Over three years ago, a woman I greatly respect in Washington DC nominated me for the Andi Foundation’s prize for “Ordinary Women Doing Extraordinary Things” for my work with PeaceMeals. The Foundation is named after Andi Parhamovich, a young woman who was killed while advocating for democracy and peaceful transitions in Iraq. Life always has a funny way of coming full circle, and over three years later I found myself in the same country, teaching PeaceMeals to women who have experienced unthinkable trauma.
I was invited by an NGO to help set up therapeutic cooking classes at a community center which primarily assists IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons – refugees in their own country). As a very brief history: Iraq has seen it’s fair share of destruction and war. In 2014, the self-proclaimed Islamic State (ISIS), swept through the northern regions, and captured, killed, enslaved, or forcibly converted many civilians. They were particularly harsh with people of minority religions including Yazidis and Christians, as well as foreign journalists and aid workers who they were able to capture. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis were displaced from their homes, and now live indefinitely in camps administered by the United Nations. Many IDPs suffer from post-traumatic symptoms and the uncertainty of not knowing the fate of their loved ones. (The BBC did a very good overview of this situation that provides more background than I could explain here.)
I wrote a curriculum, which was translated into Arabic, and trained a local teacher to lead the classes once I left. The goal is always to give individuals agency over their own healing, and this NGO does that very well.
This blog and following are excerpts from journals I kept during my time in Iraq.
I am sitting on the rooftop of my temporary residence in Kurdistan, Iraq. I can see the mountains in the distance and hear the call to prayer as the sun sets. I am almost 2 weeks into my trip here and I can’t count the number of times that this country has surprised me. This country’s level of development, the western shopping (should I have been surprised to find Nutella at the corner store?). The friendliness and trust of the locals, their willingness to invite you in. The relative peace and security, so different from what is portrayed in western media. This place – the same region as the Biblical Garden of Eden – has defied my preconceptions in many ways.
I arrived and was immediately welcomed into the family of NGO staff – some internationals and many nationals. They have been working hard to build a space of peace and respite in the midst of trauma, poverty, and tenuous security. The building of the community center was once a bar and suspected brothel, and has been completely renovated by the NGO. It includes classes in carpentry, art, photography, computers, children’s’ classes and soon a medical clinic and a salon for women who want to learn to be beauticians. But in my opinion, the kitchen is the piece de resistance, with completely professional appliances including a 16 (!) burner stove and commercial dishwasher.
My first lessons in patience and protocol came when I was tasked to procure the cooking items for the kitchen. This required multiple trips to the bazaar on different days to buy pots and pans and spatulas and the rest of the flotsam and jetsom of the kitchen. Including not one but TWO different types of kebab skewers (silly me, thinking lamb and chicken could be cooked on the same skewer…)
Everything here takes time. You can’t just go to one store and buy everything you need in one go. Conversations are held and prices negotiated and family heritages compared. Multiple glasses of tea are drunk, to lubricate the deals of procuring 60 sets of plates (and temporary residency papers, and marriages, and ceasefires, and so on…)
I met the teacher, who I will call Hana*. She is a dignified, tiny lady who lives in a tent in a refugee camp with her 6 children. I am not sure if her husband is around – or even alive – as many women lost their men and boys to conflict in the past few years. Hana is smart. She has taken the initiative to cook small pastries and baklava and sell them in the market to make a little money for her family. I can tell she is a bit of a spitfire, too.
Working with a local translator, I am here to train Hana in how to teach a cooking class for other women IDPs like her. But this class goes beyond how to chop onions and prevent cross contamination and basic nutrition. We will also be teaching them coping skills and stress management techniques and how to actually savor your food and find joy when you are constantly living in crisis mode. All of these life skills are built into the curriculum, and have always been the foundation of PeaceMeals.
This class is meant to be a small space of solace and catharsis for survivors, in the kitchen, around the table, then eventually to their wider communities.
*Name changed for security reasons