photo: Eddy van Wessel


Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Welcome returnees, don't be scared of them

Holland wants to help asylum-seekers from Iraq who go back to their country voluntarily, with education and money. But only if Iraq agrees on taking people back. Up till now, the Kurds refused to allow for instance the Dutch to send their people back to Kurdistan. So they end up in Baghdad, when sent back.

For many Iraqi's who fled from Saddam, the reason for asylum died with the dictator, as is the impression in Europe. That's why the Dutch feel most Iraqi's can safely go back, and for Iraqi Kurds that often is the case. In that sense Dutch minister Leers has a point when he says that when someone asks for shelter against the rain, you expect them to leave your house again when the sun has returned.Yet, if they have become Dutch citizens, their children are studying in Dutch schools, they should be given the choice.

Kurds who return to Kurdistan, do so for a number of reasons. They have received their foreign passport that will allow them to travel, so they feel they can come back. They finished their studies at foreign universities. They have not been able to secure an asylum. They don’t feel at home in their new country. Because of recession they can no longer find work or income. Their parents are old and need them in Kurdistan. Any of these reasons are valid at the moment.

Again, the group of returnees can be split in two: those who come voluntarily, those who are forced out because asylum has been refused.

For the last group, returning is a painful matter. The people around them expect them to come back from the West with money to spend - instead they and their families often are in bad debts that have to be repaid in some way.

For those who return voluntarily, some might bring a bonus given by IOM to help them get settled again, or if the Dutch deal gets approved in Baghad other financial help. Others have no such funds.

Over the years that I have lived in Kurdistan, I met many people who had problems adapting to the life here. Kurds do not plan, it is difficult to get people to abide by their promises, the ways of life are different without bars and cafes frequented by both sexes and social control is tight. But the main problem again and again is to get a job on the right level.

Jobs in Kurdistan are often related to the government. And as the government is the only one offering a pension, many returnees try to get a job with the authorities. But there are already more jobs then work, so the competition is enormous. New people from abroad are looked at with distrust. Sometimes they are asked: where were you when we were targeted?

Academics and medical doctors who return, especially have a hard time. They bring more knowledge than their colleagues who studied here possess, and many of the old guard regard this as a threat to their status and position. The attitude of many Kurds who finished university that ‘they already know it all’ widens the gap even more. As medical doctors in Iraq do not keep their knowledge up to date – and their Kurdish colleagues from abroad have had to do just that – they see them as a threat and try their might to keep them in the lower jobs where their higher standard is not so apparent.

I have heard of academics that were pestered and discriminated by their colleagues, whose advices were never used and more often even were hidden in deep drawers.

Yet Kurdistan needs new knowledge. It needs to catch up with the world after many years of isolation and discrimination. Knowledgeable Kurds from outside should play their role, and show be allowed to do so.

At the same time, people who returned forcefully will have to be persuaded to pick up their lives in Kurdistan again. To find work, to settle down again.

How to cope with all this? Just a few ideas.

Register those people who return to live in Kurdistan. Offer them information about their country, about job opportunities. Perhaps even offer them a little ‘training’ on adapting to the new Kurdistan. What to expect, how is the culture, what is just not done, when to be careful. What has changed in the past years, what is expected from them. Some of the returnees who have resettled into the country could be used to give them a briefing.

Register those people who are looking for a job, get them to make a promotion letter for themselves. Share this information inside government organizations, and use the returnees when gaps in the offices need to be filled that will fit their experience.

Open a special scheme for people who want to set up a small business. Give them support and advise – here too you could use returnees who have resettled into the country, as their knowledge could be very valuable. These businesses will offer work to other members of the family and perhaps even other returnees. Focus especially on businesses that are common outside Kurdistan (internet cafes, IT-support, advice on education, advice on raising a family).

Next to that, set up information channels to inform Kurds that education outside is never less than Kurdish education. That returnees have a role to play in the development of the country. That more knowledge is better than less. Make special TV programs with returnees, for instance. And make TV-quizzes on knowledge where returnees can show off.

