The first trip to Iraq in 2021
Our longest between visits to Iraq to date break lasted twelve months. However, we were working very actively all the time and thanks to the volunteers on the ground we were able to continue our activities without major obstacles.
We were planning the trip since September last year, but there were no conditions for travelling. Then winter came and that is not the best time to go to Iraq. The next opportunity came in March. It was a quick decision: we are going. Our little team included myself (Dawid) and Bartek Piaseczny, a volunteer who went with me to Iraq at the end of 2019. We bought tickets several days before the flight, we took the required tests and set off. As usual, our plan was merely a sketch because the reality on the ground always modifies it. The main stops on our trip’s map were Teleskoff, Alqosh, Khanke and Lalish. Each had a specific task assigned. This article will sum up what exactly we wanted to achieve, what our goals were and the post-trip conclusions we are making. This article will be one of many elements of the entire story as I will touch upon many issues in our upcoming videos and social media content. For the moment, I would like to invite you to visit Teleskoff – the first stop on our trip.
Teleskoff and Alqosh
We landed in Iraq in the middle of the night and we drove north straight away to arrive in Teleskoff the next day. We went there with Ramy who kept us company for most of the trip. He is our right-hand man in Iraq and carries out most of our projects, which he does with great dedication.
Teleskoff was taken over by ISIS in 2014 but it was quickly recaptured. For the following three years, the town was the headquarter of the Peshmerga forces and Christian self-defense units (I spent several months in a little village one kilometer away from Teleskoff on the way to Mosul, where Dwekh Nawsha, the unit I joined, was located – note Dawid Czyz). In October 2017, it was the launchpad for the Mosul offensive which ended the rule of ISIS in Iraq.
Seven years ago, before the ISIS incursion, the city had around 12,000 residents. To this day, less than a half has remained. Many families have left. Some live in other Iraqi cities. Will they come back? It’s difficult to say. At first sight Teleskoff looks like a peaceful and well-kept city, but it has some problems. The most serious one is unemployment. There is no major industry here that could give jobs to a large number of people. Whoever was capable started their own business. We helped to open eleven workplaces, ten of them last year alone. We visited nine families during our trip. You will see the videos soon. I will briefly share with you the story of one of the business owners that we helped.
From a nuclear engineer to a deacon
Hani was one of the best students of petrochemical engineering. He was noticed by the army that offered him a job on the Iraqi nuclear program. That was under Saddam Hussein’s rule and employment in the defense sector gave the young student many opportunities. After retiring, he decided to become a deacon (at the time he was already married with two children). In 2014, the family fled Teleskoff to hide from ISIS. Their exile lasted six years to finally return last year. Hani discovered a gift to repair electric appliances. He learnt a lot from… his son. With our help, he opened a small workshop where he repairs pumps, household appliances and small electronic devices.
After Teleskoff we went to Alqosh which is located several kilometers to the north. We helped there to expand a car repair workshop, but I will fully cover this story in separate material.
Khanke and Lalish
The second part of our trip included a visit to Khanke and several one-day visits to other places where we have been active in the past years. We met our friends from SCO who took us under their roof. They fed and treated us like family repeating all the time that their house is our house. And we truly felt at home. All these years, not only we have been helping these people, but we have been also gaining many friends. We have built mutual trust that helps us work more effectively. You need to like people you help at least a bit. That’s our little, unwritten rule.
In Khanke we obviously had to visit the OurBridge center where we discussed plans for the future. Paruar, the founder of this wonderful initiative, told us about an idea to open another similar place in Sinjar. It will be a large undertaking, also financially, which we would like to participate in as far as possible. Seeing how it works in Khanke, I’m, sure it will be another success.
During a break, Shamoo and I joined a team of kids for a football match. It didn’t matter I was wearing ankle boots. Some kids were playing barefoot (it was more comfortable for them). Most importantly, we had a lot of fun. The score was not that important either, but I have to admit my team lost a little.
In the evenings we would sit down at our hosts’ homes and talk about different things, joined by friends and local elders who told us some stories about the Yazidi history and culture. Our later visit to Lalish completed my knowledge and brought answers to many questions. These reflections will provide the basis for a book which together with Andrzej Ochał, the author of “Orla Straż. Kiedy świat udaje, że nie widzi” (translation: ‘The Eaglewatch. When the world pretends not to see’), we are planning to publish in the coming months.
After leaving Khanke, there were still several other places left to visit. Those included, among others, the Kabarto camp and the Zawita region, where the refugee families that we support live. Of course, we are not able to help everyone because the scale of needs exceeds our capabilities. We have to focus on single cases where we can provide some aid.
One such case forced us to return to Khanke. A day after we left I received pictures with information that the previous night one family’s tent burned down in the Havalty camp – a small wild encampment on the outskirts of the city. Maybe you can remember that last winter we bought them floor carpets and heaters with an oil supply. The fire completely destroyed the roof and the entire equipment. A fridge, a washing machine and clothes were all gone. Luckily, no one got hurt but tragedy was by a hair’s breadth. In the room that served for a kitchen, there were two gas bottles which survived the fire. It was most probably caused by a short circuit in an overloaded electrical system. There are several fires a year in the Khanke camp alone. The only thing we could do was to give our friends from SCO a small amount of money to purchase the most necessary things for the family that lost its already modest possessions.
To sum up, I would like to say a few words about changes that have taken place over the last year in the region of our activities. You may be wondering how the pandemic situation looks like. Iraq abandoned strict lockdown and adopted its own model to deal with the pandemic. Shops and some sectors of the economy were closed down only in March and May last year. Later on, the country opened up. Currently, all shops restaurants and institutions are operating. People rarely wear masks which they usually put on in taxis (they play the role of public transport which doesn’t exist in Iraq) and inside institutional buildings. Frequent hand-washing, especially before meals, has always been a habit there so not much has changed in this respect. I asked several employees of the local health services about the situation in hospitals. Everyone agreed that it was stable. Of course, people do get sick like everywhere in the world but it is treated as yet another infectious disease. I’m not the one to judge if these decisions are correct. But one is certain: there is no trace of panic. The most important topics for the media as well as for the average people are unemployment – a serious problem as I have mentioned above – and instability in the north of the country.
As far as the situation and safety of the refugees are concerned, it is more complicated. According to unconfirmed information, nearly a thousand of ISIS militants crossed the border with Syria and got into Iraq. Allegedly, there were incidents of clashes with the Iraqi police in Sinjar. In central Iraq, as the authorities have confirmed, an operation against terrorists hiding in the mountains has been going on for months. Unfortunately, this doesn’t help people to decide on going back home. But we cannot become affected by these events. We need to continue our work which brings visible results. Soon I will share with you short videos showing that it is really worth helping others.
Author: Dawid Czyż