Hannah and Colleen take you on a trip through the current state of life in Iraq as seen through reports of team members and our former students. Unlike most episodes, this is a little more current news!

Learn more about joining our teams over at www.ServantGroup.org/Iraq or email Hannah with comments or questions at hannah@servantgroup.org.

Here’s a rough transcript of the podcast!

Hannah: Welcome to Between Iraq and a Hard Place. I’m Hannah.

Colleen: And I’m Colleen.

Hannah: And we’re going to tell you about our life in Iraq.

Colleen: It’s going to be fun.

Hannah: I hope so.

Colleen: For today, our topic is unlike most of our topics, because most of the time we talk about things that are kind of going to last.

Hannah: But, yes, I think today we’re going to kind of update what’s happening in Iraq right now.

Colleen: And over the last few months.

Hannah: And over the last few months, because I maybe no one else has noticed, but things have been weird in 2020. That makes everything different everywhere in the world.

Colleen: And I think, too, especially as Americans, we can kind of get this tunnel vision for our own news and what we see in the news and with the election and with coronavirus and all of the different pieces of that and the big effects that all of those things have in our own country, it’s easy to forget what kinds of things are happening on the other side of the planet.

Hannah: And to give some Americans a little credit. You may know what’s happening in Europe. You may know about the big explosion in Beirut. You may be aware of those things, but most people don’t think about Iraq as a country having any news, unless that news is war.

Colleen: Right. Which I mean, it’s still some of what we’re going to talk about.

Hannah: Sure. I mean, when a country is at war, you talk about the news and you talk about war, but that’s not the only thing that’s happening there.

Colleen: True. True. I think most people are aware of ISIS.

Hannah: Yes, I would hope so.

Colleen: At least anyone who would maybe be listening to us.

Hannah: Yes. It’s not a thing that’s over, I think is the first bit of this.

Colleen: Right.

Hannah: ISIS, to some extent, has dropped out of the news cycle because the caliphate was defeated to a Western mindset. But that doesn’t mean that ISIS has gone away.

Colleen: They’re definitely still pockets. And there’s still a lot of concern by the Iraqi and Kurdish militaries. They’re still having conflicts, military encounters with groups of ISIS fighters. They’re still rescuing people from groups of ISIS.

Hannah: Yeah, I was just reading about Yazidi family that was recently reunited, which is is exciting and also heartbreaking at the same time, because it’s been seven years, six years. So that’s a long time. I know one of the major one of the major concerns right now in both Syria and Iraq is they have all of these ISIS prisoners that they’re keeping in camps that nobody is telling them what to do with them. There’s a lot of fear from those those military groups in both Syria and Kurdistan of: this is not sustainable. We can’t keep track of these people long term. A lot of them are foreign citizens. And so we can’t prosecute them. We can’t process them into the criminal justice system here. What are you guys going to do with them? Basically. Britain, the US, the Netherlands, some Scandinavian, other Scandinavian countries, France, Germany, you guys have citizens here. You need to deal with them. And some Western countries are saying, Well, we’re revoking their citizenship so you can process them however you want to. Some are saying we don’t know what to do with them. Do we bring them back here for trial? Do we leave them there? There seems to be a desire to wash their hands of of these prisoners all together.

Colleen: Yeah. And and not all of these people necessarily are prisoners in the same some of these camps are full of a lot of people that fit in kind of an unknown category. They are families, their moms and children. A lot of the primary militants are in other places, in prisons and things like that. And I mean, they have the same questions about them.

Hannah: But what do you do with a woman who left her country of origin to move to Syria to marry a jihadist fighter whose husband is now dead or in prison? But before he died, they had three kids together. Yeah, like who do those kids belong to? And what do you do with her? She maybe did some bad things. She might be considered a war criminal. But what do you do with her kids and how do you determine that? It’s really. A sticky and messy and I don’t it’s unprecedented that as far as I’m aware.

Colleen: Yeah, I’m really glad I’m not in a position where I got to make any decisions that.

Hannah: Yeah, messy. So ISIS is not over. It’s not the crisis has not ended. It’s just different, now.

Colleen: The other war that’s continuing on in especially the Kurdish region is the conflict with Turkey.

Hannah: Yes. That has been going on for thousands of years. And so, of course, it’s not over.

Colleen: But more recently, Turkey has begun sending more drones and bombing into the Kurdish region deeper than they really ever have before, including all the way over into the Slemani province, which is over near Iran. So that adds some different concerns. And the Kurdish government is opposed to it. But at the same time, Turkey is their primary trading partner. And so you can’t do too much to offend Turkey if you want to be able to keep your economy going and keep importing enough food and basic supplies. So that makes it particularly sticky for them.