Lastly, make a telephone line for complaints. Those returnees who walk into problems at work or on the society, can report on that. Action can be taken accordingly; talking to their bosses would be a first step. The complaints should be made public every now and again, to show the society what is going on.

Perhaps the Dutch will be persuaded to help, as they are probably going to work with a group of returnees who might be valuable in this sense. Kurdistan should use their knowledge, and stop being scared of it.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Companies need to take ánd to give

Companies are in the business to earn money. Yet, they also need to spend money on the development of the Kurdish society. This may seem like opposites, but the reality is that companies will be able to make more profit if they re-invest some of it into the society.

By Judit Neurink and Kurdistan Daloye

Take from the society, and give some back to it. In the world of international companies, corporate social responsibility is very much part of business policies. Banks and companies support sports, arts or good works, and they want the world to know about it. They publish about it on their websites, communicate through the press and even mention it in ads. They are proud to show what they are giving back to the society.

Microsoft’s CEO Bill Gates and his wife Melinda have their own foundation that supports innovations in health, development and learning. PepsiCo has a funding for projects on health, environment and education. The Dutch Rabo Bank supports cycling and has its own team. Even CocaCola also has special grants, this is what their website says about it:

,,At The Coca-Cola Company, we recognize that we cannot have a healthy and growing business unless the communities we serve are healthy and sustainable. As a global beverage company, we have committed ourselves to improving the quality of life in the communities where we do business. Our community investment priorities reflect the global and local nature of our business and focuses on those global pillars where The Coca-Cola Company can make a unique and sustainable difference: water stewardship, active
healthy living, community recycling, and education.’’

For Kurdistan this is new, and yet it is not. Traditionally, wealthy business men put money into the building of mosques that bear their names. Most of the cost of the building is deducted from their income tax, while at the same time the believer has earned points in the Islamic system, as the prophet Mohamed advocated this practice. Yet for the society, it would be more profitable if the business men also put their money into building schools, knowing that traditionally mosques were also the place where children would get their basic education. With the help of these rich Kurds, the shortage of schools – which has lead to schools with three shifts of students that will only get around three hours of education each per day – could be solved.

Some business men have a private system, in which they support individuals. Students that need support, sick people that need hospital treatment, families that need support after the father has died – they can benefit from the big heart of the businessman who opens his drawer to dish out the cash needed. The problem is that every now and again one of those beneficiaries is cheating and receives money on made up cases which is used for holidays and such.

Yet this shows that corporate social responsibility already exists in Iraqi Kurdistan. And even more it shows the need for a system to be able to work well, for the beneficiaries as well as the company involved. This can be, as business men like to call it, a ‘win-win’ situation – meaning: everybody wins.

When companies set apart a portion of their earnings for the funding of projects that serve the community, they should use part of this money to set up an internal system to decide who is funded and to check what happens with the money. After all, money spent should be treated with the same business attitude as money earned. Only if it reaches the right people and places, it can be considered well spent.

Very important is that a company should decide which could be a good cause to support – a cause that fits the company or the company culture. A building company might want to support the arts – with a slogan like ‘building the Kurdish arts’. A company that imports medicine may want to support the education of young doctors from poor families – ‘Educating the next generation of our doctors’. An oil company may choose to support the sports – ‘Working for Kurdish medals’.

We put these slogans there for a reason. Part of corporate social responsibility is to show what exactly you have done for the community. In the West the year report is the place for this – here in Kurdistan I suggest companies use the press and advertisements to communicate their good deeds.

Why is this important? Because it makes them appear more respectable to the public. The public needs their products, and chooses often for emotional reasons. Does Asiacell support my niece – how ever indirectly – then I will use this company for phoning and internet. Does Western Zagros help NGO’s that try to save Kurdistan’s nature from getting bugged up with plastic bags and bottles – then perhaps I should buy their product.

