Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Terrorism in Erbil

Before I came to Kurdistan everyone was really worried about me. Frankly, I was a little worried as well. But then I came here and I met a lot of wonderful people, both expat and local, who helped me get used to it and realize that it's actually a really wonderful place full of opportunities.

Since I've been here, I've started a radio show. I help run (multiple) weekly fundraisers. I am working regularly with a volunteer organization. I have learned bits and phrases of both Arabic and Kurdish. I've learned to like music I never thought I would have. I've eaten sheep testicles and lamb spinal cord, absurd amounts of hummus and falafel. I found out that the Middle East is not just a big desert (it's surprising how many waterfalls I've visited in Kurdistan). I've gotten a really great new job. AND I've fallen in love and am in the beginning stages of planning a wedding. (Bet you didn't see that one coming, but that's a story for another time).

Kurdistan is not a bad place. It's not a perfect place either, but seriously, where is? There are some details missing (ocean, deciduous trees, 24/7 electricity and water) but it's a place with great potential. And it's for just that reason (the one that I'm learning to adore about this place) that there are others less fortunate and more close-minded in the world who hate what Kurdistan represents.

So Sunday when a group of terrorists bombed and attacked the Ministry of Interior and the general police directorate, I was terrified. 

It's only natural, and I suppose that's kind of the point of terrorism, eh?

Luckily, being a former journalist, reporter mode kicked in and I just went into over-drive finding information. I knew about the attack within 15 minutes because my fiance works for a security company. He told me to stay put. I was at work in a neighborhood about 15 minutes from home and probably the same amount of time from the blast site. 

I did as I was told. But given that I now work in an office where I'm all by myself all day, I had too much time on my hands and not enough info. It was then that I remembered how amazing Twitter is when it comes to up-to-the-minute info. Between Twitter and two FB groups specific to Erbil, I had heaps of information some of it more reliable than the rest.

By the time everything was under control again, I probably had as much, if not more, information than the fiance. 

Here's the thing, I've lived here for over a year and this is the only terrorist activity I've seen. This is the first since 2007. America has seen more terrorist activity in that time. 

So I was scared and now most of my family members are terrified again and tell me to get the hell out. It's not happening, at least not at this point. 

I realize I'm not from here, but dammit this is my home. I've settled in here. I live here. My life is here. My future husband is here. My two (gigantic) dogs are here. Would you up and abandon the city you live in because of a (currently thought to be) one-off bombing? Probably not.

So I'm in sit-and-wait mode. I'm under strict instructions (from the fiance) to call him every time I leave the office or go somewhere so he knows where to find me if something were to happen. 

But beyond that, life must go on, because if it doesn't, then the terrorists win.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Syrian Refugees in Kurdistan in Great Need

So there are more than 2 million Syrian refugees in the world. It is estimated that half of them are children. More than 250,000 of those refugees live in camps throughout the Kurdistan region where I live.

I said something awhile back about how some people I know co-founded an organization called the RISE Foundation. They're amazing. It's volunteer-only. Not a penny goes anywhere except for straight to things that are needed for the refugees.

Just yesterday, Dr. Amer (one of the co-founders) bought 800 small stoves which will be distributed to refugee families living in Qushtapa near Erbil.

I've kind of gone head on into fundraising and donation drives. We've got four locations set up throughout the city where people can donate food and daily necessities. We've got two weekly fundraisers. And yesterday I finally managed to set up an online donation system.

We're having another fundraiser come up soon. The local Oktoberfest celebration has a raffle and all proceeds go to RISE. Then we're having a beer pong championship a week later and all the entry fees go to RISE and we're taking donations throughout the night.

Our next goal is $6,000. We want make food packages to give to each of the families living in one of the nearby camps. We figure with the food donations we're getting plus another $10 family, we should be able to give them a pretty good package.

Please share and donate!

