By Bruce Parmelee, CHF International Country Director in Iraq
This article originally appred in PressConnects.com
I grew up in Chenango Bridge, but I find myself a long way from there now.
As Iraq country director for CHF International, an aid organization with operations in 29 countries worldwide, I am currently based in south-central Iraq, where I oversee efforts to rebuild schools, bridges and roads — and in so doing, instill democratic processes at the community level.
CHF has worked in south-central Iraq since 2003. It is a predominately Shiite Muslim area with several large urban centers including Hillah, Karbala, Basra and Najaf. In 2007, CHF started working in Anbar, the largest governorate in Iraq. It is the Sunni heartland and has been the seat of the insurgency. It is primarily desert, and its major urban centers are Ramadi and Fallujah. CHF is only the second aid organization to ever work in Anbar.
As part of CHF's Community Action Program, funded by USAID, CHF International entered the al Eliya Village in Western Anbar Governorate earlier this year to assess community needs and implement a project, chosen by the community itself. That project became the al Duha Primary School, which would house students from al Eliya and three surrounding villages, with six brand new classrooms. The dedication of such a successful project, implemented at the local level in a vibrant community once haunted by violence, is a fitting tribute to a return to stability.
When people ask if I am scared of where my work brings me, I tell them that CHF has avoided violence because local communities, like al Eliya, are always involved in the work. Before we do anything, the community has to agree. I tell them, "It's for your community. You're the Iraqis. You can pave the way for this to happen." And they did that. It was never a case of some American saying, "This is what you need in your country." People won't attack projects that they feel ownership of.
On a recent Wednesday, we departed CHF International's Ramadi compound to make the 90-minute drive to Baghdadi and Heet. At each location, I would exit the vehicle to meet with local citizens, project beneficiaries and local government officials. I told my security detail that if I felt threatened, I would let them know. "Don't worry, everything will be fine," I remember saying. After some discussion and some "but what ifs," we started on the trip.
Our first stop was the local council building in al-Baghdadi, guarded by the Iraqi Police, a nationwide body of law enforcement officers trained by the U.S. I was escorted into the building where I proceeded to meet the staff. Soon after, I was introduced to an assembly of sheiks, local council members, government officials and others. They thanked me for coming, told me about their needs and insisted that a small delegation accompany me on my field visits. I thanked them for their support, and together we emerged from the place and rejoined my security detail.
We then proceeded to the Tigris River, crossed it on a "Bailey Bridge" and went to two towns where we have built bridges to connect the educational and commercial centers. The whole community came out to celebrate the opening of one of the bridges — a simple thing like a bridge can make a huge difference to a community. From there, we proceeded to the third project site, located 25 miles out in the desert from the main road, and understood as the most dangerous of the project sites.
We turned off the main road and headed into the desert. After a while, the road became dirt, crossed an oasis, went back out in the desert and finally led us to a small town where, much to my delight, a new six-room school was actively under construction. I exited the car, moved into the "schoolyard" and entered an unfinished classroom in front of a group of men who were identified as the Community Action Group (CAG) that was responsible for identifying the project and monitoring its progress.
Flanked by a sheik, my Anbar staff person and a group of CAG members, I entered one of the unfinished classrooms to have a look around. It was being constructed of stone to a good local standard.
While we were in the classroom, I inquired of them how long ago their CAG had been formed, what their role had been in site selection of the school, whether or not their CAG had identified or were working on any other projects without CHF assistance, if they were they happy with the progress to date and so on. They were very animated in their responses — but some complained that not enough community members had been employed in the construction. Since we were standing in a school largely constructed of stone masonry, I asked how many of them were stone or concrete masons. When no one raised their hand, I had this dialogue with them: "Let me be sure I understand you. You want to construct a school to send your children to that is built by unskilled labor? Golly, I don't think I'd want to do that to my children." That elicited laughter — then understanding.
Only recently has their area been stabilized after being an al-Qaida stronghold for some time. They expressed appreciation for the school and this first visit from a non-military foreigner. We then went outside and met with a few women who explained that they were in the process of creating a clinic in one of the classrooms of the former school next door. It is this kind of action that is an early sign of sustainability of a community development effort.
Finally, I travelled back to Ramadi, the capital city of Anbar. It was a long but successful day, further reminding me why I am fond of the Iraqi people and equally saddened at how often they are maligned in the media.
Working with the communities in partnership, openness and mutual understanding, we can achieve so much. My hope remains that their future is a peaceful and progressive one.