Iraq

Humanitarians behind the scenes in Iraq

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Suhaib Majed (32 years) works as field coordinator support at MSF’s post-operative care hospital in East Mosul. Suhaib has now worked with MSF in four different positions within the non-medical team. © CHRISTINA RIZK/MSF

When Suhaib Majed heard of an organisation looking to hire people in Hammam Al-Alil, northern Iraq, back in 2017, he headed directly to the souk where applications were being received.

Maybe he was trying to restore an aspect of life that had come to a halt in Mosul throughout the previous three years. He wasn’t very optimistic; he thought he wouldn’t get a position if he had nobody to support him in the recruitment process. Besides, his resumé was practically empty. But he had nothing to lose and still decided to try.

“When I applied to work with Médecins Sans Frontières, I was just looking for a job like any other unemployed person,” says Suhaib. “I also thought from the name of the organisation that they only hired doctors.”

Hiring more than just doctors

He then realised that there were job openings for translators, pharmacists, and logisticians. Soon, he was hired as a translator after passing the exam and interview.

Recent protests in Iraq have shown that it is not easy for Iraqis, especially youth, to find jobs. In Mosul, like in other cities across the country, job opportunities are particularly limited.

During the 2017 military operations to retake the city, various international organisations came in to assist people. And despite the tragedy of the ongoing battles, hundreds of people in and around Mosul got an unexpected chance at a new type of job.

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) is one of the many non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that responded to the great humanitarian needs in the area. But despite the rather self-explanatory name – it translates from French as ‘Doctors Without Borders’ – the work of the medical organisation cannot be accomplished without the efforts of its non-medical staff, working ‘behind the scenes’. At MSF, the roles of medical and non-medical staff are equally important in delivering healthcare to people.

Suhaib has now worked with MSF in four different positions, none of them medical. His current position is based in the comprehensive post-operative care centre in East Mosul. As field coordinator support, he represents MSF with the local authorities. He keeps himself well informed about the developments in the area, and his passion for writing helps him to draft regular reports which contribute to the continuity of activities in the project.

Muammar Al-Hiyali recounts a painful incident from eight years ago when an explosion near a crowded restaurant took dozens of lives and injured many more. His brother-in-law was one of the wounded. He was left heavily bleeding with shrapnel in his abdomen.

Fortunately, he was rushed to hospital before it was too late. Having almost lost someone dear to him in the blink of an eye, Muammar decided to find a job helping others, in the hope that their loved ones would not lose them either.

When he was younger, Muammar hoped to go to medical school, but his need to earn a living made this impossible.

“I’ve had to support myself since I was a teenager,” says 45-year-old Muammar. “I was working and studying at the same time, so I couldn’t become a doctor. Life doesn’t always give us the chance to do what we want.”

When the Islamic State group took control of Mosul, Muammar left the city with his wife and four children. Life outside Mosul was not easy; he had to start again from scratch, while constantly worrying about his relatives back in the city. In 2015, he started work as a logistician for a medical organisation in Sulaymaniyah, but his love for Mosul never waned.

“In one of the markets I used to go to, there was a piece of graffiti of migrating birds with the words ‘We will return one day’,” he says. “Every time I looked at it, I missed Mosul even more. After the battle to retake the city, I decided to go back home to help my city in any way I could.”

Muammar now works as head of drivers in MSF’s post-operative care hospital in East Mosul. He manages a team of 15 drivers and coordinates the movements of all MSF’s vehicles. The members of his team feel more like friends or brothers to him; they spend every morning together before going about their daily tasks.

Muammar believes his job contributes to the patients’ recovery, so he executes his tasks with dedication. He often tells people about MSF’s services to help the information reach whoever needs it. One of his friends was in a serious car accident and was told his leg might have to be amputated, but at Muammar’s suggestion he came to MSF’s hospital, where the surgical team was able to save his leg.

“What motivates me and makes me love my job is a patient’s joy when they’re recovering,” he says. “As staff members, we follow them on their journey of healing. We forget the strain of work when we see them able to walk again.”

Muammar owns a small farm, which he inherited from his grandfather. He visits it daily to take care of the trees and plants, but wishes he had more time to devote to it.

“My dream is to expand my grandfather’s farm: to plant fruits and vegetables and to keep some cows or sheep,” he says. “I’d like it to become a place for family gatherings, where my children, my nieces and my nephews can play together. I hope that one day my dream will come true.”

Local people the lifeblood of MSF work

Many people also generally imagine the work of international NGOs like MSF, in Iraq and throughout the region, being done by foreigners, which sometimes raises suspicion. Suhaib’s colleague Yasmine Mohammed, who works as a watchwoman in the centre, explains that the acceptance of humanitarian organisations was not very high when they started working in Mosul after the battle to retake the city from Islamic State group.

“It wasn’t very favourable for Iraqis to work with organisations at first. The community did not welcome the idea of us working with foreigners, considering the events Iraq has witnessed for more than a decade,” Yasmine says. “But the perception changed when these organisations started providing much needed services; Mosul wouldn’t have started recovering if it wasn’t for that.”

Over time, people coming in for services could also witness that, just like Yasmine or Suhaib, most of the organisation’s employees were actually Iraqis.

In fact, Iraqis make up for more than 90 per cent of the 1,700 people who work for MSF in Iraq. Their roles are diverse, from driver to doctor, from cleaner to biomedical technician, from pharmacist to supply officer, and many more.

Yet each person’s role is considered vital for the functioning of the project. Everyone works very hard to accomplish their tasks, and these efforts form a butterfly effect that has a great impact when it comes to the bigger picture. Without the Iraqi staff, MSF’s activities wouldn’t come to life and stay alive.

For Yasmine, the contribution consists in searching female staff, patients, and visitors before they enter the facility, for the security of all. When doing so, she generally also asks them how they’re doing and welcomes them with great warmth. She loves her job because it gives her a chance to boost people’s morale, people who might be looking for positive energy every now and then.

Pride in helping local communities

Across the Tigris river, in West Mosul, dedicated Iraqi staff are also working to make MSF’s activities in Nablus hospital possible. Abdallah Zarzour sees a huge added value in his role as head of cooks and executes it with dedication.

“A watchman protects the hospital from potential external dangers, while I need to protect patients from internal threats,” says Abdallah. “Preparing food for people is a great responsibility; we abide by the highest safety and hygiene standards when making the meals for patients and their caretakers.”

He has suffered great losses in his life, but he always manages to give back and make people happy. When asked how he’s doing, he always replies with lines of poetry, reflecting both his intellect and love for life in its bittersweet nature.

His colleague Nour Al-Zouhairy, who is a medical data supervisor, has been working in Nablus hospital for about two years. She also believes she’s indirectly helping her community.

“Collecting medical data means identifying the health issues people suffer from, which helps us adapt our activities based on the needs,” says Nour. “This makes me feel that my role in passing on information on people’s suffering is very important, even if I’m not directly part of the medical team.”