Friday, June 29, 2007

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in the Foreign Service

Whenever someone mentions “post-traumatic stress disorder,” or PTSD, most people probably think of combat veterans returning from war zones. You might think of soldiers during and after the Vietnam War, and you might even think of some of the popular Hollywood movies that have highlighted the phenomenon, such as “Born on the Fourth of July” or “The Deer Hunter.”

However, we tend to neglect PTSD's effects on Foreign Service members who are placed in dangerous countries where violence is common. Such positions are termed “unaccompanied danger posts,” locations where family is not permitted to live with the Foreign Service member stationed there.

In Iraq there are provincial reconstruction teams, or PRTs, consisting of contractors who work in a particular province to meet and coordinate with Iraqis. To do this, PRT members require a heavily armed presence with them at all times. Kirk Johnson (whose interview with EPIC you can read here), a former USAID employee in Baghdad and a PRT member in Fallujah for four months, describes the heightened security risk involved with traveling outside a PRT enclave.

Foreign Service members often return from Iraq demonstrating a number of PTSD-related symptoms, including insomnia for up to several months, the most common symptom, an “easy to startle” response for several months and irritability and anger outbursts.

Sources vary regarding the prevalence of PTSD among Foreign Service Officers and the military. Some suggest that PTSD affects 40% or more Foreign Service and military members. The treatment available for returning Foreign Service members is voluntary and inadequate, prompting the Concerned Foreign Service Officers to issue a warning to members of the Foreign Service.

On June 19th, in the face of PTSD in foreign service members, the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia urged the State Department to make debriefings mandatory for civilian employees returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. A July 5 New York Times top story also cited the lack of health care availability for contractors working in Iraq. Tending to their health is the first step in the process of addressing PTSD in non-military persons and we encourage this move by the subcommittee. That said, we still require more data on the extent of PTSD in the Foreign Service and we must provide these individuals with the mental health care they require.

I recognize that you can't talk about the effects of the Iraq war without at least mentioning the enormous psychological toll the conflict has on Iraq's men, women and children, an issue we have written on in the past. It is an issue that will take an enormous amount of effort to address and one that cannot be ignored
or forgotten in this conflict.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

EPIC IN ACTION: Taking the Fight for Refugees to Congress

From left to right: Chris Breuer, Julia Stutz, Emily Stivers and Geoff Schaefer were just a few of the EPIC staff and volunteers who helped with our Capitol Hill action on behalf of refugees.Well over 2,000 letters. A week of processing, formatting, and preparing. Two exciting days of hand-delivering to House and Senate offices. Now, at last, we at EPIC would like to thank YOU for taking action on behalf of Iraqis displaced by violence.

Armed with your constituent letters, EPIC staff and volunteers stormed about 300 House and 94 Senate offices. We met with relevant Foreign Affairs staff members in nearly every office, explaining to them about the 2 million Iraqi refugees overwhelming infrastructure in Jordan and Syria, and additional 2 million Iraqis displaced internally.

Our primary objective was to secure support and cosponsorships for recent legislation that would help Iraqi refugees and Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). The Responsibility to Iraqi Refugees Act (H.R. 2265) in the House of Representatives, introduced by Representatives Earl Blumenauer, Janice Schakowsky, and Christopher Shays, would authorize additional funding to help Iraqi refugees, increase the number of persecuted Iraqis who can be admitted to the U.S. as refugees, and establish a Special Coordinator to lead an interagency response to the crisis. H.R.2265 would also establish special provisions to help protect especially vulnerable refugees, including Iraqis who are in immediate danger because they worked with us.

The Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act (S. 1651) in the Senate, sponsored by Senators Edward Kennedy, Gordon Smith, Joseph Biden, Chuck Hagel, Patrick Leahy, Carl Levin and Joseph Lieberman, would increase the number of persecuted Iraqis (and their families) admitted to the U.S. as refugees, create 5,000 special visas for Iraqis who worked directly with the United States, and ask that we protect those who are in imminent danger of death. It would also establish a Special Coordinator to lead an interagency response to the crisis and would authorize humanitarian assistance to countries hosting large numbers of displaced Iraqis.

