Editor's note: Sahar Alnour is a program manager for Mercy Corps in Iraq. She spent part of her childhood in Syracuse and graduated from Syracuse University in 2001.
In packing for a recent trip to Baghdad, the furthest thing from my mind was Vice President Joe Biden. I thought I would spend much of my trip helping my colleagues move boxes into a new office, and I packed accordingly.
It took us six hours to Baghdad from Sulaimaniya, the Kurdish city in the north where I have been living. I am a program manager for the international aid organization Mercy Corps. Since February, I have been running women's programs in the country, including a literacy campaign.
I sat in the front seat, excited to be traversing new terrain. Until recently, it was considered too dangerous to make the trip to Baghdad by car. Sadly, it was too dusty to really see much that day. It reminded me of visibility in Syracuse, my hometown, during a light snow storm. Of course, the sky on the road to Baghdad had an orange haze to it like nothing you'd see in Upstate New York.
When I got into Baghdad, I could sense a tense mood. Most Iraqis were pleased to see U.S. troops withdrawing from Iraqi cities on July 1, but two car bombs the week before, one in Kirkuk and one in Baghdad, had dampened the occasion.
I was busy last week running a series of community meetings and racing to write two grant proposals under deadline -- all while the office was in complete disarray from the move and temperatures soared to 90 degrees. So, when I received an e-mail telling me that on top of everything else, I had to represent Mercy Corps at a meeting at the U.S. embassy on July 3, I nearly lost it. I begged to get out of the meeting -- to no avail.
When I called the embassy to confirm my attendance, I mentioned that I hoped the meeting was not too formal as I didn't even have a suit with me. The embassy employee laughed and said it would be a bit formal. He told me a VIP would be joining the meeting, but he didn't say who that VIP would be.
That evening as I pulled my only pair of dress pants out of the just-hooked-up washing machine, I discovered the towel I had washed with them had shed light brown lint all over. Now, I'm not talking about a few specks. This was lint that gets stuck and never comes off.
Total panic ensued. The only other pants I had with me were jeans. My female colleagues didn't have any clothes that fit me and there was no time to pick up something new. Thankfully, a male colleague lent me a pair of pants that nearly fit. Then we had to figure out the word for safety pin in Arabic (kelaab) and frantically call our Baghdad staff begging to borrow some. When we finally managed to get our hands on some safety pins the next morning, we hiked up the hems a good 5 inches, and off I went.
Upon arrival at the meeting place, we were escorted in almost immediately. And there was the Vice President standing in a receiving line, ready to shake everyone's hands.
As I sat at the long, oval table, I realized I was the youngest participant in the meeting by at least 10 years and the only woman. And, I was wearing men's pants with safety pins. This was clearly a sink-or-swim situation.
The Vice President facilitated the meeting himself. He began by asking about the tension between Kurds and Arabs, Shias and Sunnis -- looking for feedback about whether improved economic development would relieve some of these tensions. I responded immediately, saying that I did not think that economic development alone would help the situation between Kurds and Arabs because the Kurds are actually doing pretty well economically -- except in areas where you have displaced Arabs in poor Kurdish communities.
Biden also asked the group how U.S. assistance could be more effective. I was the first participant to speak. Here, I had to take a deep breath and ask if I could speak frankly. I told him that the Provincial Reconstruction Teams -- military personnel doing humanitarian assistance and development work -- are not an effective use of resources. I said that while their hearts are in the right places, ordinary Iraqis are often afraid when they see their uniforms. This means that most of the time, the military is relying on information from only a few select people. I argued that this leads to an environment rife with corruption.
We also talked about the security conditions on the ground. I highlighted Mercy Corps' no-arms policy, which means that we do not travel in armored vehicles or use security forces, and how we rely on community acceptance to accomplish our goals. Mercy Corps has been in Iraq since 2003 and operates in some of the most challenging and insecure areas in the country. Mercy Corps employs more than 180 local Iraqi staff, and only 18 internationals, which means our programs are designed and run by Iraqis.
After the 90-minute roundtable discussion, Biden walked around the table to thank me for Mercy Corps' participation. I couldn't believe the Vice President was personally thanking me. Army Gen. Ray Odierno also thanked me, and said he agreed with me. He said they've been frustrated by their inability to connect with communities, and that I made some important points.
And that is how a girl from Syracuse met the Vice President of the United States of America in men's pants and safety pins.