Iraqi Wedding Crashers

The second portion of the modules is going much more smoothly. The professors are starting to understand that they actually need to show up to the lectures they’ve been assigned. Also, some of them are really connecting with the participants and making the modules more relevant to Kurdish culture and society. We’re getting great feedback for what works and what doesn’t work so hopefully we’ll be able to create a more practical program in the future.
I met with a local NGO Director today to establish a possible partnership between myself and his organization. His NGO, Harikar is a very active human rights organization based in Dohuk. Out of the many organizations we visited this one was the most impressive in terms of structure, reach, and activity. I reached out to this organization because I saw a need on both sides. Harikar has a representative in Tennessee (which funnily enough has a large Kurdish population) but no one to promote, fundraise, and represent the organization in the big cities such as DC and NYC. Here in comes me. I think this would be a great learning experience for me since I’m trying to establish myself as a professional in the international realm….and because at this point in my life I feel that I have not done anything impactful. I’ve enjoyed my previous NGO work but to call it like it is; I have not really seen any fruits of my labor. So, I met with Saleh (the Director) and touched base with what I could do in my capacity to help spread word of the organization. I think this blog is a good first step ;). It’s nice to be taken seriously as a professional and realizing that all that money I’ve been spending for these degrees are actually being put to good use! Everything is still pretty early but hopefully I’ll be able to learn a lot and do some beneficial work for this organization. Motive of the story: Always explore every opportunity that’s presented. You never know where it might lead.
Now to the interesting part! Yesterday we were invited to an Iraqi wedding of a relative (?) of one of the NGO Directors in the training module. I’ve had my share of Indian functions all my life so I had some ideas about how it would go down. Still walking into a place you’ve never been and experiencing something you never have is still nerve wrecking. I’m happy to say though that I had a blast and everyone was so welcoming to us.
Best Part: We got to participate in the traditional Iraqi dance. As you may not know, I’m ready to thrown down any chance I get. Last night was no exception. Basically you lock pinkys with each person to your side, do a right-foot-left-foot two step, and cross over to the left. When the music starts to get busy really throw your shoulders into it. Repeat this process until you go around the room. Oh and this goes one for at least one hour. Well, I think did it right…if not I’ll get it right next time. Got a lot of cool shots in of the wedding party. It’s always a great experience to see first-hand the differences in other cultures. What better way to experience culture then through a wedding? Hoping to soak up as much culture as I can in the week we have left.

Just so you think it isn’t all play and no work

I wanted to take this post and assure you that, despite appearances, the professional side of our trip to Kurdistan is going well.  Our training participants have completed the first seven basic modules, and began the advanced modules. Additionally, we are conducting regular on-site interviews with these same participants in order to gain a more complete image of the NGO atmosphere and sector in Duhok and to also gauge their interest in an ongoing partnership with Seton Hall University.  While there are several recurring themes that continue to come up in each of our interviews, I find the most interesting one to be a sense of distrust that exists among the NGOs here; including ones that have similar missions and purposes that, in my US-mindset I believe, should at least be partnering together in order to conserve resources.

Duhok NGO Fast Facts

a) If we understand correctly, there are some 100 or so NGOs in Duhok and they vary greatly in size.  This range includes a handful of very large, established NGOs that have solid reputations and have partnered with many high-level international organizations such as UNESCO and various other UN entities, the EU, various US agencies and departments, and also US-based NGOs but the majority are in the small to small-medium size range and struggle with funding.

b) NGOs have to be licensed by the Kurdistan Regional Government (since Kurdistan is operated almost entirely independent of the rest of Iraq, the KRG is the federal government) and NGOs generally receive somewhere between $1000-$1400/month with certain portions earmarked for rent and administrative costs and the rest tagged for activities.

c) The most common NGOs are those related to “human rights” and when asked about what they work for or towards it is generally women’s rights and children’s rights

d) There are no animal shelters in Iraq, but we have met with an animal rights organization that, if I understand correctly, has the land to build on but not the funding… this same organization also explained one of their obstacles is selling animal rights to individuals in a region where human rights are lacking as well.

e) Contrary to what I posted before about being told that UN isn’t popular in Kurdistan, it seems the UN agencies that provide project funding are popular.

f) But on that note, Kurdistan is suffering from a situation where international funders seem to have “moved on” from the region and believe it is set or good or done.  If I understand correctly, there is a perception that international funders don’t think Kurdistan needs the help any more but that southern and middle Iraq do.  While Kurdistan is more secure and safe than the whole of Iraq, it is very much still a developing region that has only escaped the clutches of a dictator and begun to see any sort of recognizable economic development in the last decade.

g) Some of the larger NGOs we have met with have a trust in place with each other because they know the other won’t blemish their own reputation.  These same organizations have attempted to provide free capacity building workshops (like grant writing classes) to the smaller NGOs but the above mentioned distrust keeps the small NGOs away (we were told in a meeting that in one case only two people showed up).

h) From time to time, the larger NGOs are in a position to provide small grants (around US$20,000) but that same distrust will often cause the small NGOs to question why they are offering it and then not accept it…

i) Which fits with the weird and unconventional idea we have noticed in our time here that foreigners are, at times, more warmly accepted than Kurdish countrymen.

…and some pictures to prove we work!

The Kurdish Outdoors

Before visiting the destroyed palace, we were first guided to a place where we could swim.  After driving for 40 or 50 minutes we parked in a village and then followed a very neat, stone irrigation system up into the woods (I noticed the irrigation system as we drove up the hill to the village and found it to be very neat).

We came to a small clearing that overlooked a small pool in a spring-fed river and simply enjoyed the day relaxing and swimming.