Emily Stivers delivers a packet of letters and bill information to Legislative Counsel Greg Chaney in Sen. Stabenow's office.I personally visited about a quarter of the offices in the House and half in the Senate, and I can tell you without hesitation that our message is having an impact. From my experience, staffers with Senators Jon Kyl (AZ), Robert Menendez (NJ), Herbert Kohl (WI), and Debbie Stabenow (MI) were particularly receptive, as were House staffers for Representatives Sheila Jackson-Lee (TX), Vito Fossella (NY), Cathy McMorris Rodgers (WA), and Mike Doyle (D-PA). My fellow volunteers reported similar success in a number of other offices, and overall we are extremely encouraged and excited about the prospects for both bills.

In fact, we’ve had such a terrific response that we’ve decided to keep the Action Center open indefinitely. That means in case you missed out last week, you can still send letters on behalf of Iraqi refugees to your Members of Congress through EPIC. Particularly, we want to encourage EPIC supporters from South Dakota, Mississippi and Nebraska to act, because those are the three states whose Senators we didn't get to visit this week. But no matter what state you're from, please take action - and if you already have, keep passing the link along to your friends!

We will continue to periodically hand-deliver your letters to Congress for you (a service for which the popular advocacy business Capitol Advantage charges $8.50 per letter, but we provide to our members for free*), and keep you updated on the results.

THANK YOU for helping to make this action a great success!!!

*your generous donations make our work possible.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Don't Forget About the Children

Yesterday in The Washington Post, a story on the psychological impact on children in the war offered some startling evidence. With over two million child refugees, the intensity of their experiences and trauma is far-reaching.

It's all too easy to forget about the children in this war when talking about stress disorders, internally and externally displaced persons, and other devastating consequences lost in this consistent sea of violence. It's all too easy to to forget that, while incredibly harrowing for the average citizen in Iraq, it's ten times worse for a child. Lacking in many of the psychological coping mechanisms possessed by their elders, and gained only through years and life experience, many children simply do not know how to react to the violent images they see day in and day out.

"In a World Health Organization survey of 600 children ages 3 to 10 in Baghdad last year, 47 percent said they had been exposed to a major traumatic event over the past two years." Abdul Muhsin, a psychiatrist in Baghdad, is concerned that over this time, the number of cases of psychological problems exhibited in children has, and will continue to increase exponentially. He is taken aback, rightly so, when he sees children playing with toy guns and emulating rocket propelled grenade attacks on cars passing by - he is worried that this generation will be more violent than that of Saddam Hussein's.

Given the increased consistency of violence in Iraq, it seems as though children are both consumed by fear, and are finding solace from that fear in replicating the life they see on the streets - markedly disastrous alternative outlets for their psychological ailments. Due to the "stigma attached to such ailments," children are simply not being treated - "As many as 80 percent." Meanwhile, for the lucky children who still have their parents to look after them, their mother and father simply call in for advice, hardly the most effective method of treatment.

Many childhoods will be summed up with gunfire, fear, and damaging psychological trauma. This is a situation that needs to be addressed immediately. Children are extremely vulnerable in this conflict and these events are being ingrained in their memory as we speak. To have hope in the situation is to have hope in the future generations that rebuilding the country will fall on. Right now those future generations are being done incalculable damage. For the future of Iraq, and for the well being of countless children, we need a solution now.

UNICEF is calling for 20 million in aid to help accomplish their goals in Iraq. Only 11 percent has been received to date. This is unacceptable; the U.S. should be taking a much greater role in helping to alleviate one of the worst refugee crises in history.

YOU can still take action on behalf of Iraq's refugees. We continue to hand-deliver your letters to Members of Congress, and are keeping our action center open until the U.S. government passes serious, comprehensive legislation to assist not only children, but all those displaced by violence in Iraq.

Thursday, June 21, 2007


Take Action Now!It’s not too late -- we still need your help to alleviate the worst humanitarian crisis in the Middle East in 60 years. Tell your Members of Congress to support legislation protecting and assisting millions of displaced Iraqis. To increase the impact, we’re going to hand-deliver every single letter to Congress tomorrow, June 22nd. That means today is your last day to take action!

Remember: 2 million Iraqi refugees have fled to Jordan, Syria, and neighboring states, and approximately 2 million Iraqis have been internally displaced within Iraq itself. That's 4 million Iraqis who have been forced out of their homes as a result of the U.S. invasion and ongoing sectarian violence.

These people have suffered enough. Do something about it now.

Besides being a humanitarian tragedy, the displacement of Iraqis is having a destabilizing effect on the region. Host countries just can’t handle the floods of refugees, and internally displaced persons may be recruited by al Qaeda and other terrorist cells looking to exploit their anger and frustration.

