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Stories from the Ground

Updated: Aug 3, 2020

In August 2014, ISIS launched a brutal genocide against the Yazidis in Sinjar, Iraq, leading to more than 65% of their population being displaced. Today, many continue to face an uncertain future as internally displaced persons (IDPs) living in refugee camps in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. This community is where Heidi has been based, in partnership with Habibi International

Chamishku Camp - one of the largest camps in the area with around 5,000 families

Early this year, Heidi was helping to coordinate a couple of medical teams: one holding mobile clinics at various villages and camps, and another performing cleft palate surgeries - a procedure inaccessible to most IDPs and refugees. Little Y was one such IDP who had an operation done. Previously, Y had had four surgeries, three of which had failed, and the family had sold many possessions to finance them. Four months on, this one has been a great success. During a follow-up visit, Y told Heidi and her team: “Now no one will laugh at me anymore and I can go to school!”

Post-surgery follow-up visits with little Y

Navigating Covid-19

Then, Covid-19 struck neighboring Iran big time. Iraq quickly shut its land and air borders (they remain largely shut till today), many medical projects lined up had to be cancelled, and several international NGO workers had to leave. But this gave Heidi some time to hold team-building activities with her wonderfully diverse local team, especially after a very intense period of surgeries and clinics. She was also able to conduct staff training sessions with them.

You haven't experienced Kurdish culture if you haven't gone for a picnic!

In late February, schools were closed, and in mid-March, an extensive lockdown kicked in, as Covid cases started to surface in Iraq. Camps were closed off and movement restricted for the IDPs living there. This threw another spanner in Heidi’s plans. But she decided to take the chance to double down on language learning and take a course on community development, while continuing to do various administrative and planning work for the NGO, strengthening their systems and structures. Since she could not enter the camps physically, she also started experimenting with using technology to deliver programs. 

Zoom-ing with friends from around the world

Similarly undeterred, during the lockdown, Tahseen, a young Yazidi IDP, rounded up a small group of his siblings and neighbors' children and gave them English lessons for an hour a day - the only hour they were allowed to leave their tents!

(Picture courtesy of Tahseen)

Other IDPs spent time with their families, or like H (below), transformed their tents into the most amazing garden wonderland!

Yet others spent time studying. K, an IDP with cerebral palsy, has never been able to go to formal school. In spite of the challenges, she managed to learn English on her own, and spent many lockdown days reading the dictionary, reviewing what she had learnt, watching YouTube videos to learn about the brain, and writing reports - all in English, no less.

K (center) is learning how to use her new laptop - a gift from a physiotherapist and her friends.

Providing Healthcare Support 

As the lockdown wound down about two months later, activities gradually resumed, albeit with precautions, such as limiting gatherings to small groups, donning the necessary personal protective equipment (or PPE), and working shorter hours. This included the reopening of Habibi International’s dental clinic, which provides pro bono services to patients from various IDP camps as well as nearby towns and villages. It is anchored by Dr Hassan, a bright young Yazidi IDP who graduated at the top of his class at dental school.

Dr Hassan sees a patient, together with dental assistant, N

Heidi and her local team were also able to run preventive health sessions for IDP women. Yazidi women traditionally bind their infants extremely tightly (see below). However, this may lead to hip dysplasia and increased risk in joint dislocation, resulting in the children needing leg braces or surgeries.

The team thus taught mothers and mothers-to-be about the issue and how to properly swaddle their babies to avoid complications altogether. They also took this teaching to social media for greater reach.

Conducting awareness and swaddling classes with Yazidi IDP women

Given the shortage of PPE across Iraq, another of Heidi’s IDP friends, together with a group of other IDP women, moved from sewing dresses to making masks for their own camp. They produced about 40,000 over 2-3 months!

Immersing in Local Culture

But for Heidi, one of the biggest upsides of being one of the only foreigners in her town and living with a local couple was that she got to be completely immersed in Iraqi culture: from joining the women in the kitchen (and housework!) and mastering the ins and outs of Iraqi-style hosting, to making tons of home visits, to gaining a greater depth of understanding of the local psyche. Along with learning to do life with the locals, Heidi also needed to rely on them a lot more.

Learning to make dolma - a traditional and much-loved local dish

Heidi reflects: “When it comes to cross-cultural work, I’ve always made it a point to be before I do, to put relationships before results. But during the lockdown in particular, I found myself struggling to come to terms with being restrained, being so close yet so far. But I was reminded time and time again that the development of communities is a long-term endeavor, beginning with deep learning on the part of the outsider and building trust. For me personally, it was also a time to lay aside big plans and just focus on loving the one.”

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