Ask the Aid Worker in Iraq

So I’m working on a USAID ( funded project in Iraq. I came here last June and was here until October. I then went home for awhile and now I’m back working on a different project.

I see a big difference from the early days after the war when cowboys ruled the land. Back then we would travel all over the country by ourselves, take some pretty big risks, and pretty much ignore a lot of rules. Since those days, a second generation of expat has arrived.

Now, security concerns have caught up to the international community. Things are moving more slowly, people worry about crossing their t’s and dotting their i’s more these days. Last summer there was this feeling of urgency to get things up and running no matter what that meant.

I understand why that has happened and I’m not criticizing the people working here, that’s just how I see it. As one of the people here earlier I really feel that I’ve stayed at campus too long and a lot of my peers have graduated and moved on.

In general, my biggest complaint about media coverage here is that it is never nuanced enough. Stories are either saying everything is a mess or everything is bad and it just isn’t that way.

So write me your questions and I’ll try to answer them based on my experience. Mostly I’m just tired and lonely so write

What is the media getting wrong?

How do the Iraqis view you?

Do you think the country will be ready on June 30 to be pushed out of the nest? Will you be staying after June 30?

And finally, THANK YOU!!! Whatever else, you can say you saw the birth of a free nation. Wow.

Mostly what drives me crazy of the media is that it is so lazy. Anytime there is a bombing, or other big incident, they do their live report with this one mosque in the background. Well, that mosque is literally 20 yards from the Palestine and Sheraton hotels where they all stay. They send their local staff out to get footage and stand their in their flak jackets not one minute’s walk from their hotels. You just can’t get a substantive feel for a place like that, it’s cookie cutter journalism.

As for what Iraqis think. It’s really hard to say. In the North, the Kurds are very positive. In some parts of the south they are less so. Sometimes driving through a community I look at these faces and I have no idea what they think of it all.

I do think that the most Iraqis realize that the US can’t leave now, that we have to stay until some kind of stable regime is in place. I think Iraqis would be much more comfortable with a UN intervention than this US effort. If the US had built a coalition with UN support, I think the resistance would get less support or passive compliance from the community.

Whatever is set up June 30th will not be able to exist without a massive US presence. There is no legitimacy being built for a transitional government. Whatever it is will look a lot like what we have now, with some changes to window dressing. That doesn’t mean there won’t be a legitimate Iraqi goverment here, just that I don’t think it will be here this summer.

I hope I’m doing something worthwhile. You know how jobs are, most of your time seems to be figuring out how to get around obstacles so you can actually get to the work.

Is it possible the reporters are not allowed to get closer than the mosque, so they don’t interfere with the rescue workers?

What exactly do you do there?

No, they can pretty much go wherever. The mosque provides a nice backdrop for whatever they are talking about. If you watch FOX or BBC, look for it, it is in just about any live shot. CNN has a similar shot they use. It’s just I see a lot of sound bites, without a lot of depth and I see it across the board.

I’m working on a civil society program. Currently I’m trying to help an Iraqi organization of disabled people to host a series of conferences. We hope to create a national network of organization of disabled people to advocate policy, share tactics. etc. It’s part of an overall project to create a sense of a civic life, we are trying to create networks in a lot of different areas like education, health, etc.

Before that I was here working on an education project to repair schools, supply schools and train teachers. I was sent out to locate properties, open offices and procure equipment.

I’m not staying past May, I’m just feeling about done and I miss my wife terribly. Plus I’m starting to feel like maybe I’m running out of luck and it’s time to go home. ;j

I didn’t mean to add that smilie, don’t know how that happened :smack:

Wow, madmonk, you’re doing such a cool thing! So many of us sit on our butts and argue back and forth about what should be being done, but you’re out there actually doing something. You rock.

How did you get involved with this organization? Do you work for them full-time, going to various places throughout the world, where needed, or did you just sign up to help out in Iraq? Do you speak the local language or do you need to use an interpreter? What do you do for fun (if there’s any to be had there) or entertainment? Have you made any friends amongst the locals?

