Life in Iraq
“It’s hard to say what the best thing about living here is –
“The kids. It is glorious when they finally get a concept or see the light bulb come on in their brains. Plus they really, really love their teachers.”
“Only one thing? I loved the way the students and their families welcomed me, the people are so hospitable! I loved the mountains around the city, buying fruit from the corner market, hiking on weekends, struggling to learn Kurdish, and in all things learning to walk by faith and seeing God work in unexpected ways.”
“I love the way the Kurds do community. There is always someone watching out for you and bringing you food. I learned so much from them about being a good neighbor.”
“The Kurds. They are so friendly and hospitable. I love the hospitality here. They also are just really vibrant and love life.”
“As it often is, the hardest thing also becomes the best thing. It’s the relationships and friendships and interactions with teammates, students, neighbors, etc. that I will never forget. They are the ones I yearn to be with again. They are the ones that make is all worthwhile.”
“There was so much for me to adjust to, since I had never lived in a different country before. I had a hard time with driving and the unpredictability of our schedules. It was also hard being a foreigner, and usually not really knowing what was going on.”
“I really don’t know. I love it here.”
“The kids. Some days they make you crazy.”
“Probably the hardest thing for me was learning the ropes of every day life –
“Not being sure what a local person really means. Kurds hate to say “no” to any request, so they will usually say “yes” to anything, even if they really don’t want to or perhaps have no intention of doing. I think that locals can tell when “yes” means “no”, and they know when to give each other room to get out of things. They also don’t like to say “yes” to an offer right away, so you have to insist (on giving them a drink, or their coming over for dinner). I never know how long to insist, and I always forget to refuse an offer the first few times, too!”
“One of the hardest things about living here is the language barrier. We would love to be able to have deeper conversations with our friends and neighbors but are having a hard time doing that without knowing their language. We feel torn – our colleagues at school mostly speak Arabic (and NOT Kurdish), but our neighbors only speak Kurdish. It’s hard to decide what language to focus on!”
“For some, it might be not having 24-
“No pig! No bacon! The small depravities can be an annoyance, but that’s not really that big a deal. What I found to be the hardest is learning to navigate cultural relationships and cultural expectations. Relating well to team members and school administration and understanding how to be sensitive and helpful…that is an insight from God.”
“There are a plethora of malls being built here in my city, and one of the biggest ones is truly incredible. It blew me away the first time I walked in and I thought it was quite impressive even by American standards. If you come here you really don’t need to bring very much because there are a ton of things that can be bought here. I would bring ranch dressing powder, taco seasoning, and construction paper.”
“We can get almost anything we want here, it’s just a matter of being willing to pay for it. There are several nice, modern malls and lots of grocery stores. There are even discount stores where you can get household goods and small appliances from Europe and the U.S. You may have to hunt around a bit to find what you are looking for, but it’s usually here.”
“There are all kinds of stores and markets in Iraq, but they won’t contain all your “comfort” items. You can bring some things with you and wait to buy other things until you get there. The SGI staff can help you determine what those things are.”
“The answer to that question constantly changes! They have been building more and more western supermarkets and department-
“You can get everything you need. But if you have various addictions like coffee or pepperoni, you might need to bring that. If you are really high maintenance and have to have your special brand of everything… don’t come.”
“If you come to my city, you really don’t need to bring very much because there are a TON of things that can be bought here. I would bring ranch dressing powder, taco seasoning, and construction paper.
“Bacon, cheddar cheese, contact solution, gifts from America for the kids.”
“Although some things might be hard to find, you can get pretty much everything that is necessary here. I’ve brought back coffee and some spices from the US that I couldn’t find in Duhok (basil and oregano), but I later found out you can even buy those in Erbil. Probably the most important thing we brought with us is an e-
“Bring books, clothes and any electronics. Those things tend to be expensive/really hard to find.”
“Size 14 EEE tennis shoes, –
“I would definitely recommend bringing comfortable cotton clothes and comfortable shoes for walking.”
“For the last several years the area has been getting more and more western merchandise. Sometimes a western item (say, Heinz ketchup) will show up in a store for 2 weeks, then it’s gone. Sometimes they will begin to get in an item (such as good western razors) and they just continue to get more and more western brands (Bic, Venus, Gillette). Your best bet is to get in touch with someone there a few months before you go to ask what is available at that time.”
