Sunday, March 1, 2015 – Experiencing incredible Iraq with kind-hearted people all around me and seeing firsthand the ISIS cr-isis…

We arrived in Iraq at 5 AM and by the time I got to bed it was almost 7. I was up by 10 and ready to start my day.  I had missed breakfast at the hotel and saw a grocery store and a fruit market from my hotel window. I walked up to the store and picked out 2 bananas. I went to pay the store keeper. We could not understand each other but I took out the money and placed it in his hands. He smiled and refused to take it. He put the bananas and my money in the bag and said “thanks, it’s okay” in Arabic and waved goodbye. I went next door and bought some other things and then told the story to the owner of this store. I was told Mwabi, the fruit store owner, had come as a refugee and started this small fruit store. He is so kind that whenever foreigners come he thinks they have come to help and gives away some of the fruit.

So this evening I went back to see Mwabi to buy more fruit. Mwabi was not there but his friend who could speak English was there. He laughed and said just help yourself. I did pay.

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Then I went to see Azalea at her work with ADRA MENA (Middle East and North Africa).

There are about 13 local people in the office. The two foreigners are Azalea, who is managing the Canadian funded project, and Meriam from Australia who is providing support to several projects managed by the office and working together on the IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) crisis project. There are 2.5 million IDPs in various parts of Iraq.

Meriam, Azalea and Marhab

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We made a trip to the IDP camp. Brought back memories of my work in Kenya, Sri Lanka and Haiti. There are 3,000 men, women and children in this huge warehouse with tents pitched inside for each family.

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I had a conversation with the father of 4 children who lived a peaceful life less than an hour away from Erbil where we are at. One night ISIS came and asked for the ID cards of the men. The first thing on the ID is the religion (not even name) M for Muslim and C for Christian. He is a Muslim but within that is a classification SH for Shia and SU for Suni. He was Shia and was not welcome near Mosul area where he was living. He had an old car so he left with his family but many were killed.

Here is the ID card he still carries.

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Here is part of his family – now lives in the IDP camp. He has been here for 10 months.

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Iraq is an incredible place with all the modern conveniences and seems much safer than many places I have visited.  This evening we went out for a meal with Meriam driving. We found a South Indian and Sri Lankan restaurant. They even served Masala Dosa. The man in the picture is John Mwanza, I worked with him in Sudan on a 6 year project.  He is here for a month helping to set up an accounting system. We were working on that for a bit today.

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It was 8 PM when we finished. Fadi, one of the young drivers for ADRA, called and said that we must do a night tour of the city. So we did.

It was an eye opening ride until 10:30 PM. All the malls are open until midnight and most restaurants until 11PM. Traffic was everywhere. The city of Erbil is very modern, organized and clean.  Buildings use the latest technology and the only way I can describe the city is as a mini Dubai.  This is the family mall – was very crowded.

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City highlights

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Fadi, our guide, insists on paying for our drinks and treats and does pay for it. He is a Syrian refugee. He wants to have us see it all as we have to travel outside of the city tomorrow and could take up the whole day. I had fresh bananas in warm chocolate fondue that was being made in a big fountain at the store.

Fadi with Azalea.

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In the middle of the city is a statue of Virgin Mary – reminds me that religions can co-exist in harmony with the right attitude of people. Even though this country is Muslim, there seems to be respect for all people.

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The risks are there and people talk openly about it. If ISIS advances to Erbil there will be bad news. They are only 50 KM away from where we are at. So anything can happen at any time. There is a strong US Army presence here (I haven’t seen it) probably near the borders. Getting through this airport is the most pleasant experience I have had. No forms to fill, no question of any kind. “Welcome” is the only word from the passport control officer and no entry visa. No customs check either.

Tomorrow I leave with the team for a full day of work outside of Erbil.