Three Cups of Reality – Stories from the field: Iraqi human rights defenders, in their own words

Marianne Elliott wrote a great piece – Three Cups of Humble Pie – on the fiasco stemming from Greg Mortenson‘s troubles surrounding the facts of his stories and the way in which his Central Asia Institute has been run. In her post she quotes Desiree Adaway from her blog on the basics of effective governance and how a non-profit should be run. I’ve never read Three Cups of Tea. I bought it for my wife years ago and she found it somewhat interesting but, she admitted, there was something unconvincing and artificial about his writing – a review that may prove to be quite prescient.

When I heard the news about all this last week, I was annoyed more than upset. News like this does little to lend credibility to those working for non-governmental organizations or other civil society organizations who are making a difference in peoples’ lives. Granted, as many people pointed out, including Nicolas Kristof, Mr. Mortenson has probably built more schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan that you or I ever will.  

Still. If you want to engage the general (and generally wealthier) public on issues such as education for poor children in developing countries, stick to the truth. Don’t make it sound any loftier or noble than it really is, don’t write anything just to appeal to an uninformed public that is craving for a tear-jerker story. Just tell it like it is. If anything, Mr. Mortenson’s account, if indeed it has been exaggerated, is prompting me to share some of my own stories from the field. One of the most moving for me was back in 2007 in Amman when I took part in a workshop I designed for Iraqi human rights defenders. The workshop was facilitated by alumni of Equitas‘ training of trainers program. During the workshop, I kept a blog of the events. For me this entry speaks to the horror that Iraqis were faced with on a daily basis, and the tremendous courage and strength they showed through incredible hardships. Here’s the entry from Tuesday, March 20:

Not easy
Tuesday, 20 March 2007, 03:56 PM

A short entry, I promise. Second meeting tonight at 10, this time with the facilitators, to plan for tomorrow. We talk about human rights education activities, and as usual we’re changing things a little.

The recap group [of participants] did not do a recap, as we talked about during the debrief the night before. They came up with a way for participants to share their experiences. The setup: take the chairs, come and form two rows in the middle of the room. On the left side, place your chair there and sit if you’ve got a positive story to tell us about your work. Go to the right if you’ve got something negative. People getting organized, shuffling back and forth, not knowing which side was which, still trying to figure out what they were going to say. Settled after a minute or so, silence. Go. The participant facilitating the activity randomly went from the positive to the negative sides, passing the microphone. This is what I typed as they spoke (this is unedited):

Positive. Establishing a student organization in Mosul. After the fall of the regime, we established it despite problems.

Negative. Days are filled with events, all organizations, not only mine. American forces entered Karballa April 5, rising flag American forces attacked us as we raised a flag signaling peace, with reporters. They wanted tv interview, CNN.

Negative. Less than one year of starting work in Mosul, group of young girls preparing to be teachers. Bus taking them to institute attacked by American occupation. Told driver to get down, asked the girls to take off their clothes completely to make sure they were not terrorists. But remained surrounded, bus driver being beaten, shaking bus until local authorities intervened.

Negative: Program to empower youth from different universities in Mosul and Basrah in strategic planning. 365 young people, training lasted 3 months, chosen 10 young men mostly from Baghdad. Leader was a woman, father also dean of the faculty. Received a phone call , girl was assassinated , she and her father. Group couldn’t keep up their work because they couldn’t keep going, I was among them. They were able to learn from her, but it ended.

Positive. In 2005, our location of institute was next to mosque of the great imam. Entered hq, wanted to arrest head of the organization, wanted to bombard the institutions. But neighbours joined us, civilians, we lay down on the ground. President still there at prisons.

Negative. One occasion affected me. Health situations. Being a leader of women league, I’m only female journalist in Basrah. Controlled by religious sects, consider me secular. Received threats. One delivered me at my home. Suffering in fear for my children, one month ago. Another threat from my union, always staying at my parents affected me badly.

Positive. Really happy was the activities conducted with Iraqi organizations, Mosul university. Has plenty of students in Iraq. Program we had coincided with Shiite and Sunni students, lasted for 4 days, drawing and painting gallery, we wanted to disseminate the problems via the paintings in sectarianism.

Negative. Kirkuk. Went to streets plenty of tragedies. First received a threat from American occupation forces, and from militant gangs, they think we are assistants of the Americans. We record speeches, we receive threats – the latest incident bombing yesterday, our furniture was all destroyed, new and hot issue.