“That depends. You can find everything that you need here, maybe not the quality or style or whatever that you prefer, but you can get your needs met. Unless you have big feet, then you should bring enough shoes.”
“The answer to this is always changing as Kurdistan continues to grow commercially and import more things. There are becoming fewer and fewer things that you simply can’t get. You definitely need to bring specific medications with you. And if you’re attached to certain brands, then bring that. “Crust” toothpaste just isn’t the same as “Crest”! But check with someone over there, because bringing 3 containers of Dove body wash with you and then finding it there is annoying! I recommend bacon bits, herbal teas, Excedrin, good writing pens, and your favorite movies…that’s my short list.”
“I live in a three-
“Our house felt like home as soon as I saw the bright tangerine balcony. Although things seemed to break rather frequently and the temperature inside was not always 72 degrees, it was bright and spacious, and beautiful.”
“Probably you’ll be living in a very comfortable modern home with running water and electricity. I’m sure they could find much more primitive habitations(like a cardboard box or something) if you want the “real” missionary experience. Seriously, Servant Group will do what it takes to get you here!”
“Servant Group helps you locate a house or apartment in a neighborhood within walking distance to the school. While teaching at the school is the main focus, one of the truly rewarding parts of ministry in Iraq is forging relationships with local families who are not necessarily associated with the school.”
“ We live in a beautiful two-
“Most of us live in large apartments, which are really more like duplexes or town houses. The perimeter almost always has a wall with a gate into a courtyard or patio. Singles usually share an apartment with other singles and share in the day to day chores.”
“Probably a house. Housing here is great-
“Typically, you are housed in local housing. You live in a Kurdish neighborhood and you have a Kurdish landlord. The construction is Kurdish. The utilities are Kurdish. Enough said! No, really, the housing is culturally different from the USA, but is pretty easy to adapt to. The only thing I really missed was a grass yard and Western toilets, –
“No, but it helps. Because the schools we work with are English-
“I thought I was coming here for just one year, but now that I’ve been here 3 years I’m going to buckle down and learn the language.”
“The longer I’m here, the more important it is in relationships. However, I got by just fine my first day and first year knowing only a handful of phrases.”
“Yes! Come! I do not at all feel in danger as a single woman. I don’t go out at nights very often and when I do it’s in groups with others, but taking taxis to get around has not been a problem. It is also not a problem to shop alone at the local grocery stores in my neighborhood. There are occasional whistles and stares from men, but it is not a huge deal. Many of the teachers in our school are single women and I think being a single female could be a real asset for building relationships with these teachers.”
“Yes, there are lots of needs that I was able to meet, especially in showing love to and talking to the girls at the school. It is harder to live there as a single woman than it is in the States, but that challenge taught me so much about God, and about the honor He has given me in Christ.”
“It’s a little tricky being here as a single gal, but not impossible. And really I feel like my only restriction is not going out at night, which is okay because I use the nighttime for sleeping or grading papers. Or sometimes both simultaneously.”
“Yes. I went as a single female and never felt vulnerable. Of course, as a single female in a Middle Eastern culture, you can’t exercise all the same freedoms possible in the States.”
“I have seen single women serve very effectively in Kurdistan. I came with my family, and now my daughter wants to get her degree and come back to Kurdistan as a single woman.”
“Yes, but if you are really independent, it can be a difficult adjustment because there are things here that you just don’t do as single women because it’s not culturally appropriate. For example, going running. There is a park where women go early in the morning, but other than that, you wouldn’t go running in your neighborhood.”
“My guy teammates would say “OF COURSE! You’re in charge of cooking dinner!” Seriously though, as a single female you will face many unique challenges. You’ll be lonely, you’ll be limited in some of your activities, you will be given lots of marriage proposals. You’ll have to learn to follow the local “honor code” and not bring shame on your team. But I loved serving there. The young women in the schools need role models.”
“Certainly. Most families on the team homeschool their children. Some of the kids take a class or two at the schools we help staff. The expatriate community organizes quite a few events for our kids, and they’ve developed some good, lifelong friendships while living here.”