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Fundraising and Charity Part 2: Find a Organization in Iraq to Support

I almost wish I could afford to quit my job and put all my time and effort into fundraising and finding sponsors and donors for local organizations who need help and support in order to do the outreach they really want to do. The outreach that they're really needed to do.

There are so many great causes in Iraq that could use the extra help. If any of you is ever feeling charitable or especially if you know of a company that would want to make a large donation, let me know. I have multiple organizations to choose from for which I can give you ample information and I can personally put you in touch with the people in charge who I trust and know are doing everything they can for their organizations.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Fundraising and Charity Part 1: Quiz Night and Orphans

It's interesting to me that I neglected to get very involved in my community until I moved to Iraq, but then again, I guess of all the places I've lived, this is the one most sorely in need. 

I did volunteer work here and there back home. And I would always put unwanted clothes in clothing donation boxes rather than simply throwing them out. But those were the easy things. The things that didn't take up much of my time or effort. (Because honestly back then I had very little time or effort to give...)

I'm taking it a little further here though. 

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Passing the six-month marker and finally going on vacation!

So I've been living in Kurdistan for nearly seven months now. In the first six months, I hadn't been anywhere outside of Kurdistan and I had only left Erbil a couple of times.

This is highly unusual for me. Especially while I was living in Europe, I was constantly going to another country or at the very least leaving the city. I'm a little limited here. There are only so many places I can travel by car and all of them are in Kurdistan.

I'm surrounded by Iran to the east - somewhere I would have to apply for a visa first, the likelihood of getting one is low, and even if I got one, it's pretty certain officials would give me a lot of shit at the checkpoints.

Syria, to the west, is experiencing a mass exodus and you'd have to be crazy to go there on holiday. Which is a shame because I would love to go to Demascus. Maybe one day... Inshallah.

Iraq to the south is forbidden, a) by my contract with my company, b) by my visa which only allows me in Kurdistan and not the rest of Iraq, c) by my boyfriend who swears the moment it's safe he will take me to Baghdad and Babylon. Seriously want to go to both.

Turkey is to the north and while it's generally safe to go to Turkey, the part of Turkey just north of Iraq does experience a lot of rebel fighting from Turkish Kurds wanting their own state.

So that leaves me with plane travel only. Planes ain't cheap.

However, we managed to get five days off the Newroz, the Kurdish New Year, and while I would normally want to stick around to experience a celebration like that, it's literally the ONLY vacation time I have until my contract ends at the end of August.

So my boyfriend and I went to Beirut. Now yes, I'll be the first to say that things are not perfect in Lebanon either. They have Syria and the rebels bombing each other at the border in the north-east and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is always causing problems in the south.

That said, we were in a safe area. Beirut is fine. Beirut is one of the oldest cities in the world. That said, there's not much by way of touristy stuff to do because the city has also been destroyed and rebuilt eight times. So we pretty much went shopping, eating and walking along the sea.

This was fine by me. I needed the relaxation. And I appreciated that I could go to places with quality customer service and products. Kurdistan isn't the worst place I've ever been for these things, but it's certainly lacking and it wears on you over time.

That and the Mediterranean Sea is gorgeous. Oh and boyfriend had never seen the sea before. After all the only country he's been to outside of Iraq was Syria and that was a few years ago.

So it was a vacation of firsts. His first time seeing the sea. His first time eating sushi and actually liking it (because he had always had terrible sushi before). My first time going on a vacation and not doing historical sight-seeing. My first time vacationing in a Middle Eastern country (because living in one is not the same).

We both loved Beirut and had a great time. I would explain it as a Paris of the Middle East. After French influence from occupation, the people there speak Lebanese-Arabic (which has a distinct French influence) and French. Most also speak English perfectly as well. So it was interesting because signs would be in two of the three but rarely all three. Menus were in all three. I mostly got by on being able to understand written French. (I never studied French, but having studied Spanish and been around lots of people who are obsessed with French *Flannery* it makes it a little easier).