Your letters make a huge difference in pressing our policymakers to step forward and protect Iraqi refugees and internally displaced persons. We have 1,500 collected so far, but we need far more. So please,
take two minutes to personalize our pre-written letter to Congress, and maybe pass the link along to a few friends.

It’s the least we can do.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Taking Action on World Refugee Day

In nearly every way, the U.S. has fallen short in helping Iraqis displaced by violence.

We failed to provide sufficient resources for refugee host countries overwhelmed by the crisis. We failed to resettle significant numbers of refugees in our own country, admitting only two in as many months. And we even failed to provide for many who have risked their lives to help our forces and organizations in Iraq.

Earlier this year, the U.S.
announced an agreement with UNHCR to resettle 7,000 Iraqi refugees. UNHCR made plans to identify and recommend these refugees to the U.S. by July, while the U.S. pledged $18 million toward the resettlement of these individuals. Six months have passed. What’s the status of this agreement? UNHCR, under-funded and stretched for staff, has managed to identify its 7,000 refugees ahead of schedule. Unfortunately, the U.S. has not yet funded the $18 million it promised.

As a result, nearly 4 million Iraqi refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) face an uncertain future.
Act now to support crucial legislation that restores their hope and ends the U.S. pattern of failure.

In addition to the UN-U.S. agreement, the U.S. House of Representatives is considering the "Responsibility to Iraqi Refugees Act of 2007" (H.R. 2265). Introduced by Representatives Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and Christopher Shays (R-CT), this bill would allow more Iraqis safe and legal passage into the U.S. and establish a Special Coordinator for Iraqi Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons to respond to the crisis. It would also establish special provisions to help protect Iraq's most vulnerable refugees, including women-headed families and those who are in extreme danger of persecution for being affiliated with the U.S. in Iraq.

Yesterday, Senators Ted Kennedy (D-MA) and Gordon Smith (R-OR) introduced the "Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act." Although the bill does not go as far as H.R.2265, it is the most comprehensive legislation in the Senate for meeting the rapidly growing needs of Iraqis displaced by violence.

If you believe in what we are doing and want to create positive change yourselves, please
Write to your Members of Congress urging them to support these bills. EPIC will hand-deliver your letters in honor of World Refugee Day. Together, we can help hundreds of thousands of vulnerable Iraqis and turn U.S. failures into successes.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Meet Kirk Johnson

As we honor World Refugee Day, the EPIC Ground Truth Project is excited to share part 1 of our in-depth interview with a rising champion for the human rights and needs of Iraq's most vulnerable refugees.

From January to December 2005, Kirk Johnson worked tirelessly with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to help rebuild war-torn Iraq -- first as an information officer at USAID/Iraq’s Baghdad headquarters, and later as USAID’s first regional coordinator for reconstruction in Fallujah. When a near-fatal accident during a vacation prevented him from returning to Iraq, he began to write about his experience and soon became a passionate advocate for America’s responsibility to protect Iraq’s most vulnerable refugees, including former colleagues and others at risk for their affiliation with U.S. government agencies.

In Part 1 of our interview, we talk with Kirk about his time with USAID, what he learned along the way, and his recommendations for going forward. Later this week, we will release Part 2, examining Kirk's current efforts to protect and resettle Iraqis who are at extreme risk for being affiliated with U.S. efforts in Iraq.

Kirk Johnson's story exemplifies the difference one person can make in the lives of the Iraqi people. For World Refugee Day, rally with EPIC, Kirk and hundreds of EPIC supporters by sending a letter to your Members of Congress, urging them to do more to assist and protect Iraqi refugees. With nearly 1,000 already delivered, we are well on our way to reaching our goal of 3,000 constituent letters.

It's not too late to send your personalized letters to Congress. Take action to protect Iraqi refugees right now.

National Call-In Day for Refugees

Thanks to the thousand of you who have taken action through EPIC to contact your members of Congress to urge them to support and protect displaced Iraqis. For the rest, it's not too late; you can still personalize and send your letters through the end of the week. We're going to hand-deliver all of them to Congress by Friday, in honor of World Refugee Day tomorrow, June 20th.

Meanwhile, today our friends at
Refugees International are calling on President Bush to play a leading role in addressing the Iraqi refugee crisis by increasing the amount of U.S. assistance for Iraqi refugees to $290 million. This is less than one quarter of one percent (0.25%) of the amount spent on the military aspects of the war.