“There are several options with varying costs and success rates. One option is to have Home Office staff carry things over for you when they come to visit (2 or 3 times/year). Another option, though more expensive, is to send smaller items to Iraq via FedEx or DHL.”
“Sometimes its possible to send items via APO if you have friends in the right places. Also, each summer SGI sends over a shipping container of curriculum and we can put limited personal items in there as well. We also have a new local post office box, but I’m not sure anyone has figured out how to use it yet.”
“Sending mail or packages out is hard. The new post office here says they can deliver mail to the US, but the past letter that got through took 2 months. FedEx and DHL are options, but the best bet is to send items out with fellow team members who are going home to visit.”
“Yes, yes, and yes. As long as the electricity is working.”
“I’m able to Skype with my mom and dad back home as often as they are able to figure out how to use it on their end. We have wireless (medium) high-
“Our whole city is on a wireless-
“Everyone on our team has cell phones. In fact, everyone in the country has a cell phone. Most people here just text versus talk on their phones. We can call home to the States for pretty cheap. I think 15 cents a minute. Friends and family in the US can also dial me direct, –
“Snappy casual is good for most situations. Single women teaching at the school can wear loose-
“Yes, there are restrictions, but we aren’t sure exactly what they are. I only dressed slightly more conservatively than I do in the US. I wore dress pants or long skirts, jeans and long or 3/4 length sleeves. A lot of women do not cover their heads, so I rarely felt out of place because I did not either.”
“It depends a bit on what city you live in. As a female, I tend to wear more conservative clothes than I might in the States –
“For the ladies it’s all about being modest. No upper arms or upper legs, no low cut tops or tight clothing. But you can wear jeans, t-
“I think everyone I asked about what was appropriate gave me a different answer. As a woman, I think you are safe if you are covered to below the knee (skirt, pants or capris), below the elbow for sleeves with a modest neck line on a shirt (no bellies, please). If you cover your head they want to know why, since you are not Muslim. If you are going to be around more westernized or modern people, short sleeves are fine. If you know you will be around more conservative people, you might want to wear a skirt or dress instead of pants-
“Modestly. There aren’t a lot of restrictions, but you need to have common sense for this as well. For women, you don’t wear sleeveless shirts or shorts, capris are ok, short-
“When it comes to dress, the spirit of the law is more important than the letter of the law, I found. Being observant and willing to adapt are important because different situations call for different things. I might wear a short sleeve shirt to school that I would never wear to the bazaar. In general, though, I told people that elbows and knees covered is always safe for women. A common question I get asked is, “Did you cover your head?” Definitely not. That would actually send confusing signals in the “liberal” city we lived in. A significant minority of the women are uncovered.”
“I had my appendix taken out here. Kept it in the fridge for a long time. I was back home in a day. My friend had the same surgery in Tampa that year and almost died.”
“There are many modern hospitals and I am personally acquainted with one of Iraq’s most promising up and coming female surgeons. Having never had to go to the doctor here, I really have no idea.”
“The immediate care there is practically free since it is socialized. Sometimes you get what you pay for, though. There are doctors with private clinics that you can pay more for and probably get more individualized care. There are usually several western doctors in the city you can usually get good advice from as well. We had a doctor in the states that was happy to email us advise. If he gave us the scientific name of a prescription medicine, we were able to go to a pharmacy and get it without a prescription (if you know the name they think a doctor must have prescribed it), and the medicine is subsidized by the government, so it is very cheap!”
“There are private hospitals and public hospitals. If you have to go, go to a private one!”
“The medical field is definitely struggling in Iraq. I’ve visited a doctor twice, but I waited until I came home to WA to take any action. Invasive surgery without anesthetic is not my idea of progressive medicine. Many expats travel to Jordan for their medical needs.”
“Well… It’s easy and cheap to see a doctor here, but not all of the doctors are worth seeing. When I had a severe case of the flu and tonsillitis this year, the doctor I saw was able to provide the necessary medication, but he also told me my fevers were produced by eating spicy food and prescribed a shot of who-
At a minimum, emergency evacuation and stateside major-
“You just have to convince them that no one is going to try to shoot them. Unless they try to sneak into Iran and even then they’ll probably just get arrested and die in a small, dark prison cell.”