Hannah: There aren’t warm feelings towards Turkey, but there is somewhat of a dependence on Turkey, too. Turkey also controls on some level the water supply in and out of the country. And that’s a big deal when you live landlocked and in the middle of a desert. Water is life. I have no predictions as to how that’s going to shake out. I really don’t know. It’s up in the air. According to international treaty, Turkey is not supposed to be doing any of that. But it doesn’t seem like anyone’s trying to stop Turkey from doing it either.

Colleen: Currently, they’re theoretically targeting the PKK, which is categorized as a terrorist organization by Turkey and even the US.

Hannah: Right.

Colleen: Although most Kurds on the ground would consider them freedom fighters, not terrorists. Although that two ends up being a little sticky because sometimes the places that Turkey has been bombing don’t necessarily have strong ties to the PKK or now they’ve, you know, other activist groups within Kurdistan kind of are being painted with that same brush.

Hannah: That line between rebel and freedom fighter, terrorists and nationalist, is tricky.

Colleen: Yeah. Definitions. Yeah, it’s hard. Along with this, Iraq has had ongoing… conflict is maybe too strong a word, but disagreements and misunderstandings with OPEC and all of the oil crisis that was already beginning before the pandemic started. But being that it’s their number one source of government funds and having the huge drop in oil prices and the competition from the warring oil producers around the world with Russia and Saudi Arabia and everything, really, really destroyed their economy.

Hannah: Don’t be a single product economy if you can help it. It doesn’t seem like they’ve really been able to help it to some extent.

Colleen: But it’s hard.

Hannah: It’s hard. It’s hard to know.

Colleen: But that has then brought other difficulties with the communications between the Kurdish government and the Iraqi government.

Hannah: Yes, the government to the south!

Colleen: The government to the south, as the government of Iraq has less in the way of funds. And there are debates about how much or what percentage of those funds are supposed to go to Kurdistan. A lot of people have not been getting paid. And over the years, this is also an ongoing repeating problem, that…

Hannah: Whenever the Kurdish government does something that the southern Iraqi government is not in favor of, the southern Iraqi government goes, Well, I guess you don’t need our money then. And the kind of stops paying everybody.

Colleen: And when a huge portion of your population are government employees…

Hannah: Right.

Colleen: That makes that a real challenge for your whole economy. And we talk about here in the US how the government has tried to support people who’ve lost jobs through the pandemic or you know, send out checks to everybody and whatever you might think about those things as policy the government is playing a big role in supporting the people, at least that’s its goal.

Hannah: Sure.

Colleen: Whereas with Iraq, that’s kind of what they always do and then they don’t have money, so they don’t do it. And so then everybody’s out.

Hannah: It’s a challenging situation as far as like, they don’t have economic stability in a lot of ways. It’s hard in good times; it’s worse and not so great times.

Hannah: We interrupt this podcast for a very important message. We need more teachers in Iraq. So if you’re listening to this, you must be somewhat interested. Please go to our website and get in contact with me and I can tell you how we can make that happen. Thanks!

Colleen: So, not so great times. Here’s a 2020, summer, the hottest summer on record.

Hannah: Yeah, it’s been like over a 125 degrees on like on a daily basis. Pushing 130 degrees.

Colleen: It’s been rough. They’ve broken a lot of records, like official records both in the south and the north. And that’s added some extra difficulties for the north, as well, since a big part of their tourism comes from people fleeing the heat of the south. And with all of the borders shut down internally between cities between north and south, that has added to their economic struggles. And the lockdowns there are also different from the lockdowns here in the US.

Hannah: Yes, I feel like they have kind of rolling lockdowns where it’ll be… I will say I think the style of lockdowns that they have is justified because their health care system could not deal with everyone getting Covid.

Colleen: Oh, yeah. I mean, their health care system can barely contain or care for the numbers of…

Hannah: …the regular day to day problems. And so in a lot of the cities, the lockdowns look like: you can’t leave your home like you have to stay in your apartment building, entirely. Or one day a week you can go within walking distance to a store to buy groceries and then go right back to your house.

Colleen: And that’s it.

Hannah: And that’s it. There’s no go outside and get exercise. There’s no like take your pets out. There’s no, you know, you can go see your grandmother once a week. It’s, you have to stay home to the point where if you are caught in your car driving somewhere, you get a big ol fine.

Colleen: Well, and from the video footage of those times, there are no cars on the road. Except for, you know, like police cars.

Hannah: And that, I think comes from they have a really good sense of, we are doing this for our community, that individualist versus community focused culture. They very much are like, yes, this is good for my community. And so I will do it. It’s not just the government is telling me to do this and I’m mad about it. They all seem very complacent in a positive sort of way that it’s like this is a good thing that we’re doing. And it’s hard and it’s difficult because the other side of that is they love community and a lot of people are struggling mentally and emotionally with the isolation. Even if you’re in a house with your parents and all your brothers and sisters and all of their spouses and families, which is how a lot of people are quarantining.