Iraq is now the fastest growing refugee crisis worldwide, with more than four million Iraqis having been forced from their homes and thousands more following every day. This escalating emergency threatens recovery in Iraq and the stability of the entire region. The United States must act aggressively to improve regional and international security by making sure the necessary funds are provided to U.S. and UN agencies to protect the health and safety of Iraqi refugees.

With a single phone call, join thousands of Americans and make your voice heard. Help us convince President Bush that World Refugee Day is the perfect opportunity to announce his support for assisting Iraqi refugees.

Check out
Refugees International's action center, where they have provided the White House comment line phone number, a simple script for what to say, and all the additional background info you need.

Picking up the phone may seem like a big effort but this is not going to take more than a minute of your time - you dial the number, leave a brief message, and that's it. It couldn't be easier. So don't wait. Take action now.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Film Review: My Country, In Fragments

In our country, it's easy to get an inside view on the lives of others, their interactions, and the motivations behind their choices. Biographies, interviews, and even personally interacting with our fellow Americans gives us a pretty good understanding of who we are as individuals and a country.

To gain that kind of insight into other cultures, however, is more difficult. Our most basic line of information is the news, and in the case of Iraq, what the news depicts and what life is really like over there don't often equate. To help bridge that gap, two recent documentaries, My Country, My Country and Iraq in Fragments, offer brilliantly contrasting insights on what it is to be an Iraqi.

In a Ground Truth Interview, filmmaker Laura Poitras offered a fascinating first hand perspective on what life is actually like for the citizens of Iraq. Her movie, My Country, My Country, depicts is exactly that: life. With a backdrop of the 2005 Iraqi election, it chronicles the family of Dr. Riyadh as he prepares to move from the medical profession into the political sector. Poitras showcases complex nuances, as well as how Dr. Riyadh's story fit into what was happening in the broader scope of Iraq.

When focusing on his decision to join the Iraqi Islamic Party and persuade the organization to participate in the 2005 Provincial elections - the only local voting yet - his contemplative
nature is always at the forefront of the screen. I was fascinated to not only see how his professional decisions are effected by conversations within his family, but to be privy to his ongoing introspection as well. It's the inner, day-to-day struggles we go through in life that connect us as humans, and My Country My Country helps us relate to Iraqi citizens in this more personal way.

Iraq in Fragments takes a different angle. Broken up into three parts - each showing Iraq's respective sects - the film has a broader narrative. From chronicling a young Sunni boy's decision of whether to stay in school or continue working with an abusive friend of his Grandmother, to the extent of Moqtada al-Sadr's influence on his Shia followers, the film touches on a variety of dispositions in Iraq. The third and final part of the documentary depicts life in a Kurdish brick maker’s home. While an odd way to end the piece, it leaves you with a sense of hope - as if the more peaceful Kurdish North could somehow provide a blueprint for the rest of the country.

Starting off in such an eccentric fashion, and ending in much the same way - leaving only the middle to offer footage familiar to our understanding - Iraq in Fragments leaves you yearning for just a little more. But that's the brilliance of it; before you're able to discern exactly why they chose to concentrate on these particular stories and not explore more traditional avenues, it's over. It leaves you wanting an insiders' view on more Iraqis' lives. As with My Country My Country, we are offered a unique perspective on regular citizens instead of suicide bombings and tragedy.

Through both films, I came to understand how Iraqi citizens make it through the day. I understand why they are hopeful. And ultimately, that's the key: an understanding. Until we understand the situation, we cannot solve it.

These two documentaries let us in on Iraq’s best kept secret: its people.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Father's Day and That Place Called Vietnam

Yesterday viet vet said... "Does anyone remember a place called Viet Nam?" While I have never been to a place called Vietnam, I feel close to it.

My dad served two tours in Vietnam (1967 and 1970). He retired a Major in the U.S. Marine Corps. Although my brothers and I continued the family tradition of military service, it was not until recently that my dad and I began sharing the Things We Carried. Even on the eve of my deployment to Saudi Arabia in December 1990, scarcely a word was mentioned about his time in Vietnam. Perhaps it took my own wartime service to have enough of a reference point to ask useful questions. Today we talk about Iraq a lot and my work with EPIC makes the conversation increasingly relevant.