I’ve been working on international development projects for about 8 years. I have an undergrad degree in Russian Studies and an MA in international relations, so I’m lucky to have a job at all :slight_smile:

I’ve worked for the company I work for now for about 2 years. I spent a lot of time in the former Soviet Union, and then Kosovo. I’ve been with my current employer about 2 years. I’m based in DC, but I go out on medium length (2-4 month) assigments. Mostly I help out with the operational aspect.

Fun is a bit hard to come by. We work six day weeks with Fridays off. On the project last summer we lived and worked in the same building so it’s pretty easy to just keep working. We had a good bunch, though and we would play cards, watch DVDs and go out to dinner. It’s possible to move around Baghdad if you are low key and careful about neighborhoods. We lived in the community and knew our neighbors.

I’m working on a different project now (same employer) and this approach is much more rigid. We travel everywhere in these armed convoys of white suvs looking like an occupying force. We also aren’t allowed to leave the green zone, or our hotel without this ridiculous security presence. It’s much harder to relax and much harder to make connections with the community. Personally, I think it is the wrong approach, but this is a huge project with dozens of expats, so what I think doesn’t matter as much.

I have some Iraqi friends from my project last summer and I work with a good group of people from Iraq now. A lot of these people are truly committed to rebuilding their country and take considerable risks to do it. The insurgents have targeted Iraqis working for aid projects.

Iraqis who have heard of impending attacks on us have risked their lives to warn us. It’s not reported enough, imho, about Iraqis who are working hard for their society. I find the people great. They have a strong sense of etiquette and hospitality.

Anyway, I’m off to bed. I’ll check in tomorrow. Thanks everyone for your kind words. I was kind of down today so I was glad to have some contact (I might just have to cut a check for $4.95). Good night.

Thanks so much for your response, madmonk. You have such a fascinating career! How long have you been married? How does your wife feel about you being gone for such long stretches? My husband works nights, so 5 days a week we see each other for all of 3 hours, and I miss him an awful lot. I can’t imagine if he were gone for months at a time. How much longer will you be in Iraq on this project?

WRT the project, what do you feel has been your greatest accomplishment so far? What do you hope to achieve before you leave?

I’m off to bed now, myself. I hope you slept well.

You’re doing something worthwhile, there, madmonk - you should be proud.

It’s sad that security has become tighter over time - I can follow the “we’re not cowboys anymore”-reasoning, but it must be frustrating nonetheless. Especially if it gets in the way of making contacts with the Iraqis - that seems to be an important part of the mission.

Your description of the media reminded me of something from a Doonesbury strip…

Stay safe!

Thanks for the kind words, guys.

I don’t speak Arabic or Kurdish. I have to communicate with translators, although a lot of college educated Iraqis speak English. When I was here after the war, I found a contractor who spoke Russian, from a Soviet era military exchange and we were able to get by.

I’ve been with my wife for four years. We’re not “officially” married, but we consider each other husband and wife. We’ll get married this year, to make all the parents happy.

She does the same kind of work, but spends most of her time in DC. We’re looking to find a posting together overseas. We toyed with the idea of coming here together, but it is getting too dangerous. For a while, it looked like it was stabilizing, but now it is worse than ever.

Being apart so much is getting too hard. I feel like I’m being abusive every time I call home and she has to take care of something like car repairs, getting the dog to the vet, etc. I just feel like I’m not doing my share of the heavy lifing in the relationship. Six months apart is nothing to what these military people have to endure. Deep down, I think the fear isn’t that your family can’t get along without you, it’s that they can.

I think the thing I’m most proud of is the project described in this article:

I’m not quoted in the article, but my boss is. I worked on getting these kits to schools and it was just one headache after another. It’s really nothing and doesn’t make a blip in the needs of the people here, but I have this daydream that some day an Iraqi parent is telling his kids about the hard times after the war and how they were given these student kits, the kind of memory my parents have about the depression, and they are all sittting in a comfortable home in a stable country. Corny corny corny.

