – programs in predominately Sunni areas like Fallujah and Tikrit have shut down over the worsening security concerns.
“We’ve lost a generation; we don’t know how to use what we’ve got”
But in the Shi’a south, there are signs of stability and new construction after a decade of war. In Nasiriya, a new medical center will replace the battle-scared one. Further out from the city center looms large, walled homes rising up in a riot of colors.
Beyond those conspicuous signs of wealth and rebuilding, the landscape turns bleak. The sight of goats and sheep feeding on piles of waste on the side of the street and down reeking alleys is simply a part of urban life now in places like Basra and Nasiriya. Beyond the cities, in the thick, swampy reeds fed by the Euphrates and Shatt al-Arab Rivers, the sight of people living in the stinking swamps amid the whirl of mosquitos have become commonplace.
Ms. Qaragholi’s frustration is mounting at what she calls a “serious, painful and non-civilized problem.” It is an issue that the some two billion a week US spent in Iraq cannot help. It is a problem so simple that there is literally not enough money in the world to fix it. So Living Light International (LLI), the non-profit Ms. Qaragholi founded in memory of her father, has no budget and accepts no monetary aid. Its donations are taken in the form of services – and in doing so eliminated the kickbacks, bribes and other forms of corruption that typically plague aid operations. Her fight has not gone unnoticed. In November of 2013, she traveled to Paris to receive the Takreen award for best humanitarian services in the Arab World.
To call LLI’s latest project “grass roots” is to not go far enough – the initiative is audacious in its simplicity. Indeed the name of the program is “Seeds of Hope” which is apt, because if it doesn’t work, very little else in Iraq will. After spending eight consecutive months working and traveling through Fallujah, Amarah, Tikrit Basra and Nasiriya, Ms. Qaragholi came to the agonizing conclusion that the fundamental problem was a disconnect, a deep and long history of distrust between the government and the people it purported to represent.
THE TOXIC RELATIONSHIP runs throughout the political system and manifests itself, poetically enough, as garbage – pretty much everywhere – at street level. Citizens throw garbage and waste everywhere. The municipality, funded by oil revenue that technically belongs to the people, should pick up the garbage, but doesn’t. What is the point when people throw their waste everywhere? So the vicious cycle revolves with no end in sight while the garage stacks up and poisons any faith that the people and the state might ever have for one another.
Which leads to a problem much more toxic than rotting garbage: People without a stake in one community will always find a place in another. “We need a new system,” the young doctor said, “the factions can’t work together… They don’t know how to affect change.”
The first thing to do, Qaragholi decided, was to plant a garden – actually, five of them. It’s not as abstract as it sounds. The simple act of clearing a space, planting and maintaining something as simple, yet important, to traditional Arab culture as the walled garden required the breaking of at least a few of the vicious cycles that have kept Iraq on the brink of civil war for nearly seven years and heaps of stinking garage everywhere.
So in January of 2014, Seeds of Hope identified five sites around Nasiriya and Basra for cleanup and afforestation in order to create walled gardens within the local schools. LLI partnered with local ministries and municipal directorates to supply materials, along with badges and tee shirts, and coordinated media coverage. At each of the participating schools, at-risk and poor children created and maintained a school garden for which they were responsible, along with partnering with local government to help maintain municipal gardens.
UNDER THE SUPERVISION of two teachers from each school the students rotated in and out of leadership roles within the program and were taught relevant computer skills. The students were not told what to do, only what needed to happen: To create and maintain the best garden as well as keeping their community clean in partnership with the local authorities. The children were forced to think, coordinate, make a plan, and carry it out. They were involved in the community and the competition, for best garden and cleanest neighborhood, was on. To the winner went the promise of being on television for an awards ceremony.
Within the capacity of the environmental program, the children were taught marketable computer skills – with the intention of connecting with other school children across the globe. Through these bridge building programs, including learning English on the computer, Seeds of Hope will facilitate understanding and communication with other communities.
“At-risk and poor children created and maintained a school garden for which they were responsible”
The children planted more than five walled gardens in Basra and Nasiriya. In addition to the empowerment through computer and leadership training, participating children have formed a football league for the boys and sewing classes for the girls to provide structured community involvement for marginalized youth. The social aspects of the sports, sewing and computer literacy are crucial to the success of the program. Seeds of Hope seeks to focus on the young who are more likely to act on a future with options than from a hardened past, to do that, they have to want to be there.
The result was strengthening the tenuous connection between the people and their government by instilling a sense of civic responsibility with achievable set goals. In doing so, the program addressed, effectively yet indirectly, the children most at risk for crime and radicalism by utilizing a set of age appropriate awards (media attention) to invest in the community at an early age. The parents were brought into the program and the children learned marketable computer skills along with management techniques. Future programs will add English classes. For the children, they played football and sewed. They had fun. If nothing else, it gave them a sense of focus at a time when it is sorely needed.
THE PEOPLE OF IRAQ have proven over and over again that they want a vibrant and peaceful democracy – one that represents the best of this ancient culture. During the elections of 2010, Al Qaeda was out in full force with suicide bombers, but it didn’t keep the voters at home. The 2014 elections, though flawed, were largely peaceful. The serious turnout whispered the refrain of “althryr” – liberation.
The sectarian politics currently plaguing Iraq are, to the children caught in their jaws, senseless nightmares, terrifying in their randomness. The warring factions are kept alive because they serve a purpose – giving hopeless people something in which to believe. What Seeds of Hope set out to address was that people, especially children, want to belong.
By investing in at-risk children, including them in the community, and rewarding them for the investment, along with providing leadership training and marketable skills, Seeds of Hope hopes to counteract the sense of detachment from its government that feeds the factionalism that has torn apart the Iraqi people. It will not stop the current civil war, but it might stop the next one.