The more I learn, the more I believe the U.S. experience in Vietnam is instructive about how America can do better. No, I don’t mean to suggest that "victory in Iraq" is possible. That is too simplistic. For starters, the rhetoric of "victory" suggests that there is only one war: a contest between good and evil. In fact, there are at least 8 major conflicts going on in Iraq with varying degrees of intensity. Talk of "victory" also suggests that Iraq is a military problem with a military solution. While that may be true in combating suicide extremism that targets Iraqi civilians and places of worship, it does not hold true for the multiple national, provincial and local civil wars taking place from Mosul to Basra. The more appropriate frame is that of conflict resolution, and that is where America (or more specifically our leaders in Washington) can do much better.

Rather than pursue a military solution, it's time for a more sustainable U.S. policy and strategic direction in Iraq; one that has a greater chance of success in bringing stability to the Iraqi people while avoiding a regional war or even worse disasters down the road. The question is less about victory vs. failure and more about what's possible vs. what's not.

In an atmosphere of suicide bombings and civil war, what do I think is possible? For starters, Washington must recognize the imperative of economic and political solutions to Iraq’s multiple civil wars and address the worst humanitarian crisis the Middle East has seen in 60 years. Thanks to hundreds of EPIC supporters, Members of Congress are beginning to hear from constituents demanding action. Our message is clear: it is not enough for Members to debate military surges and timetables for withdrawal. They need to do more to mitigate the consequences of armed conflict in Iraq and pass comprehensive legislation to assist and protect millions of Iraqis driven from their homes by violence, especially those who are most vulnerable.

Jim Webb (left) and his son Jimmy in Afghanistan last year. The younger Webb recently returned home from Iraq. Courtesy Jim Webb.A place called Vietnam was also a topic of conversation this morning on NPR. Morning Edition's Renee Montagne interviewed Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) about his family's military tradition and about serving, even in conflicts they don't support. Webb, a Vietnam veteran, was elected last November as a leading critic of the U.S. war in Iraq. His son, Marine Lance Cpl. Jimmy Webb, just returned from a 9-month tour with the 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, in Anbar, Iraq. Here’s an excerpt:

Webb: …whatever the politics of a war are, for people who believe in their country, and who are willing to step forward and take those risks because they believe in their country. It sounds intellectually odd, but emotionally it's correct.

Montagne: How do you reconcile that as a person in uniform and actually fighting?

Webb: You know, I got that same question from a young Marine a few years ago when I visited Quantico. His question to me was, "I don't believe in this what we're doing. I don't think it's the right way to go. What do I do when one of my Marines asks me that question?" And I said I'll give you the same answer that I used to give myself during Vietnam. And that is that the war isn't going to go away whether or not you or I like it — we're talking as young second lieutenants, not as senators here — and, given that, my instincts, my responsibilities are to do the job and to get as many people back as I can. And that's really the duty of a young military leader.
The Richmond Times-Dispatch reports the Senator is proud of his son's service and that of his son's unit. "What they did has kind of become the hallmark for how to operate out of Anbar province," said Webb.

I expect Senator Webb and his son will have a very interesting conversation over the weekend, and I anticipate they will both learn a lot from each other as my dad and I continue to learn from each other as we share what we know about America’s experience in Iraq and a place called Vietnam. Thanks viet vet for your national service and for lobbing a damn good question into the fray.

"Emotions Don't Solve Problems"

Clearly a chord was struck yesterday. A chord that resonated for 51 comments: A record on our blog. What I was so amazed with was the passion and enthusiasm exhibited by the postings. What was also interesting was how split down the middle posters were. When one comment would go up arguing one side, it would be followed almost immediately by the opposing view.

One of the more prominent comments that was made I feel needs a little more discussion. "I think the message from one side of this debate was the fact that it is human nature to become emotional, but what next? Emotions don't solve problems, even though they may spark interest and hope for change. I think we look toward EPIC and the rest of the NGO community to relay these stories in a way that is not bias and overwrought - Anonymous."

That is both a valid concern and an unfair implication. Ignoring for a minute the rest of the NGO community, I don't think it's reasonable to imply that EPIC only deals with emotions when discussing these issues, neglecting solution-based ideas. Our mission here at EPIC is to bring you the stories and interviews that you won't find anywhere else, and yes, they are often emotional. But the reason you won't find them anywhere else is because we go straight to the source. We feel the most important voices are those of Iraqis and those who work in the country. They know what's going on because they live it. They are the solution.