Step into a taxi in Kurdistan and you will hear about all those people who got rich over the backs of the Kurds who fought for their country. Step into a chaixana and hear the same complaints. Companies can earn respect, and thus customers, by giving some of their wealth back to the people. It is needed badly, with foreign funding drying up and government funding not always available. And from the perspective of both their business plans and the well being of the community, it is also expected.

Judit Neurink is journalist/author and director of the Independent Media Centre in Kurdistan. Kurdistan Daloye is a legal and business consultant. They are willing to help any company in Kurdistan to institutionalize this concept into their policy and working plans.

Friday, June 8, 2012

What do they teach in Kurdish schools?

Do young Kurds (and other Iraqi's) just show their love for Germany when they put a swastika on their car, as suggested in a comment on my last entry? Do they not really know what the swastika is the symbol of? Even if this is so, something has gone badly wrong at school. Especially in Kurdistan - where elder people will remember that Saddam liked Hitler. And in this part of the world, you stay away from you enemy's friend.

It is not only on Kurdish cars I have seen this very old symbol, that has become very much part of the German ideology under Hitler - as you can see from this car from Mosul, photographed in Sulaymaniya. And it is not only the symbol, it is also the talk of some young people who tell me they adore Hitler.

For me, coming from Holland, the issue is a sensitive one. My country was occupied by Germany in the forties, many hundred-thousands of Jews were singled out and (eventually) killed. And not only Jews. Everyone who resisted the occupation was thrown in prison and sent to the labour camps. As were those who were different, like gays, gypsies.

My family is not extraordinarily hit by the occupation, even so, it still plays a role in the family history. My father could not study and was forced to work in a milk factory. My parents could not marry until after the war, after an engagement of many years. After the war, because of the bad situation the country was left in, two of my fathers beautiful young sisters died of tuberculosis, as did a brother of my mother. My father and a younger sister caught the illness too, and had to spend years in sanatorium recuperating. We were not anti-German at home, but very sensitive to injustice and dictatorship.Which is probably part of why I ended up working in Kurdistan.

The swastika is the symbol of the German policy to erase those who were seen as not fit for this world. The Germans set the scale; they were the best, it was their Aryan blood that did the trick.Aryan, blond and blue eyes.There is another word I am slightly allergic to, and that is seen a lot in this region - more even in Iran:  I see it on the side of buses or on the fronts of shops. Being Aryan is here also considered being better.Why? Is it our blood that makes us better?

For Arabs, the matter should be more sensitive. Because on the German scale of those that were considered to be an 'Untermensch' - a human worth nothing, the opposite of the Aryan - the Semites were not too far from the Jews.

Yet even more important is that the Iraqi's understand the influence of Hitler, his ideology and his wars on their country. It was the Nazi influence that in the forties started the negative atmosphere concerning the Jews, who made up a considerable part of the inhabitants of Iraq. They lived here since 2800 years, and yet once the Nazi's started their nationalistic discourse on Iraq, it took them not even 10 years to leave. Driven by discrimination and fear, by the discourse that told everybody they were 'less', not real Iraqi's.

The story of how this came about is an interesting one, but too complicated to give due attention here. I found hardly anyone in Iraq who really knows it any more. When between 1948 and 1952 over 100.000 Jews left, that was painful for almost everybody in Iraq - and not as many nowadays think a victory. The Iraqi Jews had been the backbone of the economy, the bankers, the traders, the shopkeepers; they were good doctors and teachers. For many years, growth in Baghdad was mainly due to Jewish trade and knowledge. On top of that, they even brought Iraq its own modern day music in the thirties and forties. When things did not go well economically in the forties, the blame was put on the Jews - and only after they left it became clear what was the painful reality.

In Kurdistan, villages lost their soul when the Jews left. They were part of the fabric of the society. Many felt more Kurdish than Jewish. For that reason, up till now Kurdistan has descendants from Jews living here: from people who converted to Islam to able to stay in their own country. Still a connection exists between Iraq and the Jews in Israel - mostly through politicians, as Iraqi Jews in their new country also ended up in politics, but also through personal relations and through the families of the converts.

