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.



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.

Motel Rebar, our first home

The Motel Rebar was our first home and is located around the corner from a main road in the city center of Duhok.  Here are a few quick snapshots of our home for the first week.

Paige’s living room (ours was the exact same but I didn’t take a picture of it)

Our all in one shower and bathroom

This is where Ryan and I slept.  Smijai slept here one night and then went back into our second room by himself.

Out the front door one way

Just down the street

If I were alive in 640AD when this place was built and lived down the street, I’d probably still not know about it…

Today, Friday, July 1st was our first true day off.  No class, no site visits, no visa-related trips, and no residence moving.  We certainly made the best of it.  After sleeping in and laying around until the early afternoon, we loaded up with our University-endorsed taxi driver and headed out of Duhok to Al Qush to do some site seeing.

Our first stop was at the Catholic Monastery of the Virgin Mary that was built in the 1850s or 1860s (I believe) and is still in use today.

Wasting no time, we entered the first courtyard and were greeted after only a few moments by a man named Danka (spelling is a guess) who, I’m assuming, was the head priest.  He escorted us into the second courtyard and invited us to have tea with him in his office.

His office was very nice and with many modern features that made you feel you were in a regular 21st century workplace.  He explained, through his not exactly limited but also not close to fluent grasp of English, he had been trained in Rome and pointed out the picture of himself with Pope John Paul II and had now been there for many years.  I asked him what a normal day was at the monastery and he said prayers, services, and helping the local people.  When asked what the locals needed most help with he said “development.”  Al Qush very much resembles an itty-bitty town but still much more than a village; it has paved roads, permanent buildings, a soccer field and Ferris wheel, a few shops, and electricity (although he made it sound like they only have electricity for half the day).  After some more small talk, we thanked him and headed out to the seventh century monastery the Virgin Mary had replaced.  Oh yeah… the Kurdish soldier who guarded the small entrance gate to the monastery was waiting for us… to show us this terrifying spider he had caught.

The Rabban Hormizd Monastery (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rabban_Hormizd_Monastery) is really something.

It’s amazing that these places can exist in the world and yet in the US, and most places I imagine, we will generally go our whole lives without hearing about them.  The monastery has a gated, soldier guarded entrance that hides a very windy and uphill road.  It is very similar to, I think it’s Lombard St. in San Francisco.  But once we made it up the hill in our trusty Nissan Sunny (something that if it were in the US would fall below the Sentra on the model line) we parked and continued to climb up the stairs.

This place is amazing.  It is built into the cliffs and reminds me on premise alone of the supposedly unbreachable castle in Lord of the Rings 2.

After a brief pause in a cave with a significantly lower temperature than outside and water seeping through the rock, we move up into the monastery itself and explored.

Our first adventure is of the spelunking nature.  Through the sanctuary of the monastery we find an opening in the wall with no lighting, but visible is some sort of a table with a shackle on it.


Even if there was someone to ask a question to… I probably wouldn’t have.  Moving further into the darkness and being guided by my cellphone’s camera light, the Seton Hall Spelunking Club (including our taxi driver) as well as Velma, Freddy, Shaggy, Daphne, and Scooby followed twists and turns down farther into the darkness.  True to the meaning of the first sign we saw in the sanctuary, this was a place full of tombs.

We must have spent at least a half an hour wondering down these dark passageways and then back up again.

After getting back to the sanctuary we headed outside and decided to climb up the mountainside to this particular cave we had seen.  Scaling a rocky “pathway” (again complete with taxi driver) that is probably just where the water flows when it rains we eventually made our way over to the cave.

Two things happened in the cave. First, I walked into the dark offshoot room of the cave only to be spooked by a bat that dropped from the ceiling and flew away (when I say spooked I mean I yelled “bat bat bat!” and ran the seven step length of the cave).  Second, we noticed a hole in the ceiling of the cave that clearly went somewhere else.  Naturally, Ryan and Smijai hoisted me up to explore it.

After getting up there, and fearing the bat’s return to finish me off, I looked around but it was just another room.

We descended back down from the cave to the monastery and continued the exploration.  Did I mention we haven’t come across anyone other than the soldiers at the gate at the bottom of the hill?  This would continue until we departed and ran into some Arab tourists (our taxi driver explained in a condescending way that “all the Arabs come to Kurdistan on the weekends”).  Anyways, we must have evaluated every room and cave in the entire place.  At one point, I was looking through a gate with a locked chain on it muttering about how we couldn’t get through when Smijai leaned on the gate only to have it swing partly open.  Apparently, I should have checked to see what exactly the locked chain did and did not do in the first place.

Having already visited one of the two peaks with very large crosses on it, we set out to climb the mountainside with the second cross and more caves.  Our very dedicated taxi driver, again, went with us.  Getting to the second cross was not a challenge but we climbed slightly farther up and then finally took a break to enjoy the view.  It was amazing.  You could see over the surrounding hills (and even the lake we had driven by on the way to Al Qush much earlier in the day), back down to the village, and farther up the “freeway” to two neighboring towns even.

Finally, the setting sun indicated it was time to go and we all headed back down to the car (the way back down the mountain seemed much easier to me).

Driving back to Duhok with our taxi driver one had to wonder if he had any idea what he was in for today when our University contact told him to “always stay with them.”