We are extremely happy that this blog has received so much attention and encouraged so much action (over 600 letters and counting!), but I want to make it clear that we are not an emotion-focused institution, we are a solutions-focused one. I hope there is as much debate on the next series of posts because while debates are inherently guided by emotion, when an exchange of ideas ensues, real solutions emerge.

Thursday, June 14, 2007


Khulood Habib was a 45-year-old seamstress, a mother of four living in Baghdad. One day, she received an envelope with a bullet in it, and a message ordering her to leave town. The next afternoon, gunmen broke down the door of her apartment, crushing her 6-year-old son's leg. "He was screaming," she recalls. "I was screaming."

In fear for their lives and with only as much as they could carry on their backs, they left their home and fled to an uncertain future.

Khulood hopes those gunmen aren't following her. She hopes they won't kill the family and friends she left behind, the way they kidnapped, mutilated and tortured two men in her neighborhood just a week before she left. She hopes someone will help her soon, so she can provide water, food and shelter for her family. She hopes she'll be able to go back one day.

This is the situation faced by two million Iraqis who have fled their homeland in the last four years, and 20,000 to 30,000 more leaving each month. Another two million are internally displaced within Iraq. They have endured horrible trauma, and now they have no homes, no jobs, no security. These people have nothing but their hope.

The United States helped create this crisis. It is absolutely our responsibility to do something about it, before one more person has to endure anything like what Khulood Habib went through.
Take action now, so these people can begin rebuilding their lives in peace.

To increase the impact of your action, EPIC will hand-deliver your letters to your Senators and Representatives during the week of World Refugee Day, June 20th.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Iraqi Labor Leader Comes To DC

Hashmeya Muhsin Hussein. Ready for hard work, accountability, and  action. Photo by David Bacon.Hashmeya Muhsin Hussein is an amazing woman. She is the first woman to head a national union in Iraq, a statement that belies the difficulties that position entails. In response to, and because of her activism, she and her eight and a half year old son, Muhammad, both receive daily death threats.

While her presentation on June 6th was brief, the question and answer session was the defining characteristic of the press conference. What was so interesting was that, although disparaging news on the surface, her suggested solutions coincide with everything I have been reading in our Ground Truth Interviews, and hearing in off the record conversations with natives and NGO workers. And from the message she delivered in her responses, it's definitely "the economy, stupid."

Unemployment is a staggering 65% in Iraq -- a number that, in her eyes, corresponds directly with the level of sectarian violence. With nine million under the poverty line, virtually no basic services such as water and sewage, and sometimes only one hour of electricity out of every six, the militias have a prime pool of candidates to draw from.

Because the cost of survival has reached such critical levels, the different sects are turning to their respective militias just to put food on the table. The vast disagreements in sectarian beliefs have a long history, but according to Hashmeya, the divide was "negligible" before the conflict because "Saddam repressed every group equally," she laughed.

When asked what our twenty billion in reconstruction aid has accomplished in the country, she declared that hardly anything has been done on a large scale. All of the factories have been shut down, there has been no improvement in roads, and electricity is so unpredictable it's close to worthless.

Hashmeya stated that young Iraqi workers are waiting around for something to do and that unemployment is hitting them the hardest, depleting the hopes of future leaders. She feels the most disappointing aspect of this is the apparent lack of concern and attention the situation is commanding: "there have been no serious efforts to solve this issue."

The overarching theme of the press conference was accountability and pride. She declared the Iraqis are ready to be accountable for their own actions, their country, and their future.

What she fears most, however, is the United States' involvement in privatizing Iraq's businesses. She wants the public sector to play the predominant role in the economy while the private sector simply supplements. She fears that if the private sector comes before the public, under these circumstances, Iraqis would not get hired and the country would be no better off than it is now. If Iraqi's are not getting hired after fundamental economic changes have taken root, then they cannot take responsibility for themselves and be held accountable for their own actions. If this becomes the case after we're gone, in their eyes, the "occupation" simply takes a different form.

So, while economics can, and should, be the savior of Iraq, we need to make sure the Iraqis are the economists.

Crisis Without Borders

Children are amongst the most vulnerable Iraqi refugees.Can you even imagine losing loved ones and being driven from your home and possessions by sectarian violence, crossing over dangerous roads into an unfamiliar country, not being able to find housing or employment there and, wondering where your next meal is coming from, having no choice but to turn - or ask a family member to turn - to prostitution?

