I work with Awatif in southern Iraq, but we had to travel across the country to get to know one another.
She studied agriculture in school; her family is originally from Pakistan; she used to work for other non-governmental organizations (NGOs), but Mercy Corps lets her work on more projects. But I have a feeling she was also a journalist in a past life…let me explain why.
We had traveled north to Sulaimaniyah, to participate in a three-day workshop on photography and storytelling, integral parts of how Mercy Corps relates its work to people throughout the world. Facilitated by Mercy Corps Senior Writer Roger Burks and freelance photojournalist Sebastian Meyer, the workshop took us through the most effective ways of communicating just what it is that we work on in Iraq. The second day was dedicated to field visits to speak with beneficiaries of Mercy Corps projects in the region, giving us the opportunity to hone our skills.
The first interviews were in Chiman, a village about 15 minutes outside of Kirkuk. I don’t speak Arabic, and I was going to simply take pictures of all the interviews so that no time would be wasted with translating. But Awatif wouldn’t hear of it. She conducted the interview with Ahmed Salih, a farmer in the town, while I took pictures and made another mental note that I need to learn Arabic — and now maybe Kurdish.
Ahmed was born in 1956. His family comes from Chiman, where they have been farmers for many years. Through a local community organization, Mercy Corps had distributed barley seed, pesticides, and fertilizer to farmers in the village.
The questions and answers went back and forth for a couple of minutes. Ahmed was polite, leaning in to respond, with his hands clasped behind his back. After a while, Awatif shrugged and turned to me: “I think that is all. I don’t think there is a story.” I know it had been an extra task for her to be asking questions, but then feel like she had to translate for me.
“Well…what about his family?” I asked. Five sons, four daughters, all living in Chiman. Ahmed counted them off, explaining who was who…and then something happened.
Ahmed began speaking more quickly, animatedly, gesturing as Awatif’s hand flew across the page taking notes. He was telling her about his family’s life before, under Saddam Hussein’s regime — he couldn’t provide for them.
Awatif nodded her head: “This is good. He says that before, it was like living in a darkness, and now it is a new day.” And with the agricultural support from the Mercy Corps project, Ahmed has the chance to start fresh on the land that his family has cultivated for generations. We thanked him for his time, and he headed back to his home.
I didn’t work with Awatif in the second village of Tirkashhan, where about 35 families live in the looming shadow of a cement factory. The stories were there, in almost overwhelming detail: of displacement, of systematic oppression, of health problems from the factory’s pollution. And still, you got the hope that things could get better — the community was back in their village, not being shuffled around as they had been too many times before.
Through another local partner, Mercy Corps had provided chickens to the village residents in a recent project. This supplement benefited many families, and is a new, much-needed source of income and food.
At the third and final project — in the neighborhood of Panja Ali, on the outskirts of Kirkuk — we met with families who had been connected to a water station outside the city. Awatif grabbed my hand and we headed down the road. “Come on. Pick a house. I’ll interview them.” I shrugged and thought: “Okay.” I was learning: you don’t say no to Awatif.
We stopped at a gate with a tiny jacket slung over the top, and Awatif knocked on the door. She called out, and it was only a matter of seconds before we were ushered into the courtyard, amid greetings and laughter.
Awatif sat with Jabar Khourseed, the weathered patriarch of the family, while his daughter and three grandchildren looked on. Between the language barrier and my concern that I was scaring the children, I had trouble focusing on the interview. But Awatif drew Jabar in immediately.
It wasn’t an interview; it was a conversation. He talked about being the head of the family, and the many challenges of running a household, the greatest being the need for water. And the nearest access was many kilometers away. He had daughters, but no sons to help him around the house. He was very serious as he explained what access to the water network meant to him: “It’s like a life to me.”
The entire day was a learning experience, on more than photography and storytelling. It was an opportunity to work with my colleague in an entirely new way — not just communicating via e-mail. It’s an experience that we will both take back to our work in Basra, where the landscape and weather may be different, but the challenges people face are often the same.