As for what I hope to accomplish between now and May, I’m working on these civic dialogue conferences. If I can help get a few more under my belt and maybe plant a few seeds I’ll feel good about my work.

Do you have any sense of what morale is like among the soldiers? Do we need more soldiers on the ground?

What is the sense you get about relations between the Sunnis and Shiites? Any real chance of a true democracy in the foreseeable (i.e., 5-10 years) future?

Any sense of how average Iraqis feel about the suicide attacks? I would guess that, ideally, they want us to pack up and get out but also realize it’s just not feasible.

Also, let me add my thanks for the work you’re doing. Getting Saddam out of power was obviously a good thing, but having regular (non-military) Americans interacting with regular Iraqis is also a very good thing.

Stay safe.

I don’t interact too much with the military now. Right after the war I worked with some military units quite closely. I can’t say too much about morale, but I will say that the military people here are really squared away.

I think there probably should be more troops on the ground, but more importantly, I think the UN should have a predominate role. I don’t think the UN is a magic bullet, but it wouldgive the occupation a legitimacy that I think is lacking in the eyes of many Iraqis. So I think we need more troops, but from a variety of countries and all wearing UN blue. I think the bulk of these troops would necessarily come from the US. IMHO, this is why the insurgence attacked the UN, because they understood that as long as they can frame the conflict as between them and the US they can rely on some support from communities.

I think a lot of Iraqis are ambivlent about the occupation. Many are glad that Saddam is gone, of course, but the chaos after the fall of his regime undermined the good news of his departure. Suddenly, Iraqis were saying that at least with Saddam you had order (I actually had people tell me this). I think the post-war planning for Iraq was bungled and did a lot of harm to feelings towards the occupation. But almost everyone seems to understand that if we left now, the country would plunge into a civil war.

There are some real tensions under the surface between Sunni, Shia, Kurds and Turkme and they run deep. Look at Kosovo which exploded in violence five years after the NATO intervention, and I think Iraq is going to make the Balkans look easy in comparison.

I can’t imagine Iraq as a democracy right now. To most Iraqis democracy is just a word being thrown around by the occupiers and some Iraqi intellectuals. The word doesn’t have any weight.

Nevertheless, it is impossible to predict what the country will look like in a year. It could take root, but right now at this snapshot in time it doesn’t look likely.

What all areas are you seeing the most improvement on? When i watch the news all they ever report on is bombings, but they never report on the rebuilding of infrastructure. WHat infrastructure building have you seen that was the most dramatic.

Do you think that bombings and suicide attacks will continue and get worse for years, or do you think they will die out? I read a stat once that said about 98% of Iraqis condemn the suicide attacks, but as long as Iraq is occupied by the US and/or considered an ‘uncle tom’ country maybe terrorists will continue to target it and it could be the next Israel in regards to terrorism.

Although I see a lot of improvements in things like more electricity, utility, trash collection, the biggest change for the better is in the presence of police. When I first got here, it was the wild west, I never saw a cop, there was shooting all night, and car jackings were very common. Gunmen roamed some neighborhoods. It was much worse than anything I had seen in Afghanistan, or the Balkans. Back then I think there was a greater danger of random violence, now that the police are out that has largely been contained. The danger now is of targeted attacks against coalition forces, aid workers, or those working with the coalition. If your an average Iraqi that’s a big improvement.

My feeling is that most people hate the bombings and just want some stability and a return to normalcy. Although American casaulties are naturally what get the most print in the US, for every bombing there are many more Iraqi casaulties. On almost any night, they fire rockets at the green zone, but most of those fall short. Lots of just average Iraqis are hurt every day and they are tired of it.

There was an interesting BBC poll recently about Iraqi attitudes, a majority felt their lives were improving and didn’t want the US to leave. I don’t think the resisitance has broad support. It doesn’t take too many people with RPGs and mortars to cause a lot of trouble.

The attacks are definately are ramping up. This is making it harder for aid workers to do their jobs, which is of course what the resistance wants. Attacks had dropped off last fall after Saddam’s capture, but they are back at or exceeding where they were last summer and remember last summer featured the August 19 attack on the UN and another attack on the ICRC.