“Absolutely. My mom came to visit me, which proved to be a really wonderful thing for both of us. It was important for her to see where I lived, what I did, etc., and it was significant for me to share that with someone who knew me well. She still talks about watching me exchange money at the market. At the time, I didn’t think anything of it as it had become second nature, but she thought it was hilarious to see me totally out of my natural element.”
“Yes, and what’s great is that SGI is willing to help them make the arrangements to visit as well. It’s not necessarily easy to make all the travel plans (especially if you live in Duhok, which is the only one of the three cities that doesn’t have an airport), but it is possible if your family wants to go!”
“If they want to come and can afford a ticket-
“If they’ve got the money, bring ‘em on! Many family members and friends have made it to Iraq to visit and it is great for those visiting and those being visited. However, the cost of travel to Iraq is a factor and many people who don’t know what it’s really like simply don’t believe it is safe.”
“There is a church here in town that has English interpreting for their Arabic services. There are also several other bodies of believers that meet from different cultural backgrounds.”
“Yes! I was so blessed with Saturday night church. It was different than my church here, but it was awesome to be worshipping God with people from all over the world.”
“There are 2 evangelical churches here in my city. They are both usually in Arabic or Kurdish, but usually someone will translate for us English-
“We do not attend services in a church building, but we do have a church family here. Our city has a weekly fellowship meeting of prayer and Bible study for ex-
“There is a house church just for westerners and their families, and there is an “international” English speaking church for anyone who wants to attend. You can go to both if you like.”
The city I live has two groups. One was an international church with an English service and the other was a more private service. I go to the one with better refreshments!”
Certainly. Just contact our Director of Team Development, Lisa Harris (email@example.com) and tell her you’d like to get in touch with a team member. You can also follow our Iraq team members on Twitter (@ServantGroupInt/iraq-
Team Member Qualifications
A commitment to honor Christ, and a commitment to be flexible, flexible, and flexible. Nothing ever goes as planned in Iraq.
“No, there are lots of different needs and ways to serve that don’t involve teaching.”
“I was worried about not having much teaching experience in the States when I first started teaching here, but I think it’s really better if you don’t have experience in the “traditional” teaching setting. This is a teaching setting where you need to be very flexible and the culture and ways of running the school are different from America. Just knowing how to speak English, being dependent on the Lord, and having the attitude of a servant are most important, I think.”
“You have to love kids, be good at answering real questions, and know when the questions are just a diversion.”
“Neither my husband nor I have a teaching background. I have a degree in history, and he is an engineer. I think you need to have a heart for kids and a willingness to do what God calls you to do, but you don’t need an education degree.”
“Nope! I’m not a licensed teacher and they let me loose in a classroom.”
“Not everyone on the team teaches. I spent time as a “librarian”, giving the kids a chance to check out books-
“Servant Group has had people from all walks of life serve in Iraq. I think it actually enriches the students in unique ways to have “non-
Most, but not all, opportunities to serve will require a college degree. It’s something the Iraqi government is getting pretty picky about with regards to expatriate workers.
“Initially, new team members make a 1 year commitment. Decisions for a longer or extended term of serve are made as the first year draws to a close.”
“New team members typically deploy each August/September and they usually come home for the summer in late June. Some also come home for Christmas break.”
Travel and Safety
“I would like to say yes, but we lost a great team member in March 2012. He was shot by a student who then killed himself. We’ve had some more threats since then, but everything seems calm again for now. Every time a team member crosses that border, they know they might not be coming back home. It’s not easy for those who go and it’s not easy for those they leave behind. But it is a joyous privilege and adventure to follow Christ.”
“There are kids playing out on the streets at all hours of the day in our neighborhood, so it’s got to be pretty safe.”
“I often felt safer than where I grew up in the US, but that’s not saying a lot.”
“Yes! I feel safer here than I’ve ever felt in an American city. We’re far away from the violence in Baghdad and southern Iraq, and the Kurds are a peaceful and friendly people. You don’t have to worry about theft or street violence or pickpockets or anything – you just have to worry about getting too many invitations to dinner from people you’ve just met.”
