How Iraq sounds to most of us

Iraq, January 24, 2011

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In the days before I left the U.S., when I was telling friends and family about traveling to Iraq, the words I heard most were, “Really? Be careful.”

Even in the brief time I spent in Turkey — Iraq’s northern neighbor — whenever my final destination came up in conversation, people would say, “Really? Isn’t it dangerous? Be careful.”

I’d bet that in most corners of the world, whenever someone even hears “Iraq,” it immediately conjures up all kinds of negativity: danger. Displacement. Instability. Possibly more than any other country today, Iraq — particularly the way it’s portrayed in the international media — seems to represent violence and fear.

But that can’t be the whole story, can it? There have to be all kinds of positive stories to be found in Iraq, right?

That’s the reason I’ve traveled here for Mercy Corps: not only to talk with those we serve about how things are changing (as well as their ongoing challenges), but also to teach our Iraqi national staff about gathering stories that share the good work they’re doing. Stories that show we’re making a difference.

It seems like an uphill battle sometimes: I mean, even with the success stories I’ve read during my time with Mercy Corps, I still have a knee-jerk reaction when I hear about Iraq. I go back to memories of the invasion of Kuwait and the First Gulf War that ensued. The images of that and everything that’s followed are hard to shake.

Add to those memories the fact that I heard on the news tonight that there were car bombs that killed 18 people in the city of Karbala today, bringing the death toll from a week of renewed terror to more than 150. I certainly find myself more cautious on this trip than any other I’ve been on — and that includes places like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, post-earthquake Haiti and northern Uganda near the end of a civil war.

But there were 22 Iraqi staff in the classroom today, eager to learn how writing and pictures can help them tell the stories of what they’re seeing. Who they’re talking to. Stories of hope. Tomorrow we’ll all be traveling out to nearby villages to practice newly-learned interviewing and photography skills.

While I’m a bit uneasy to hit the road tomorrow, I’m excited to see what workshop participants will come up with — and eager to share stories about some good things that are happening in Iraq, at last.