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'I'm an employee now'

Iraq, October 18, 2011

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Hamid Jassim is the 52-year-old father of a big family – he has two sons and three daughters, and is known in his community as Abo Mustafa. I met him while he was working as a laborer on a project for the rehabilitation of Basma Kindergarten, in the Jalawla neighborhood outside of Khanaqin. We'd hired him as part of an Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) cash-for-work program to help families in need.

Abo Mustafa comes from Khanaqin, but has worried for his family because of the bad security situation there. Khanaqin has faced regular bombing and kidnapping threats. The area also still struggles with ethnic and sectarian tensions. And in Jalawla neighborhood, where Abo Mustafa was lives and works, there is an Arab majority.

During the former regime, there was heavy fighting in the area, with land disputes between Kurds and Arabs. This led to the destruction of a lot of infrastructure and services, including Basma Kindergarten, which was essentially unusable due to crumbling walls, broken windows, and lack of electrical and water access. It was also used by the military during the fighting. Now the troops are gone – but the memory of that time remains.

The cash-for-work program provided much-needed employment for area residents, while using that work to make improvements in infrastructure, schools, and other buildings. It allowed the people of Khanaqin to rebuild their city piece by piece.

One of those people was Abo Mustafa. He told me: “Every morning I would go to the location where laborers gathered and waited for someone to hire them for work. There is not a lot of work in Jalawla; most of the people are poor. I have tried to go to work in Khanaqin [city center] but it didn’t fit with me. I can’t leave my family and stay in Khanaqin and it is not easy to travel every day – I have to spend what I gain on transportation.”

The cash-for-work program also employed Abo Mustafa’s two oldest sons, Mustafa and Ala’a. At 17, Ala’a needed to buy clothes and supplies for the new school year; he worked at on the construction project until his school year started, and had the money to buy what he needed.

After he began working on the Basma Kindergarten reconstruction, Abo Mustafa was glad to receive his first week’s pay: “The first time I received my wage, I went to the market and bought meat and fruit for my wife and children. I don’t think I’d purchased meat for them in more than eight months.”

When I met him, Abo Mustafa had been working on the project for more than a month. He said it gave him great pleasure to wake up in the morning, employed, and go to his “office”. He thanked Mercy Corps for this feeling, saying that he gained respect for himself as an employee.

"I’m not an educated man," he said, "so no one would employ me. But your organization helped me, and now the contractor has asked me to work until the construction is completed."