“I have never felt unsafe. It’s like living in most other developing countries. Just be smart and you’ll be okay!”
“People ask me this all the time, and it really is a fair question. If you watch the news, Iraq doesn’t look like a safe place. But I usually tell people that compared to a lot of cities in the States, I think Kurdistan would rank as a safer place to live and work. Of course, we know that there are risks anywhere you go. But if we are confident that God has called us to a certain place, we are in His hands. He knows the number of our days. When you look at it that way, “safe” becomes a relative term.”
“Once we (my husband and 2 teenage children) got used to being in Kurdistan, we felt quite safe. We followed safe practices like keeping doors locked, not allowing our children to wander the streets and not being out late alone, but we never felt like a target. Most Kurds are very happy to have Americans willing to come to their country. We found out when we came back to the US that more people had been shot in our town while we were gone than in the city we were in Kurdistan.”
“Yes, most days.”
“Really and truly! Safer than any American city of the same size. I never felt fearful… except when crossing the street. But it it important to remember that you are in Iraq and things could change at any time”
“It’s getting easier all the time. Most team members fly from US to Istanbul, then take a direct flight into north Iraq. The new airports here are as modern as anywhere in the Western world. You can also fly through Vienna to north Iraq and your bags get checked the whole way through.”
“We took the land route from Istanbul to north Iraq. The scenery was great and I think its something everyone should do at least once, –
“I like flying in and out of Jordan. There are lots of neat things to see in Jordan if you can spare a few days.”
“First time I came here, I took an (leaking) inflatable raft across the Tigris river from a small frontier town in Syria. That was 12 years ago. Last year I flew straight in from Istanbul. Istanbul is definitely better!”
“I traveled home for Christmas over the school break, and I was glad to have that time to spend with my family and supporters.
“I went home Christmas and summer, but if I had stayed another year, I think I would have liked to have stayed in Iraq for Christmas.”
“As often as their mother’s guilt trips make it necessary. Usually for Christmas and in the summer.”
“Often we go home at Christmas and the summer if we have the money for it. Our family stayed for the whole year because we wanted to save the money.”
“Once or twice a year; summer and/or Christmas.”
“It’s a blessing for us and for our family that we can spend quite a bit of time in the States over the course of a year. We spent 3 ½ weeks in the States for Christmas, and we’re planning on spending almost 3 months of summer vacation with our family as well.”
“It depends on your funding and personal circumstances, but I went home for 2 weeks every Christmas and 2 months every summer. Looking back it seems excessive. I definitely would not have come home at Christmas if my mom would have let me get away with it!”
“Most people are extremely friendly and hospitable. There have been times while riding in taxis that the drivers have asked where we are from, and when we tell them that we are American, they thank us for coming.”
“They like us.”
“I felt like a celebrity, probably the only time that will happen in my life.”
“It varies, I guess, but for the most part the Kurds are very thankful that they’ve been liberated from Saddam’s oppressive control, and many feel they have America to thank for that. Most people we’ve met are happy and grateful that we’ve come to work here.”
“Most locals fall over themselves welcoming us to their country. My husband was personally thanked 3 different times for deposing their dictator. They are very curious as to what Americans think of their city and they always laugh with delight if you speak any Kurdish at all. They cannot believe an American would want to come to their country or try to learn their language!”
“Most local people love Americans because of the help they have given the Kurds in the past.”
“The huge majority of them love Americans and all things “western”. The older ones appreciate that we ousted Saddam, the younger ones appreciate the “Friends” tv show. I, personally, didn’t meet anyone that hated America, but I know there are always some there and you have to be careful.”
How to Get Started
Just fill out our form in the sidebar or click the link at the top of the page that says “Serve With Us”! Afterwards, Lisa Harris (our Director of Team Development) will contact you to start building a relationship and help answer any questions you have. We want to get to know you, but we also want to help you get to know us.
Also, keep in prayer and close counsel with men and women you trust for guidance and wisdom.
No. Just one survey per family is fine.
As things progress, we may send you a formal application to complete online. Following this, we will arrange a time for you to come to Nashville TN, meet our team, and get to know one another in person.