Picture of Jews from Kurdistan arriving in Israel

For that reason it is very hard for me to understand how people even dare to drive around with a swastika on their cars. And how they dare to declare in conversations with me that Hitler was a great guy. What do they teach in the schools in Kurdistan, I cannot help but wonder.

I ended  my earlier entry by wishing that Kurds will be better informed about the genocides others have been victim of. I want to extend that wish. I want to ask teachers in Kurdistan to be aware of their responsibility in the development of the country, and to act upon it. Tell the youth about the past in an honest and precise way, and give them a clear idea about the history of the world around us. So that they understand what certain behaviour may lead to, and so they may give this essential wisdom to their children. It is essential, because it can make the difference between developing the society, and just building houses, roads and wealth.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Teach Kurds about genocide

It was a catching and emotional sight. 730 coffins draped with the Kurdish flag stood side by side. Politicians made speeches. The coffins were taken under military escort to Chamchamal. Buried at the cemetery of the new Anfal Monument and Cultural Centre, with the Kurdish president and former Prime Minister involved in the burial.

These kind of images are not new, and have been repeated in history. They remind me of the graves of those fallen in de Second World War, although I suppose I should be reminded of monuments for people killed during genocides. Because that is what it is all about, in Chamchamal.

The 730 bodies represent the thousands of Kurds killed in Saddams Anfal operation against the Kurds. These bodies were found in mass graves in the deserts of Diwanija, in the South of Iraq. Between 1986 and 1989 thousands of villages were destroyed and the inhabitants taken away, many transported outside Kurdistan to be shot and covered with sand. Only after 2003 the bodies were uncovered in the mass graves. Many still are to be discovered.

The graves do not only contain men, but also women and children. Sometimes whole families are there. Sometimes only the men had been taken while the women and children were relocated in special camps, that later became towns like Chamchamal.
 (Photo Kawa Shekh Abdulla)

The identity of those in the coffins is not always known. For those that have not yet been identified, DNA profiles have been made, and will be compared to those of family members of the missing to be made in the next weeks and months.

Still many Kurds are waiting for news about their missing, like about the father of Nabaz Fatih (30), who was eight years old when his family was taken away. His father never returned. "I can't speak, I just cry," he said to the Kurdish newspaper Rudaw. "I look and I cry. I am very, very sad. Because all those people were family – not Peshmarga, just working and doing business – and they're all gone for nothing."
 (Photo Kawa Shekh Abdulla)

Anfal has left lasting scars to the Iraqi Kurds. Not only were many villages destroyed and never rebuild - because those that survived did not want to go back to a living far away from civilization, hospitals, schools - collective towns like Chamchamal were fatherless families went to live still are known for the aggression and crime that derived from the pain and the sadness endured here.

Anfar also brought the Kurds the sense of being a victim, which many still treasure. Victims of Saddam, which endured pain and hardship on a scale about which for a long time hardly anything was known outside the region. Many Kurds still feel this way, even though the evolution of time has brought them victory. Kurdistan now beyond any doubt the best place to be in Iraq - it has developed rapidly, trying to catch up with the world and forget the long years of isolation and discrimination. While the rest of Iraq still suffers violence and infighting, Kurdistan is a safe place.

Anfal is not something to forget. It is something to be remembered for the past generations, to make sure it does not happen again. But remembering and mourning is not enough. It needs to be accompanied with education, to teach young people where xenophobia and discrimination may lead to. To teach them that what had been done to the Kurds, should never be repeated - to nobody. To make them aware of the historic implications. So that cars with stickers like these will quickly disappear from the Suleimani roads.

As this picture was taken (and shared by Facebook) around the same time as the coffins were taken to Chamchamal, it shows that to mourn is not enough. Kurds should realise they are now part of the world. A world where genocide is a crime against humanity. And that goes also for genocides in the past.