Ruins of a Saddam Palace

It can be an odd experience to find yourself in the vicinity, or sometimes exact spot, that a historical figure once visited. We recently headed out of Duhok on a day trip to see the great Kurdish outdoors and to see what’s left of a Saddam Hussein palace. Saddam’s palace sat on a hill, in the middle of a valley overlooking a small lake and, in its time, would have been unlike anything else in the surrounding area. However, despite the beauty I’m sure it held I obviously prefer the crumbling and Saddam-less house left behind in its place.



One of these things is not like the other…

So apparently I am the darkest person in all of Kurdistan. 🙂

I’ve seen some other Indian people here (almost all of them being day-workers and the like), but for the most part I seem to be the only dark-skinned person wherever we go. That’s cool with me since that is usually the case wherever I am, but it is especially clear here.

One thing is for certain; the people here are all so wonderful and accommodating and I have never been offended or had a single issue with anyone. It is just amusing when people ask me if I am African (my count is at 4 so far). The people here seem very comfortable with foreigners and people of different ethnicities. I think it’s a reflection of how appreciative this area is to Americans, but also the increasing interaction with Kurdistan and the Western world. I didn’t know how welcoming or safe it would be when I came here, but I know now how important hospitality and peace is in this culture. I can’t wait to come again and represent Americans, Indians, and of course Africans!

Nom Nom Nom

I’m pleasantly surprised with the options of food we have found around the Dohuk area. Coming here I was expecting to eat three square meals of lamb/chicken and rice. Don’t get me wrong we get plenty of that here, but we have found a lot of restaurants branching out with hamburgers, pizza, and tasty, tasty smoothies. The tourist in me wants to soak up as much Kurdish cuisine as possible, but the American in me just wants to keep it simple as apple pie. I feel like we’ve tapped out most of the restaurants in Dohuk but I’m sure there’s still a few surprises along the way. I’m also thankful for the integrity of my stomach during this whole trip. Anyone who knows me knows that:
1. I am a glutton for all things food.
2. I have an equally volatile digestive track.
But thankfully, all of the kabobs, shwarmas of meat, and bread (suspiciously similar to naan) hasn’t gotten me down yet.
Oh and did I mention the variety of food that comes standard for every meal? I guess it is in Kurdish Culture to offer a WIDE array of appetizers and tea with breakfast, lunch, and dinner. But now I feel spoiled, and when I go back to a restaurant in the states I know I’m going to be asking the waiter where my salad, soup, bread, alternate salad, dates, hummus, other kind of bread, tea, and water is before I get my main course. Oh yeah and in the Christian districts you can buy alcohol (but you have to be discreet).
KRG you have spoiled me plenty.

A Week Well Spent

So it has been an official week from when we started our journey to Iraq. They say that time flies when you’re having fun, but it already feels like we’ve been here for a month and I’m still loving every minute of it. I’ve had some up and down moments with my stomach getting used to the traditional food. But for the most part it’s been pretty relaxing. I feel like we’re becoming a couple of regulars around Dohuk. Reving has been spending a lot of time (and money) taking us out and showing us the best that the city has to offer. I’ll explain the awesomeness that is Reving in a later blog. But he seems to know everyone and anyone Dohuk. When I think of him Ron Burgendy pops in to my head saying, “People know me, and my apartment smells of rich mahogany.”

We’ve completed the first four basic modules of our program (Ethical Leadership, Financial Management, Strategic Planning, and Fundraising) and visited three NGOs. The first day of the training was kind of rocky and many people were upset about the translation of the materials. Kurdish is very different from the Arabic text that was translated for the course per request of the State Department. However, our guides and contacts at UoD assured us that it was common phenomenon with the Kurdish people to resist such change. I feel that the NGO leaders felt under pressure like they were being evaluated. However, it seems to be getting progressively better and more and more of the leaders have begun to feel comfortable with what we we’re presenting them.

Along the way Dr. Rund (Director of International Relations), Reving, and our other coordinator Amad have been filling us in on Kurdish history (the good and the bad). He commands a lot of respect for his work as an interpreter for the Coalition forces and for the bravery his family has shown over the years. His grandfather was a part of the revolt of ’46 and he has had countless friends and loved ones arrested, beaten, or murdered at the hands of the Iraqi Regime. It really got me thinking; we study events and people in our history books and read about current affairs in the paper, but when you’re actually in a place where so much tragedy has transpired you have a different level of appreciation. I don’t think I could have ever understood or appreciated the nature of Kurdistan without coming here and experiencing it myself.

The history nerd inside me is jumping for joy.

Welcome to Zariland!

The other day we moved into our second and final place for the duration of our trip in a recently developed area called Zariland (So far I have seen it spelled any number of ways).  This is a whole complex with 1000+ apartments and near to a few little grocery stores and some sort of an amusement park.  The previous residents in our place were two American ESL teachers who had spent the last two years with the University.

Living room


Balcony (with Smijai)

Balcony view

Bathroom/laundry room

Me and Ryan’s room

Our encouraging wall sign

An adventure in laundry

We have this washing machine in our bathroom and it took all four graduate students to figure it out.  Ways in which this machine is different than what we are accustomed to in the US and questions I would have liked answered ahead of time: 1) it is small 2) where’s the dryer? 3) what’s that little thing on the right for? 4a) so how does it get water in it? 4b) now that we’ve washed our clothes how do we get the water out of it? 5) who invented this?!

What follows is the first attempt to do laundry and the second attempt the next day:

Attempt #1: Emptying the washer… as you can see Smijai and Ryan are tipping it over to pour water out of the tub and down our shower drain.


Attempt #2: Emptying the washer… as you can see we figured out there was a drain tube on the side of it and so we dragged the washer towards the shower drain and shoved the tube down it.