Everyone always greeted my boyfriend in Arabic and me in French. I was constantly being called mademoiselle if I was alone, or madame if I was with him.

Probably the only hitch we experienced was when we first got there. I booked the hotel under my name. A double room, single bed, because that's what normal couples do. We got there and they were like, uhm, you're not married, you're supposed to have separate rooms.

Turns out, if we had both been American, they wouldn't have cared, but because my boyfriend is a Muslim with an Iraqi passport, they wanted to push their ideals on us. I refused to allow it. He told them we were engaged and they relented. (We're not currently engaged.) When we got into our room, he looked at me and said, "We're going to have to get a fake marriage license put together if we want to travel together in the Middle East... at least until we get a real one."

Soooo, now we know. Anyway, I highly recommend Beirut, especially for those wanting a shopping/beach vacation.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

On the Radio

I don't know how it happened or when, but I'm becoming a well-known personality around here. 

I started becoming rather involved in fundraising and things (more on this awesomeness later) and then somehow ended up with a once-a-week radio show with a friend. 

It's called the EPIC Power Hour and it's every Thursday at 5 p.m. for one hour. It's a request hour and between songs we tell people about what's going on around Erbil. My co-host, Jeremy, started a Facebook page a couple of years ago that now have nearly 1800 members and we use it to create events, talk local businesses into providing sponsorship, and then keep people interacting. 

Because of this Facebook page, we have essentially got our thumb on the pulse of Erbil. 

People come to us asking us to create events at their restaurants or bars. 

The best part is we've co-opted many of those events to double as fundraisers. (Come to Quiz night. Pay $5 to play; it all goes to the Erbil Orphanage.)

And somehow in all of that, Jeremy managed to get himself on the radio. He did the first few weeks alone but quickly realized it would be a way better show if he had someone to talk to. And somehow I became that person.

People keep telling me that I have the perfect voice for radio and that I sound very natural. Who knew? But hey, I think we all knew I could probably one day make a living out of talking.

That said, right now it's on a volunteer basis and only once a week. We're looking at finding sponsors and once we do we could start getting paid and then consider expanding to more days of the week... Everyday perhaps?

Maybe eventually I'll become quite the radio personality around here.

Anyway, if you every happen to be near the Internet at 5 p.m. Iraqi time, tune into our show which you can find live-streaming here: babylongroup.info/radio/

Only on Babylon FM!

Friday, January 25, 2013

I miss pork.

There are a lot of things that are different about Kurdistan, but probably one of the hardest things for me to get used to, especially after having lived in the Czech Republic, is the severe lack of pork. And by "severe lack of" I really mean "complete non-existence of." 

Pork is "haraam" which basically means it's forbidden by Islamic law to eat pork. 

In Prague, you couldn't walk two feet without smelling some kind of pork. My niece and I spent all summer eating sausages and ham with cheese and bread for picnics in various cities across Europe. I may not have always eaten pork chops but dammit I miss bacon. 

Luckily, I have friends who often leave on R&R. That and I had a visitor from the Czech Republic over Christmas. So I've stocked up a little bit on pork. 

In my freezer you'll find Spanish chorizo and three Czech klobasa. We've already eaten the other three klobasa, and two links of Macedonian sausage that some friends gave us for Christmas. We're also halfway through a chunk of ham I was given (which I loved making mini-frittatas out of). I also have a package of bacon on its way from another friend.

Point is, there have been a lot of things over my years of living abroad that are difficult again. Normally, they're things I can live without or that I don't find particularly difficult to have shipped over (like the gigantic bag of spices my friend, Flannery, just sent me!). 

But pork, man, who was I kidding, I love that stuff. It's also a huge pain in the ass to get shipped over. Not impossible, but considering the mail system here is even less reliable than the one in Czech... oy vey.

The boyfriend and I are heading to Beirut in March for a long-weekend holiday that we have coming up. I'm told I can buy pork there. It's very likely I'm going to bring back half a suitcase full...

Don't take bacon for granted, people.