Why I’m resisting the urge to tune out news from Iraq

The author reporting in the Kurdish region of Iraq in 2010. (Photo by Alex Stonehill)

The author reporting in the Kurdish region of Iraq in 2010. (Photo by Alex Stonehill)

If it wasn’t a requirement of my job to follow current events I think I’d consider a serious break from the news. From a plane shot out of the sky over eastern Ukraine to a police shooting and accusations of racism in the Midwest, death in Gaza and ISIS spreading like a poison across the Middle East, the summer of 2014 promises to go down in infamy — a season awash in waves of violence.

There’s been so much bad news that I’ve struggled against the desire to tune it out — to willfully ignore all that is awful in the world right now. But recent incursions of Islamic militants into parts of northern Iraq have reminded me that tuning out isn’t an option for locals with loved ones living these headlines.

“It’s been like a nightmare,” says Sabrin Kassem, a 23-year-old property manager from Auburn who has became the ad hoc spokesperson for Washington’s handful of Yazidi families in the past three weeks. “It’s pretty much all that’s on our minds right now, there’s nothing else we can think of.”

Kassem’s family is from the Sinjar region of northern Iraq, home to many of the world’s estimated 700,000 Yazidis — a religious minority with connections to ancient Persia. Earlier this month Sinjar fell under the control of ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) forcing tens of thousands of Yazidis to flee to surrounding areas.

A guard at the Red Security Building in Sulaimaniyah, Iraq, the headquarters of the Iraqi Intelligence Service under Saddam Hussein’s regime where many Kurds were imprisoned and tortured. (Photo by Alex Stonehill)

A guard at the Red Security Building in Sulaimaniyah, Iraq, the headquarters of the Iraqi Intelligence Service under Saddam Hussein’s regime, where many Kurds were imprisoned and tortured. (Photo by Alex Stonehill)

Kassem says every day she receives desperate messages from relatives back home. In response she’s helped organize a protest in defense of the Yazidis (she’s trying to schedule another for this weekend) and has started an online fundraising campaign  and a facebook group to help support displaced people.

But her frustration is palpable.

“We fear the most that we’re going to go extinct,” she says. “I just feel so helpless, I wish I could go over there and get everyone out.”

That sense of helplessness is shared by many others with ties to areas of northern Iraq known as “Kurdistan” (after the majority ethnic group that lives there) — a relatively stable and peaceful part of Iraq now absorbing displaced people from around the country and the broader region.

“We thought our time of fighting had passed, that it was the time to develop our country and inspire our people,” says Reyal Hajibadri, of the Kurdish Human Rights Watch in Kent, an organization that helps support refugees and serves as a resource center for Washington’s estimated one thousand Kurdish people. “The situation was improving, people’s lives were improving.”

In the winter of 2010 I spent three weeks in Iraqi Kurdistan as part of a reporting project about the draw down of the Iraq War. I immediately fell in love with the place; a combination of ancient ruins and shiny glass skyscrapers, corporate strip malls and crowded mosques.

A ride on bumper cars at a late night amusement park in Sulaimaniyah, the second largest city in the Kurdish region of Iraq. Since 2003 the area enjoyed relative stability and economic success as compared to the rest of Iraq, but is now threatened by the expansion of the Islamic State. (Photo by Alex Stonehill)

A ride on bumper cars at a late night amusement park in Sulaimaniyah, in the Kurdish region of Iraq. Since 2003 the area has enjoyed relative stability and economic success, but is now threatened by the expansion of ISIS. (Photo by Alex Stonehill)

Since the establishment of a “no fly zone” during the first Gulf War, Iraq’s Kurdistan has remained insulated against violence in the rest of the country. It was surreal to see freeway signs pointing towards Kirkuk and Baghdad while driving past malls and Western-style fast food chains in prosperous northern cities like Irbil and Sulaimaniyah.

Three years later hundreds of thousands of refugees are pouring into this region. Hajibadri says his relatives back home in Iraqi Kurdistan have taken in multiple displaced families themselves.

U.S. airstrikes and the material support of Kurdish fighters (known as peshmerga) seem to be holding ISIS at bay, but Sebastian Meyer, a journalist friend of mine based in Kurdistan, says that last week’s car bombing in the capitol has many worried that more violence may be on its way.

As I thought of that grim possibility I was again overwhelmed with a desire to retreat from upsetting global events, until I remembered Kassem’s determination.

“My family in Iraq, they know I’m in America and they think that I can do so much,” she says her voice on the verge of tears, “I’m not a huge powerful person, I can’t really get anything done except raise awareness.”

And if she can keep trying to do that, I can keep paying attention.

Sarah Stuteville is a print and multimedia journalist. She’s a cofounder of The Seattle Globalist. Stuteville won the 2011 Sigma Delta Chi Award for magazine writing. She writes a weekly column on our region’s international connections that is shared by the Seattle Globalist and The Seattle Times and funded with a grant from Seattle International Foundation. Reach Sarah at sarah@seattleglobalist.com.

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