Colleen: So I don’t imagine there are very many people in Kurdistan quarantining or like lockdown by themselves. One person alone, like that doesn’t exist.

Hannah: But still, that family unit unit is used to socializing outside of their own home with everyone.

Colleen: Well, everyone’s related, right. And everyone’s an extrovert.

Hannah: I’ve talked to some of my college age students who have done some college classes. And it’s just it’s a struggle for them that, like, they miss being in a classroom and seeing their friends and they have a hard time. One of them, particularly was like, I have a hard time focusing on what I’m supposed to be doing because I used to be able to leave my house and go to school and do my school things. But now I’m here. And while my family understands like, I’m in school, it means I’m stuck in my room doing my college stuff and I can’t spend time with my family where normally that’s not how it works. Like normally there is that like strong border between being at school and doing school stuff and being at home and being with family. Things like her parents will walk in and be like, hey, I have to be on Zoom and I don’t know how to do it. Can you help me? And then she ends up sitting, being on her college Zoom call and monitoring their work Zoom call and she’s like, I can’t, I can’t do both. It’s hard to do both which, yeah it is.

Colleen: Well and there’s a strong pull to be with family and to honor your family and you know that you value the time with your family. And so that is both a blessing in this circumstance where people like having the time with their family and are used to spending time with their families. Yeah, also the distraction of that and the fact that the extended family is not included, especially with over the last six months, there have been, I think, three different eids, the festivals, and that those are usually times where people are highly involved in large group celebrations. So much; so much peopling.

Hannah: Right. And we’ve talked about how for us, as Americans, it’s exhausting. But for Kurds, like, it’s like they don’t get Christmas or Thanksgiving or family reunions or any of that stuff at all. They already have very little that is joyful. They don’t they don’t get a lot of happy times.

Colleen: Yeah. My student who I talked to about how things were going, talked a lot about how her parents and grandparents and the the older people in her family who are so used to having these celebrations and like focus their life around these times where they get everybody together, you know, every week or every two weeks or, you know, these kinds of things, that she can even tell in the way they look, that they’re just sadder.

Hannah: Yeah, because even in times of war and persecution, they were still able to get together with other people. And so this is really different and really hard. And I know our teachers are preparing for all online schooling, which was a disaster in the scramble to get it going last semester. And I know none of them are looking forward to teaching that way.

Colleen: Well, I mean, along with the economic struggles and the water struggles and, you know, all those come the other major factor in being able to do school online, which is also electricity and without funds, without, you know, all of those pieces, that infrastructure in place to be able to provide 24 hour electricity, it’s really hard for every student to be able to get online.

Hannah: And access to the things that they need to be able to do that. I mean, I know the school district here has given every student a laptop and a WIFI hotspot, if they need them and the Kurdish government can’t do that

Colleen: They don’t have the money.

Hannah: They don’t have the access to the supplies that they need to do that. And so I think most of our students come from upper middle class families and have access to those things. But I know a lot of public school kids aren’t going to be able to do that. And I don’t know what they’re going to do. I don’t know if they’re going to be like, well, everybody gets the year off or I don’t know. I don’t think they know.

Colleen: It’s one of those things where we feel like all these decisions and like these coordinating and all of that is difficult here in the US. But in Iraq, it’s like ten times more difficult.

Hannah: I feel like my life is less than ideal in a lot of ways, but I also am very grateful for the access that I have to the things that I need, here in the US, and I can’t, I cannot imagine having to teach a bunch of Kurdish kids online. That seems like my nightmare.

Colleen: But you know what? Our teachers that are there are making it work and they’re still continuing and they have still found good ways. And they’re grateful to be there during this time to be a sounding board and have those conversations about how you face difficulty in your life. And I mean, it sounds like that’s all still really positive. We’re glad for it.

Hannah: We are so grateful to be able to work with some really amazing people. Been a blessing and encouragement to me in these weird days. Like the people I work with are fantastic and I love them.

Colleen: Yeah, we’ve got a great team.

Hannah: Yeah. Tell us tell us some of the things that are changing in your life, some of the things that look different. And also let us know what you want to hear about next. Yeah. We love to hear from you. I’d love to hear what’s what’s happening in your life and answer any any questions you have about life in Iraq.

Colleen: We’d love to hear from you. You can find us at Servant Group International on Facebook or Instagram, and you should check out our blog and complete transcripts over at ServantGroup.org.

Hannah: And it’s really helpful for us if you share our podcast or leave a review on whatever platform you listen to this podcast on, it helps us know that people are listening and you can let us know what you want to hear next.

Both!: Thanks for listening.

Colleen: We don’t need the click track.

Hannah: You don’t want the tempo keeper?

Colleen: Yeah, I mean, I guess if you set it really fast, it might make us talk faster.

Hannah: (You’re just going to have to listen to this to hear what noise she makes. Sorry.)