The main entrance of this hotel looks like it was once as regal as it gets around here. Since my arrival a week ago, entering the hotel has been through the parking lot on the side, after walking through the usual security checkpoint where I invariably make the electronic archway beep as I walk through it. I saw the main entrance for the first time this afternoon as I walked with others from the workshop; it was obscured by an imposing 4-metre concrete wall forming a perimeter around the hotel grounds.
Walls like that back home are typically meant to keep the highway noises away from a residential neighbourhood; here, I’m assuming it’s a security measure against anyone driving up to the hotel with a bomb in their car. Despite the wall’s dire purpose, it has become a wonderful medium to convey a message: on each slab of concrete there were depictions of articles in the Convention of the Rights of the Child. Amateurish paintings in drab colours showing children with crooked eyes and mouths being bullied or beaten, read to or cared for.
For us, the workshop is over and I am satisfied. The last few days saw our facilitation team dwindle from four to two due to previous engagements, but all the participants remained until the end, despite the fact that we were celebrating Eid al-Adha today (I’ll know next time to dress a little more formally). The pace, both here and in Indonesia, has been frenetic and unrelenting to the point where I find myself unable to relax now even though I have nothing to do.
For the facilitators, they have learned from the process and from each other. One of the four was a first-time Equitas facilitator who admitted feeling a little out of it when the others would talk in a debrief and agree on the flow of an activity by saying simply a few words. “We’ll use the gallery technique, have the participants give feedback, finish in 5 minutes, then wrap up” might just as well be in an alien language if you’re not familiar with our “debrief” lingo. All the facilitators are hard on themselves and know when they’ve done an “OK” or a “not so good” job, and I am glad they recognize their weaknesses (well, most of the time) and consciously strive towards improving themselves. In observing them I have recognized my own weaknesses, particularly in explaining the details of some activities to them, or in synthesizing group discussions, or being more aware of how pissed off some participants look when they have their hand raised to make a point and the facilitator ignores them. I’ve also noticed their “I’m annoyed with the process right now but not trying to show it” look and realizing how obvious it looks on the face of a facilitator, so that’s a reminder for me that I have to put on my fake happy face during times when I honestly don’t feel in the least bit amused (thankfully a rare occurrence). And one downside to facilitating through simultaneous translation is that my delivery has to be steady and clear, and that can also equate to boring and sleep-inducing.
The strengths of the facilitators cannot be overemphasized: they have shown an intense dedication to the process, a commitment to the participants’ learning, an enthusiasm that remained infectious for the whole week, and have been constant problem-solvers from early morning until well past midnight.
As for the participants, what can you say of a group that lives with almost daily risks to their lives owing to their work or where they live? Just yesterday a series of bombs killed several people near Baghdad. A life that’s utterly unthinkable to me has become “normal” for the people I met in the workshop this week. Normal in the sense that it is a reality they are stuck with and yet somehow they manage. I’ve known most of them for almost three years, and in that time I have seen many of them mature in their thinking with respect to human rights, but they still have much to learn, including their ability to create new and truly participatory human rights education stuff based on what they know (and yes, I’m working on that too).
This group of participants – joyful, cooperative (almost always, at any rate), disciplined, enthusiastic, and dedicated – have shown me hope where there is despair and courage where there is fear. Up until last week, I knew Iraq through their lives, the occasional balanced and comprehensive report of the human rights situation, and through filtered, often unbalanced and narrow perspectives from international media. This workshop has created an Iraq which is real and nameable, even though everyone says that Erbil is not like the rest of Iraq. Walking down the market street surrounded by throngs of rail-thin young men half my age with greased hair, blue jeans and black coats or blazers looking cool for each other owing to the near-absence of women, this is Iraq. Riding around in the bus with workshop participants, the music cranked to the max and inciting some to dance precariously as the bus sways along the road, this is Iraq. Going to a restaurant and noticing that there is a young man, clearly not from around here, whose sole job is to open the bathroom door for clients. “Where are you from?” I ventured. “Bangladesh,” he responded with a toothy smile. Watching people shop madly the day before Eid, hurrying to respect the usual custom of purchasing new clothes. Kids playing with an abandoned tractor as their favourite toy next to the hotel. Walking in the MaxiMall and eyeing the kids section: toy tanks, plastic guns, and F-16 fighter jets for sale (for boys, as if I needed to write that for you), dolls and tea sets for girls. Visiting NGOs and networks promoting human rights to listen to the great stuff they are doing. Staying here so long I call the hotel “home.” Getting almost used to the lousy taste of Nescafe. Making sure that we will no longer have energizers in Iraq where participants run around screaming and popping balloons because the hotel guests freak out and call security because they think it’s something else. Walking with friends in a beautiful park that used to be a military base under Saddam’s regime. Being cared for by our host organization here in Erbil and treated like one of the family.
This is my first time to Iraq, and I will not forget it.