Positive. Civil society organizations. Help families, receiving asylum, work we only hear about them theoretically. In spite of the difficulties, it will be an impulse for us, many organizations. Most important one, see the smile on the faces of children, feel I am doing my work correctly, see the smile on the face of a child. Makes me create new activities.

Negative. By end of 2003 and beginning 2004. the cadre? Contained a female American, trying to improve skills of organization, assistance to illiterate females. Karballah institute for women, before killing that lady. Even Islamic religion, she started to benefit from Iraqi women’s skills, sharing of information. Inaugurated the centre, faced with terrorists, 5-6 people, attacked us. Killed her by 13 bullets, even her fingers fell down. We left work for almost a week.

Negative. Important incident near bombarding clinics in Babel, terrorist attack , I was near the camera took pictures of the bodies, images even worse in the American movies.

Positive. Target groups, 50 families. Lately, our organizations program for heaters and blankets for families. During the program, people were happy about the blankets. Also felt that …people who are able to donate to the civil society organization.

Negative. Incident very painful. When working in British embassy. Director responsible for Iraqi affairs, last day, very sure said we should leave at 2, not 4. last day, she went with her husband to work in some of the palaces. Her husband, felt something suspicious. Most of us we have weapons, we are licensed. We they got home, they were attacked by terrorists, he died at once, she was pregnant and attacked, hope she will get better.

One participant had to leave the room as others were talking, too much for him. It was over, the participant who facilitated asked me, What do we do? I didn’t know she was going to ask me. What the hell do you answer after something like that? I was down in front of them, trying to figure out what I was going to say as I adjusted my mike. Nothing in my personal experience even comes close to what they have witnessed or been subjected to. But the mere fact that they could find positive things to identify with is remarkable. Shows the spirit, the commitment, the heart that they put into their work. As they were saying their stories, I found I had to make a concerted effort to concentrate on what the translator was saying and to just type it. If I stopped to think about what they were saying, I would have found it difficult to keep my composure.

Late afternoon, another activity that was not easy. Sit in a circle, turn the lights off, close the door. Pitch black. Facilitator asks them to recount a personal incident when they were afraid. I had seen this particular facilitator do this before and it was very powerful; so much so, that I wanted to record what people were saying this time. They sat in the circle, I was by the wall with the glow of my laptop shining on my face. The facilitator began, talking about his own experience, having been detained, people he was with being taken away one by one to have their arms broken. I closed my laptop and listened. One person, the date he won’t forget, August 16, 2006, riding in a bus with 8 passengers and the driver. Stopped at a checkpoint and being asked for ID, people in the bus being shot one by one, him at the back. They got to the guy next to him, whose mobile phone went off, scared the killers, they ran. He and the other passenger driving 40 km to the nearest town, seven bodies in the bus.

I don’t think I can write anything more now.


Big Questions: Why we do what we do, and who inspires us

July 28, almost 7 AM
As we begin Day 4 in a couple of hours, I can’t help but feel lucky to be here. I’m sitting on the balcony of the restaurant, the music of Tibetan monks quietly playing inside the restaurant, and the indescribably majestic Himalayas finally showing themselves through the clouds, the first time since our arrival.

The environment in which we conduct this training is certainly a contributing factor to its success (and I realize it makes me the object of envy and hate for friends, family and colleagues who are not here), but it is not the most important one. The human rights educators who are part of this training of trainers are the main reason. We unreasonably asked them to start the day at 8 AM yesterday, and all were present and ready to go. They are kind, respectful, intelligent, dedicated, honest, passionate, and free to express their opinions as much as they are willing to laugh.

Yesterday was a turning point in the training. While the first day we were getting to know each other, the second day was good but by no means the “best” Day 2 of a workshop I’ve ever facilitated. But yesterday, Day 3,  was different. We covered an enormous range of topics, from social change resulting from our work, to an awareness of instructional design models and their relevance to our work as educators, to answering what we’ve called “The BIG Questions.”

I wrote the questions down on the first day and committed myself to making sure the group took sufficient time to answer them. Not all at once, but gradually over the course of the workshop. Some of the questions are already written in our training manual, next to a bunch of others, but not given the time they deserve. Here are the first two big questions:
  1. Why did you become a human rights educator?
  2. Who or what inspires you?