I think with the hand over on June 30 and US elections there will be a real drive for more and bigger attacks. Now that big targets like the UN are gone, they have resorted to shark attacks, where they drive around looking for expats to shoot. This has caused aid workers, journalists and other expats to button up in their compounds, undermining relief efforts. I’m hoping things will kind of peak this summer and security forces can score some victories against the insurgents.

Hi madmonk. In an earlier post you said,

I’m curious if they have any etiquette traditions that are unique. And on a lighter note, what kind of food do you eat over there? I spent some time in the Middle East about 20-some years ago and one thing I learned is that they (at least the Israelis) have no idea what to do with an egg except hard boil it. I remember when we packed some supplies, got on a bus and headed out into the Sinai desert to camp along the Red Sea for a week. We couldn’t wait to make “French Toast” with our eggs. But that first morning while we took advantage of the fact that the sun wasn’t too high and went for a hike, our driver, wanting to be kind, prepared our breakfast for us so it would be waiting when we got back… and hard boiled our day’s ration of eggs! The gesture came from the heart, so of course we couldn’t be angry with him, but boy was it hard not to scream. :slight_smile: So what’s your favorite Middle Eastern fare?

I am curious about how you got into aid work. I am considering a career change and trying to get into some sort of international aid position. I am a network administrator here, and I don’t know how in demand my technical skills would be in a place that has problems simply keeping electricity going.
So how did you get involved? How is the work? Any advice for a geek that wants to help out and wants to see the world to boot?

By the way, RE:paying your $5. I have a paypal account, email me, I’ll hook you up, I figure it’s the least I can do.

Stay safe.

Damn, forgot to disable smilies. That should say:

By the way, RE: Paying your $5. I have a paypal account, email me, I’ll hook you up, I figure it’s the least I can do.

Some rather vocal armchair “experts” here on SDMB were decrying that survey as nothing but a bunch of pro-USA propaganda and outright lies. How accurate do you, as someone who is on the ground in Iraq and actually working with Iraqis, consider the BBC survey? Is it all nothing but a bunch of Blair-Bush propaganda, as its self-anointed all-knowing SDMB detractors denounced it?

The food is a lot of meat. Lots of kebabs and bread, plus little salads with yogurt and humus. It’s good, but not a lot of diversity. They do have this fish called mosguf that is smoked over a fire and is very tasty.

I had a very similar experience with breakfast. Friday is the cook’s day off so we bought all this stuff to make an American style breakfast. We planned to sleep in, make a big pot of coffe and watch some BBC. It’s silly but we were really getting excited about the ideas. To be nice, the cook boiled up all the eggs for us Thursday night. It’s one of those things where the intentions were good, but the outcome was devestating.

As far as Iraqi etiquette, they are just very very hospitable. If you are a guest in their home, you are like a king. You can’t shift in your chair without someone jumping up to see if you need another pillow, some more tea, or anything. They really place a high value on treating guests well.

Your skills are desperately needed. When we open an office we need to set up an office network plus internet, etc. We are always looking for people who can do that. You can write my email listed in my profile to talk about where to look. I got started like most people do on their career. I did an internship in college and then have been hopping from one job to the next. Once you are in this industry there is an incredible network at work. Everyone knows everyone.

That’s really nice of you to offer to pay for me. I just haven’t gotten around to digging out my cc and getting it done. Lazy really. But thank you I really appreciate the thought that was awesome.

I didn’t see the the discussion here of the BBC survey, but it pretty much gibed with my impression. I hadn’t heard any criticism of the survey methods used. I know there was another survey (maybe German?) that had wildly different results, but that was criticized for polling a sample mostly in the most anti coalition regions like Fallujah.

I’ve never thought of the BBC as being a mouthpiece for the government. It’s known and trusted all over the world. I watched the program where they revealed their findings and they also seemed a bit surprised by how positive they were, although there was plenty to be discouraged by too.