We Can Do Better

One night last February, I was in Amman, Jordan interviewing Iraqis who had fled the catastrophic violence of 2006 and 2007. My partner in this work was my friend and colleague “Ali”(not his real name), who is himself an Iraqi refugee. While we walked through the city’s dark streets, quietly considering together the dozens of stories of horror, brutality, and loss we’d heard in the last few hours alone, I was seized by a spasm of rage and sadness. Ali took my arm and shook me.

“Stop it,” Ali said. “I understand why you’re feeling this way, and thank you. But Iraqis don’t need this now. What we need is for you to be smart, to work hard, and to stay with us, because the whole world has forgotten us.”

These words have formed a bedrock of inspiration for me in the development of Direct Aid Iraq (www.directaidiraq.org), a humanitarian aid and peacebuilding effort I co-founded with Iraqi and American colleagues early last year. From its beginnings, Direct Aid Iraq (DAI) has been a partnership of Iraqis and Americans working to model a different kind of American-Iraqi relationship. The premise is that Americans have a responsibility for ongoing reparations to Iraqis, and that living up to this obligation effectively is a powerful investment in building peace – both between Iraqis and Americans, and for the future of Iraq.

On the ground in the Middle East, DAI is run entirely by a team of talented, dedicated Iraqis, and at present, its primary humanitarian work is the provision of urgent medical care. Iraqis not only identify the neediest members of their community, coordinate services, and ensure necessary follow-up care, but it is through their initiative that DAI’s work has moved in new directions: for example, the formation of a mobile health clinic for people in underserved and unserved communities, away from large cities. The role of American team members thus becomes a question of how best to support and amplify the capacity of Iraqis to help themselves and each other.

This summer, I spent several weeks in the Middle East with DAI’s Iraqi team members, accompanying them in their work, learning about the ongoing challenges they and those they serve face, and planning for the future of our shared work.

Over the past sixteen months, DAI has provided urgently-needed medical care to dozens of Iraq’s most vulnerable refugees and displaced people. And through dedicated advocacy, DAI has secured support from humanitarian organizations for the needs of more than 200 refugees who have fallen through the cracks of the support system set up by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the international aid community.

In addition to this provision of direct care, DAI team members have worked with the staff of humanitarian groups and the UN to improve strategies for aid delivery, and to shine a light on emerging issues for Iraqis in exile based on feedback from Iraqi refugee communities (members of which compose half of DAI’s coordination team, and the whole full-time team in the Middle East). We’ve coordinated visits from journalists, aid workers, and activists seeking to more fully understand the Iraqi displacement crisis and its implications.

But we know we can do better.

This month, through the support of Americans who are fulfilling their responsibility for direct reparations to Iraqis, we’re providing a range of ongoing care, including physiotherapy for Mustafa, who was thrown from the roof of his house by a US missile; the next in a series of reconstructive surgeries for Haifa’a, who was shot in the face by an Iraqi militia using ammunition supplied by US tax dollars; and medication for Amani, a child whose chronic thalassemia was ignored by the aid community because no organization had a mandate to treat it. We’re working, as we have in the past, with victims of torture, including torture by US forces.

But we can do more to facilitate support for the eight people who wait as I write this for crucial treatment, including a four-year-old child whose leg was crushed by the wheels of a US Humvee, and a young doctor who, without help, is likely in the last weeks of his life, his strength sapped by an abdominal tumor the size of a basketball.

We can do a better job at building a base of support in the United States so that we’re not always working hand-to-mouth, hoping that resources will come through in time to respond to the urgent needs we encounter daily. We continue to explore ways to expand our relationships with existing Iraqi medical and civil society networks, to further improve our access to information on emerging needs and issues, and to make getting aid to people – or people to aid – smoother.

But more than anything, we know that those of us who are Americans and peace activists can all do better at supporting Iraqis in building a future of peace for their country, right now and in the days and years to come.

DAI is based on a few simple premises. They’re so basic that we act on them more often than we talk about them. We think, though, that talking about them and the actions to which they might lead us as a movement for peace for Iraq is vital, and so we’re bringing them forward as a contribution to the ongoing discourse on Iraq at this time:

1) Iraqis are the hope and future of Iraq

This might seems obvious, but it’s not at all the message Americans hear in the mainstream media, where the image of Iraqis is one of factionalism, corruption, violence, and irrationality.

Americans rarely hear the stories of Iraqis coming together to support one another as they struggle to survive as refugees, or to build networks among effective and trusted civil society organizations within Iraq. We don’t hear about the doctors passionately working in Iraq’s clinics without basic medical supplies to save the lives of the acutely sick, chronically ill, and wounded, or the human rights defenders who, while their role is not protected legally in Iraq, risk (and sometimes lose) their lives daily to promote their vision of a future where the rights of all will be respected by those in power.

Members of the DAI team have their own stories: kidnapping in Iraq, dozens of family members killed by violence or disease, interrogation by intelligence services, loss of homes, separation from loved ones, torture, persecution. And still they work tirelessly on behalf of their communities, regardless of religion, sect, ethnicity, gender, or political affiliation.

