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    Posted March 4, 2015 by
    Dohuk, Iraq
    This iReport is part of an assignment:
    Your stories from the Middle East

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    The Other Iraq


    CNN PRODUCER NOTE     kimpozniak and her colleagues at CRS (Catholic Relief Services) shared these images at a Child Friendly Space outside of Dohuk, Iraq on Sunday.
    - hhanks, CNN iReport producer

    By Cullen Larson

    It has been two weeks since I left for a new assignment that took me far from my home in Atlanta, where I am the Southeast Regional Director for Catholic Relief Services, the international humanitarian agency of the Catholic community in the United States. It had been a long flight, then baggage and customs and finally driving to my new post, passing over hills, through valleys and towns flanked with snow-dressed mountains along either side. Herds of sheep and goats dotted green pastures next to plowed fields and flowering fruit trees. At the higher spots, winter still held sway. The scenery reminded me of Wyoming and Montana. We stopped at a traffic light, hearing the Friday call to prayer as people walked toward the neighborhood mosque. I always like to hear the muezzin when I come to the Middle East.

    I had arrived in Iraq.

    The road from Erbil to Dohuk province, my new post in Iraq’s northern Kurdistan region, changes back and forth from a single potholed lane to a modern four-lane highway. During the drive, I tried to prepare myself for the work that was ahead: supporting the work of my CRS and Caritas colleagues working to assist thousands of displaced Iraqis, who were driven from their homes by the Islamic State. This region has received about 1.8 million displaced people - about half of them in Dohuk. I soon learned from my colleagues at Caritas Iraq – many of whom are displaced themselves - about concerns that anticipated military action by Iraqi, Kurdish and coalition forces to retake Mosul from “Daesh” -- an Arabic term for ISIS – might mean another million people could arrive later this spring.

    While I spend most days in the CRS office overseeing our emergency response, poring over a steady stream of purchase orders, authorizations and employment contracts, my thoughts often turn from the aid that winter demands toward preparing for this new wave of displaced people and their needs for survival in the heat of summer ahead. For millions of them, their sojourn away from the homes they once knew will be a protracted one.

    I met some of the families that had fled the violence recently in small villages near Dohuk. The people of the area are Yazidis, a religious minority in Iraq, who were forced from their homes by ISIS. Many were trapped on Sinjar Mountain for many weeks before being rescued and making their way here to Dohuk. They now live in what had been vacant, unfinished concrete buildings without doors, windows, or even walls, leftovers from earlier waves of violence in Iraq and more recently, unresolved disputes between the Kurdistan and the Baghdad central government that caused construction financing to dry up. These half-finished buildings are now home thousands of people.

    To make them livable, CRS and Caritas has installed PVC-framed doors, double-pane windows and, as needed, corrugated metal roofs, better sealing the buildings from the weather and cold, in addition to supplying blankets, carpets, cooking pots and kerosene heaters. To these sparse furnishings, some families have been able to add a few cushions, maybe a tiny TV and rough wooden shelving for storing food items.

    In every building, it seemed, women were bent and busy scrubbing the uneven, concrete floors. Children darted about with curiosity. Pre-teen girls exchanged shy smiles and giggles. Young boys attended to family needs while dreaming of making a life of their own one day. Grandmothers sat on the rough steps, perhaps remembering what had been. Some chickens, turkeys and couple of cows were around. Often as many as six families live in one house (about three dozen people), none able to earn an income. These living quarters, while rough and chilly, seem to offer a bit of dignity that the huge camps don’t. But it’s hard to say which is better. Neither choice is good. Obviously, what all of them really need is peace.

    The other day, I did something I rarely do in Atlanta – I went walking through a mall. Though Atlanta is famed for its lavish malls, I don’t like shopping– at all. But after dinner in Dohuk, I walked along the streets, lined with a variety of stores – electronics, appliances, furniture, clothing, groceries, coffee, tea – and through the nearby, three-story Dohuk “Mazi-Mall.” The shopping center was brightly lit as if it were Christmas and was full of middle class residents of Dohuk believing – as so many do in malls around Atlanta – that this was the place to see and be seen. Amid the not-so-inexpensive stores, a movie theater, bowling alley and even outlets serving any Western junk food you could want, you could have been anywhere in the U.S. But I wasn’t. I was in Iraq, in Dohuk, not far from where thousands fled from violence to seek shelter in empty buildings.

    When you see the kinds of divisions that emerge and persist from violence and war, it is easy to throw up your hands and say it’s all useless; people will never get along, especially in the Middle East. But our CRS experience belies such feelings; we know people of all ethnicities and faiths who want and work for peace. I continue to be appreciative and intrigued by how well our diverse and growing team of 40 some staff work together, with at least five languages represented, a range of religious affiliations, education levels from professional degrees to volunteers – many displaced themselves - signing with a thumbprint. Between paperwork and lunch meetings over falafel, coffee and baklava, I take in the often blue skies, flowering trees and the green grass being munched by scattered herds of sheep.

    It’s a beautiful place. It deserves better. It deserves peace.
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