Language, the bridge builder in Iraq
Language courses helped bridge the gap between Arab and Kurdish women from the Raparin neighbourhood of Chamchamal.
Samira Muhammed Ali is a Kurdish mother living in a mainly Kurdish area of Chamchamal. When Sunni Arabs families relocated to her neighbourhood, the fear she had had for years towards that community was addressed through an efficient approach: language learning.
In 1987, Samira went to visit her new husband’s family in Chamchamal. At that same time, Saddam Hussein launched his brutal Anfal campaign, which killed between 50,000 and 100,000 Kurds and forcibly relocated thousands of others. About 35 of Samira’s husband’s relatives were killed. Samira and her husband fled to Sulaymaniyah, but like too many Kurds who grew up in this era, her perception of Sunni Arabs was shaped by the horrors she witnessed.
After the fall of Saddam, Samira and her family moved to the Raparin neighbourhood of Chamchamal, an almost entirely Kurdish area where most of the residents had similar traumatic memories of Anfal. The family lived a relatively peaceful existence for years, until Daesh began taking territory in Iraq in 2014. Thousands of people, mostly Sunni Arabs, fled from Daesh-held zones toward other areas, including Chamchamal, becoming internally displaced persons (IDPs).
The arrival of Sunni Arabs near her home was a shock to Samira. Because of her personal history, the mere presence of an Arab family in her neighbourhood was enough to frighten her. She started locking her doors and hesitated to leave her children at home alone. “I was afraid of them,’’ she said, ‘‘because I didn’t know what their intentions were.”
Samira has always been active in her community. She works at the government’s Women’s Union, which arranges vocational training and other activities for local women. When she first heard of the Promoting Social Cohesion project, she was interested in joining the Women’s Committee that had been formed in Raparin. There was only one problem: along with Kurdish woman members, the Women’s Committee included Arab women who had recently found refuge in the neighbourhood. But given the important role of this committee in developing local women’s skills and ensuring their voices were heard, Samira felt compelled to participate.
Despite her apprehensions about the Arab women in the group, Samira actively participated in organizing a project led by the Women’s Committee to teach Kurdish- and Arabic-language courses. Designed to bridge the language gap between the Arab IDPs and the Kurdish host community, the program allowed women from the two groups to practice each other’s languages together, developing relationships in the process.
Samira eventually enrolled in a course to learn Arabic. In addition to gaining basic language skills, she also engaged with the Arab women in her class on a personal level. Samira realized that these women were nothing like she had imagined. Her fears gradually faded and she developed genuine friendships with her Arab classmates. Most importantly, she learned to differentiate between the regime of Saddam Hussein and the Sunni Arabs, who had also undergone a great deal of suffering.
Samira no longer worries about her own or her children’s safety; she even welcomes the idea of seeing her children forming close friendships with their new Arab neighbours.
“Previously, I looked at Arabs with fear. Now, this fear is gone.”
Promoting social cohesion in Iraq
Since the beginning of the war in Iraq, in 2014, more than 3 million people—almost one Iraqi in 10—have been forced to leave their homes, becoming internally displaced persons. In response to this crisis, Canada is providing humanitarian assistance, stabilization support and development and diplomatic assistance to Iraq in line with the Government of Canada’s Middle East engagement Strategy.
An important element of the Middle East Strategy was the Promoting Social Cohesion in Iraq project. Through this initiative, Canada provided $4.5 million to Mercy Corps to relieve tensions between, on one side, families forced to flee their towns and cities and, on the other, the communities where they resettled. Mercy Corps is a global humanitarian organization that empowers people to recover from crises, build better lives and change their communities for the good.
Between April 2015 and August 2017, over 20,000 women, girls, men and boys from Iraq’s Diyala and Sulaymaniyah governorates benefited from more than 100 community projects launched with this funding. To learn more, visit Promoting Social Cohesion in Iraq.
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