Lessons in Ignorance from an Aid Worker in Iraq
They are calling for my flight to begin boarding. The little screen spells out Erbil, Iraq, in all capitals. I no longer get nervous before flying to foreign countries; it’s a regular routine of mine now. But this time is different.
My stomach is in knots. I scan the line of people. No one else looks nervous – they mostly look like locals, heading home for a visit or post holiday. My eyes stop at three women huddled together in the line. Dyed blonde, tight jeans, high heels. I mentally roll my eyes as I ponder their story. Aid workers like me? I shuffle closer and sneak a look at their passports. IRAQ is stamped on all three.
I’m yet to board the flight and I’m already having my assumptions challenged. I am ignorant about life in this country.
It’s my first day in the clinic at Hasan Shaman, an internally displaced person camp an hour from Mosul for those who have fled ISIS. One camp of many. My patient is a young girl, about 14, with a nasty burn down her leg. A common injury here. Boiling water becoming a much more complicated task when done in a tent shared between seven. To my delight, she speaks some English. She asks me if I know Caroline, my coordinator who I’m yet to meet.
“She’s my friend,” she proudly tells me. “Now you’re my friend also.”
At lunch I meet and tell Caroline about my new friend.
“Yes. I know her. It’s just her and her mother here, you know. Her father and brothers were publicly beheaded by ISIS in Mosul sometime last year.”
I am unsure how to respond.
I remember all the patients I have already tended to today. How many shared similar stories of loss?
I am working the night shift. It is just me, a local doctor and translator when a young woman in her early twenties shuffles in accompanied by an older woman I assume to be her mother.
“She’s pregnant and her water just broke,” the translator informs me, matter of fact. This is a new complaint for me. My face immediately breaks out into visible alarm.
“But I’ve never delivered a baby before!”
The two women laugh, not needing to speak the same language to comprehend my distress. The mother pats me affectionately.
“This is her third child. She will be fine,” he translates.
The young woman sits on the hospital bed and quietly puffs as her mother tends to her, still chuckling at my inexperience as I stand there awkwardly, no help. To my relief, the camp ambulance arrives within minutes and escorts them away. She waves at me cheerily from the back like they are off to a holiday and not currently in labour in a IDP camp in a desert.
As it pulls away, I wonder about that pregnant woman, much younger than me, yet already with her third child on the way.
“Do you want to see my guns?” I am in my third and last week of my time in Iraq, watching Netflix and drinking beer at the house of my friends, Ado and Azad. Ado works as the dentist at the camp and Azad, the one who asks me about his guns, is his brother.
There are four guns, all different types and sizes. After getting the obligatory picture with me holding the biggest one, stupid smile on my face and beer in my free hand, I begin to tease Azad.
“Why keep so many? Does it make you feel manly?”
He doesn’t laugh.
“Not long ago, ISIS was just over an hour from here. If they had managed to get to Erbil, as Christians in this country, who do you think is most at risk? So, yeah, I bought some illegal guns, Lee”.
I think of the attack on the Erbil’s governorate building literally days before, the only fatality a family friend of theirs. I immediately apologise.
I am still ignorant of life in this country.