Iraqis aren’t just the hope of Iraq’s future, they’re also the best asset Iraq has now. The physicians, engineers, and professors who make up Iraq’s professional class are scattered beyond Iraq’s borders. They are part of the estimated 4.5 million people now living away from their homes as a result of the catastrophe that Iraq has experienced. Without them, Iraq won’t have the human resources it needs to rebuild. And that’s part of the reason that efforts supporting Iraqis now – individually, as families, and organizationally – are an investment of peace in Iraq’s future.

2. We are not alone

We don’t have to figure this out by ourselves – Iraqi allies can and will help us, if we can develop trust and credibility over time by “being there,” again and again. Their voices are the ones that deserve to occupy the central position of our debates on how to withdraw US troops, mercenaries, bases, and economic and political control from Iraq; how to promote inclusive regional political solutions; and how to support Iraqis in constructing a stable, secure, and peaceful country from the ruins of war and chaos.

3. We must work together here in the US

As I’ve traveled across the US in the last months and years, I’ve encountered numerous small community groups with great ideas about providing support to Iraqis in need, and who have followed through faithfully by sending money and other support to Iraqis through school partnerships, art exchanges, support for the living expenses of families with whom previous relationships have been developed, and assistance with small numbers of medical cases.

As I’ve traveled in the Middle East, I’ve also seen how small and often poorly coordinated American “antiwar movement” efforts can alienate and disappoint the very people they are intended to support, perhaps because they arise more from earnest concern, passion, and outrage than from strategy and patient discernment on the most effective ways to proceed, in dialogue with Iraqi partners. I’ve seen the damage that is done when we put a heartfelt desire to “do something” ahead of the importance of commitment to the people with whom we’re working.

I’ve seen fruitless squabbling between “projects” for name recognition and media visibility that has trumped clear-eyed assessments of who was being helped, what could be learned, what partners were available, and what was already being done.

The Iraqi community leaders we are trying to support don’t want us competing for already scarce resources and confusing those in our communities who would support our efforts. They need us to take ourselves seriously enough to communicate, coordinate, and improve our work based on ongoing feedback and dialogue with each other, and with Iraqi partners and aid recipients who are, after all, the reason we’re doing this work in the first place.

They need us, as “Ali” said, to be smart, determined, and faithful. They need us to keep our promises, and to grow more and more effective at meeting our commitments. They need results. They need to see that, unlike our government, there are Americans who can not only recognize a responsibility, but can live up to it.

If we become too focused on “our” projects, and not on the needs of those on whose behalf we claim to be working, we will end up failing to sustain our efforts, or worse, we’ll sustain our efforts and fail to respond to the needs of Iraqis: we’ll support ourselves, but not our Iraqi partners’ needs and visions for the future.

The Americans involved in Direct Aid Iraq face this reality everyday, and we don’t exclude ourselves from these criticisms. But we earnestly struggle to rise to the challenge laid out above, and we hope that others with a concern for direct aid and solidarity will further consider this challenge, too.

4. We can do better

Americans who are opposed to this war are narrowly focused on the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq, but we can do better. The US peace movement – itself narrowly focused on the withdrawal of troops – has a crucial role to play in expanding this vision. We must make it clear that Americans have a responsibility to be part of building a movement for a future of peace in Iraq, a movement that acts in partnership with Iraqis, and with Iraqis in the lead.

As we lift up this crucial concern, we can also do better at actually modeling it through our committed, sustained action. This can’t be, as it too often is, about sound bytes and media opportunities. We have to do better about building partnerships with the wisest, most trusted, and most effective leaders in Iraq’s civil society networks – and DAI and other groups are making some promising starts. When we are asked for support, as DAI often is, we need to be able to follow through by mobilizing our communities to raise consistent funds to support not only our own joint Iraqi-American efforts but also the efforts of growing networks of Iraqi groups inside Iraq whose financial and political support continues to dwindle.

Imagine an effort arising from within the antiwar movement in the United States that merges effective aid delivery, focused peacebuilding efforts, and advocacy for policy change rooted in direct experience of each of the areas mentioned above. Imagine your local group or faith community being a part of it. Imagine what we could do with a nationwide network of communities pooling expertise and resources to identify, fund, advocate for, and sustain credible and effective Iraqi-led initiatives in Iraq and throughout the Middle East.

An effort like this is being developed, but it will take all of us. And we’d welcome your involvement.

We need your help to keep being smart, to keep working hard, and to stay with our Iraqi partners and friends. For each new person who gets involved, there’s one more voice saying to Iraqis that they haven’t been forgotten.

It’s our responsibility. Together, we can do better.

NOAH BAKER MERRILL is an American co-coordinator of Direct Aid Iraq, an Iraqi-American humanitarian aid and peacebuilding effort. DAI’s core team includes ten people, six of whom are Iraqi. He can be reached at: noah@directaidiraq.org

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