The format for discussing was as follows: participants were seated in one inner and one outer circle, facing each other (each pair was far enough from other pairs). Each pair took 15 minutes to discuss the first question; after that, the outer circle got up and everyone moved one position clockwise. Then they discussed the second question. After half an hour, we formed a large circle and brought the day to a close. Participants passed around a “talking stick” to share what they felt was “hot” and “not hot” during the day, and I was relieved to hear that many of them mentioned the big questions discussion. Some said it evoked strong emotions and enabled them to reflect on very personal reasons for doing the work they do, even bringing back long-distant memories. Sharing such personal stories doesn’t come easily, especially when some members of the group didn’t even know each other until a few days ago (and in the case of one participant who’d just arrived, it wasn’t days but 3 hours). It created an emotional connection which I find critical in these kinds of trainings. Connections which I did not think of enabling a few years ago; I was too busy focused on the content of a workshop, and easily ignored some of the profound reasons why human rights educators do the work they do. I’m grateful to the dozens of participants and facilitators, primarily from the Middle East and North Africa, who opened my eyes to this. More big questions are planned for later this afternoon.

It’s now a few hours later during lunch break, and while things are going well, news of a deadly plane crash in Islamabad has brought concern to the participants. It’s something which will inevitably preoccupy some participants’ thoughts, and with good reason. 

On facilitation, and does that really happen in your country?

Monday night, 9:30 PM

Here’s a two-part blog: the facilitation stuff and the “Does that really happen in your country?” stuff.

Facilitation stuff

Day 2 is over. It’s a day where we: 1) had our recap by two participants, 2) defined the participatory approach, 3) reflected on our skills as facilitators through a self-assessment questionnaire, 4) identified challenges and strategies to our work, and 5) tried to get our heads around what human rights education means. In the end, there were a couple of things we did not address in the schedule, and that always makes me feel as though I wasn’t doing my job right. But then again, if we respected the schedule to the minute, I’d be wondering whether or not we’re engaging the participants enough.

On the one hand, you ought to give the time required in a participatory process such as this one for everyone to express themselves and to contribute to the process. On the other hand, you can’t let things drag on too long. One of the activities, on identifying challenges and strategies to our human rights work, took more time than planned. The three group presentations took over an hour. After the first group I asked everyone what mistake I’d made before the start of presentations and someone gave me the answer I was looking for: I didn’t specify the time each group had to present and discuss. We agreed afterwards on a time limit of 10 minutes each for the remaining two groups; it took 50 minutes.

Taking more time for some activities leaves a facilitator with a number of options: 1) race through the rest of the activities and probably annoy most participants in the process, 2) cover all the remaining material without reducing the amount of time required, basically forcing participants to stay in a workshop room from 8:30 in the morning until 6 at night, or 3) cut stuff from the program. So chop away I will. There have been too many times in the past when I’ve said to participants, How about just a few minutes more? Those few minutes at the end of the day are rarely productive and can probably undo any good mood participants are in. So a few things will be dropped from the program, and I don’t think it will adversely affect the ultimate result.

The participants seem to be relatively happy (not overjoyed, but happy), so I’ve still got some work to do in order to ensure the energy levels go up and stay that way. Our evaluation at the end of the day helped remind me that a little honesty from participants can help improve what I do. Each participant was given three coloured cards (orange, blue, and green). On each card they had to write something they liked about the day (blue), something they didn’t like so much (green), and something they want to learn more about (orange). Not everyone wrote something in green, but the answers, such as “Sitting on the chair most of the time,” and “Need more constructive discussion about human rights education – challenges and strategies,” help identify some of the stuff I need to improve. Furthermore, in our debriefing at the end of the day with two participants, one of them said quite simply that the day was not productive and that nothing new was learned. We suggested he make amends by pushing participants’ thinking tomorrow during the recap and having them come up with something new. We’ll see what happens.

Does that really happen in your country?
Go figure, there’s a place in this country where it’s against the law to have “human rights” in the name of the organization. Can you guess where? Here are your choices (in alphabetical order):
  1.      Afghanistan
  2.      Bangladesh
  3.      India
  4.      Nepal
  5.      Pakistan
  6.      Sri Lanka

Figured out which country? How about another one. There’s a country where NGOs must certify their activities every 6 months with their government. NGOs working on different issues are directed to relevant ministries. The problem is, there is no ministry for human rights, so human rights NGOs cannot have their activities certified. If you haven’t figured that one out, here’s an additional clue: it’s a country where the American government contractors outnumber the number of US troops.

A here’s a final one that’s a bonus for you all because it’s so easy. In which country are women systematically discriminated against? If you guessed India for the first question, Afghanistan for the second, and all of the countries for the last question, then you’re right on. 

On tomorrow’s agenda: more on social change and why human rights education can make that happen, identifying and measuring the impact of our work, examining instructional design models, conducting needs assessment, and answering some of the “BIG” questions. Answers tomorrow.