Typically, staff candidates will arrive Sunday evening or Monday morning in Nashville, meet with us throughout the day, and fly home Monday evening or Tuesday morning.
The bulk of training takes place the first 3 months on the ground under the guidance of seasoned, fellow team members. Prior to moving overseas you will come spend 3 days orientation with our team here in Nashville. The purpose of orientation is to solidify relationships with the home office team, get to know fellow team members deploying with you, review policies and travel plans, prep paperwork, etc.
More About Servant Group International
We are a small and flexible organization that focuses upon making field staff attention and care our #1 priority. We average 10 people in the Home Office and 20 or less on the field. Our goal is to have 36 team members serving in Iraq. Our annual operating budget is about $1.2 million.
Some have been there more than 6 years. Many others are in their first few months.
No. We have team members from a wide variety of evangelical Christian backgrounds.
While on the field, our team members actually work for national church leadership. We defer to their judgments and needs, and are committed to encourage and walk with them.
Finances and Support
You will be get receive a monthly salary from the school in proportion to the number of classes you teach each week. However, it is not enough to cover all of you expenses like international travel and insurance. As such, you will need to raise some support to help fund your time in Iraq. It’s not the favorite thing we do, but is often one of the most rewarding. Friends and families love to feel they are part of what you’re doing, and support-
The typical budget for a single person for one year is $18,000 –
We do not set a “cap” on how much you can raise, and encourage team members to budget for tithing, retirement, insurance and other needs.
“I have had some difficulty raising support, but if the Lord wants you to be here then He will provide.”
“Yes for some. For others it’s a breeze.”
“Although everyone had said this, I really was surprised at how quickly and eagerly people supported me.”
“Yes and no. Really it depends on how much you like asking people for money. God provides for His people, often in unexpected ways and I have found that to be true for every missionary person I’ve met. It’s all about trust and prayer.”
“In my experience, people are very interested in this work, recognize the significance of it, and want to financially back you. But of course, most often the biggest reason people want to support your ministry is because they want to support you. And if you’re going to Iraq, that gives them something to get really excited about. Following up well with your supporters is key to maintaining support –
“We thought it would be the hardest part of coming here, but it ended up being the most rewarding. It is such a blessing to be here, knowing that we are working through the gifts of our church, family, and friends. It was also an incredible learning experience to see how richly God can provide for us even when we don’t see how the support can be raised.”
“Raising support for our family was our final confirmation that it was God’s will for us to go to Iraq. We had just joined a new church and weren’t even sure if people would support a mission outside of their denominational organizations. We knew that by our own efforts we could not raise enough money for a family of four. God well exceeded our expectations. We received money from people we hardly knew, and in some cases from people we didn’t know at all! In the end, we had money left in our account when we returned and hope to use it to go over again!”
“If God wants you here, you’ll get the money.”
“Yes and no. I found it mentally hard to send mailers and “talk up Iraq” but once you let the word out, you’ll be surprised by how supportive everyone is. People want to be a part of your ministry. You just have to give them that chance.”
“Once approved as a team member, we will help you develop support-
With the advent of reliable email services and online donations capabilities, overseas team members staying beyond the first year are finding it very possible to raise as much, if not more, money while serving overseas than they could while preparing from stateside.
“The Home Office will send your money to you via Western Union as needed. There is a Western Union clerk in each city, and fellow team members will walk you through the process of picking up funds.”
Yes. We are a 501(c)3 registered in the State of Tennessee and donations are tax-
Starting in 2011, the schools we work with in Iraq are hoping to pay up to $100 per month per team member to help with outstanding student loans.
We charge a 5% fee to help cover Home Office administration, processing, receipting and accounting of funds raised. Team members also pay a $100 monthly team fee per family to help offset recurring team expenses.
The schools we work with in Iraq are able to help offset some expenses. Also, sometimes the Home Office is able to help with travel or other expenses through occasional grants. However, all team members will have the opportunity and responsibility to help fund their overseas ministry.
If able, you can fund your own way. However, we do require that your home church commit to send and support you through prayer at a minimum.
We believe your home church should play a vital role in your sustenance and encouragement while on the field. Regular communication and prayer, –