Why Culture?

Examples of Culture and Change in North Iraq

Daily challenges living in a refugee camp in Iraq

Althaf and Chinar are a middle aged couple who live in a refugee camp north or Duhok in Northern Iraq. We measure them in their tent, and they are accompanied by Khatoon, their 30-year-old daughter, one of the seven children of the family. The camp offers shelter to some 11,000 refugees, or whom most fild Sinjar province because of the Islamic State (IS) fighters of the 'caliphate' unleashed against Yazidis like them. The family tells us that not all children are with them; two of their daughters are hosting tasks by the IS. They have reason to hope they are still alive - because every now and then they get a phone call from one of them.Usually when an IS warrior allows them to use his cellphone, when he has finished using it, as he thinks he is allowed to.

Mother Chinar is very worried. Every day she goes to the camp management to find her daughters. Althaf does not seem to like the conversation. He turns away after interrupting us if we can buy some "I will kill you".

Chinar and her daughter Khatoon tell us that the constant concern about the two missing girls takes away all their energy. Kathoon is illiterate and would like something to learn. She has nothing in the camp. She recently started to clean bathrooms, just to do something and yes, this makes her feel a little better.

We explain how we try to see if there is interest in forming groups of women who share the same concerns. The eyes of Chinar light up immediately; she is enthusiastic. Yes, she would be very happy if she could help us with mobilizing other young women to start a sewing class or a store that would permit her to do something. Khatoon can help her - better than only cleaning the toilets, she says.

After a week some 25 women like this have received their first training in establishing networks or support to find ways to undertake educational activities and generate some income. But they are most enthusiastic about the possibilities we can offer with a solar cell-powered tablet with internet access. Internet is available in most of Iraq and large parts of Syria - IS is quite sophisticated in its use of social media.

The women take turns, together, on using skype to talk to relatives who help them find information. They are also in touch with Germany and other countries, where relatives help them extend their network. Being able to do something, even if it is only searching, does wonders for their energy levels. They  get busy, and on a next trip Chinar shows us her grocery store that she opened together with a friend:  “Our shop will be open for other women that do not dare to go to the market every day”.

We return to the camp some  4 months later. Chinar explains that women who come to their store only start to talk about the horror of what happened, how they escaped, about the surgery one of them underwent to regain virginity. “Yes we can do things ourselves, we can try to rebuild our lives, but we also need you, people from outside that care about us, that listen without judging and can help us in a practical way.”

We talk about an important problem: the difficulty that  Althaf  and many other men have with what happened to their daughters. They are caught between love for them and the honour of the family – which has required some men to kill their daughters and sisters.

How to deal with this part of culture? How to change it?*

Chinar asks us to visit her son, who spends most of his time with his friends playing computer games in a container based internet shop.

She is worried as his language changed recently. He has become very cynical and aggressive since they managed to escape from Mosul.

We decide to contact the regular customers and if they are interested in getting together every now and then. Given the overall boredom for youngsters in the camp it is not hard to understand that they are enthusiastic at first. We bring a tablet with us and our local staff to find what we can find on the internet. We also talk about the violence they have in the games, and how they relate to the violence they have all witnessed up close.

Then we realize how hard it is to compete for their attention with the thrill of the computer games. So we talk about what interests them in the games - to find clues for little nudges for the positive in the often pitch-dark game story.

 We make an action plan for a future where we could combine gaming, business, and some positive messages ...


* Eventually Baba Sheikh, the Yazidi's spiritual leader, sought a doctrinal change that has allowed women to reintegrate after being captive, forcibly converted and raped. Or course we do not claim that as our success - but it illustrates the power of cultural change.