Sometimes, along the way, the story changes. That’s what happened to me over the course of two weeks in northern Iraq.
Before I’d even left on this trip, I’d decided on a theme for the stories I’d be gathering: how is Mercy Corps helping families bring peace to their communities? After all, if the perception of Iraq in the minds of the world is perpetual conflict, what better way to turn that on its ear than showing how peace is breaking out across the villages we serve?
But, of course, it’s not that simple — and slightly naïve is the writer who thinks that everything will fit into a pre-defined framework.
In many ways, my whole trip to Iraq was underpinned by the ongoing events in Egypt. Everywhere I found myself — wherever I spent the night, in restaurants, in peoples’ homes, and even in the principal’s office of schools we visited — I caught a glimpse of the growing crowds on Cairo’s Tahrir Square. It was gripping everyone, and I found myself in a fair number of debates along the way about what this meant to the region. What this might mean for Iraq.
And then it began spreading: protests in Yemen. Rumblings of growing dissent in Jordan and Syria. Even rumors that a massive demonstration would fill the streets of Sulaymaniyah, Iraq at any moment.
On Wednesday night, many thought they heard gunfire in the center of Sulimaniyah, the city in which I was based for this assignment. Had the protests come here? No — it was only fireworks from a small portion of the community that was celebrating the Chinese New Year.
But there is worry that things are still unstable enough to change at a moment’s notice. Despite the signs of progress and rebuilding in northern Iraq — cranes dominate the skyline in many parts of Sulimaniyah — there is uneasiness. Given the conflict that has played out over the last couple of generations here and still rages in other parts of the country, that’s easily understood.
So what is peace then, I thought as I visited homes and schools, feeling my intended theme slipping away from me with every interview I conducted. And along the way, I think I found the answer.
I think peace for Iraq is opportunity. It’s not just the absence of conflict, but the presence of safety. It’s the absence of hunger, the presence of green growth from the earth and the chance to harvest it when it’s ready. It’s the comfort of a home, however simple, as well as the ability to not only attend school, but also have the opportunity for a job after graduation.
And, in that way, Mercy Corps is bringing peace — little by little — to places where it hadn’t taken root for years. Neglected, uncared-for places where decay, cold and want had driven the notion of peace from the minds of the people who needed to believe in it most.
Yesterday — on my final day of documentary field work in the city of Kirkuk — the last place we visited was a secondary school in a particularly gritty section of town. Mercy Corps had helped rehabilitate the school, which had fallen into severe disrepair. As I wandered the courtyard of the school, about a dozen young men came up to me, maintaining a hesitant distance.
One by one, they stepped forward and tried to ask me something in English. After they asked, and as I started to answer, they’d back away and nod their heads. And then one of them took out his English-language textbook and turned to a particular page.
Here’s what it said: “We all live in the same world. We must work together to make it a better place.”
We repeated that phrase three or four times, and the chorus grew louder and more enthusiastic with each reading. Here we were on a playground in the middle of one of the most contentious cities in Iraq, pledging peace aloud.
And then one of the young men pointed at my beard. “I like it,” he said.
“Thank you,” I replied.
“It’s grey,” he remarked.
“You’re right,” I responded. “I’m getting older.”
“You are old,” he said.
I guess I am, especially in the minds of many I met over the course of this trip. And peace probably means slightly different things to all of them. If I had thought about it before those last few moments in Kirkuk, I would probably have asked each person I talked with that very question: what does peace mean to you?
But I think I found out a little bit about peace from every place I visited. Peace is very personal. If needs are met, peace grows. And that is happening in northern Iraq.
As Iraq meets its next challenges — and as the world’s eyes remain on Egypt — let’s all remember and repeat that small lesson from a textbook in Kirkuk: “We all live in the same world. We must work together to make it a better place.”