That's the story told in a new Brookings Institution - University of Bern Project on Internal Displacement paper, Iraqi Refugees in the Syrian Arab Republic: A Field-Based Snapshot. This thorough, disturbing study describes how "violence and lawlessness in Iraq drives tens of thousands of families from their home every month" to Syria alone, as well as the precarious state of Syria's infrastructure and ability to support these vulnerable refugees.

In our lead-up to the UN World Refugee Day on June 20th, EPIC is going to shine its spotlight more than ever on the Iraqi refugee crisis - the worst humanitarian disaster in the Middle East in 60 years.

According to an editorial from Monday's Washington Post, two to four million Iraqis have fled their homeland in the last four years, with an additional 20,000 to 30,000 leaving each month. Although Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) within Iraq pose are difficult to count, most refugees head for Jordan or Syria, where public services are strained and nationalist tensions are increasing. And many of these refugees are female-headed-households in which women are being forced to take desperate measures in order to provide for their families.

So far, the U.S. has not lived up to its responsibility to these people, admitting only 701 refugees since the start of the war and only TWO in as many months. Representative Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) has introduced important legislation to do more, and we'll be telling you more about that and asking you to take action to support it in coming days. So keep checking back for updates.

Yesterday, Erik and I met with allies from Refugee Council USA, the Brookings Institution, Interaction, Refugees International, the Church World Service and others to prepare for upcoming Congressional appropriations debates. Since the recently-passed supplemental spending bill failed to earmark sufficient funding for Iraqi refugees and Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), and set aid levels for several crucial programs well below what we deemed essential, we had a lot to discuss in terms of strategies for our new requests. Between us, we have lots of great ideas.

In light of this horrible crisis, If we can restore hope for even a few Iraqi families, I know our work will be well worthwhile.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Six Months Later, Congress Warms to Iraq Study Group Recommendations

Last week Senators Lamar Alexander (R-TN), Ken Salazar (D-CO) and six of their colleagues -- three Republicans and three Democrats -- introduced the Iraq Study Group (ISG) Recommendations Implementation Act of 2007 (S.1545). If passed into law, it would make the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group report into official U.S. policy. The other cosponsors are Senators Bob Bennett (R-UT), Mark Pryor (D-AR), Judd Gregg (R-NH), Robert Casey (D-PA), John Sununu (R-NH) and Blanche Lincoln (D-AR). In the House, a companion bill (H.R.2574) was introduced by Rep. Mark Udall (D-CO) and co-sponsored by Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA), Mike McCaul (R-TX), Dan Lipinski (D-IL) and a bipartisan coalition of more than 40 representatives.

The good news: EPIC supports the Iraq Study Group Report and the current legislation to implement the recommendations fully into our policy. The bad news: the legislation just doesn't quite hit on some of the important components in detail.

The report states, "[the recommendations] are comprehensive and need to be implemented in a coordinated fashion. They should not be separated or carried out in isolation." Given that the report offers a thorough, all-encompassing approach to tackling the situation, including humanitarian aid and economic development as crucial ingredients for success, this statement offers a great deal of promise. However, the group's specific recommendations for economic aid are not voiced in the bills.

With this is mind, the legislation does provide some general statements regarding aid and development; urging "economic assistance, commerce, trade, political support, and, if possible, military assistance for the Government of Iraq from non-neighboring Muslim nations." This is a start, and given that the two bills support the full implementation of the report, we should see recommendations 64-71 put into action. Our concern is that, without true talk of development and its specific needs and benefits, it will fall down on the list of priorities and potentially not receive the attention it needs.

Despite the importance of this legislation, the media coverage has been less than determined. ABC News did a short, one-page report, and statements were released from Senators Salazar and Alexander. While the most significant issue the ABC report highlighted was the fact that six months have gone by without debate on such a substantial and comprehensive document, the two senatorial statements did manage to exhibit a remarkable amount of self-congratulations over their bipartisanship.

While reaching across the aisle is an essential criterion for successful legislation (what we're crossing our fingers for), the sheer saturation of partisan rhetoric does not help advance the debate on the policy. Bipartisanship should be assumed and left at that; we need to see the solutions and the particulars at the forefront of debate.

While not as detailed in the economic development and international aid coverage as we wanted, the legislation is not exactly detailed in anything else either. The most important point is the language confirming the comprehensive nature of the Iraq Study Group Report and the intention to keep it as such.

To see some of the effects the legislation would have on actual progress in Iraq, and how you can take action encourage your Senator to sponsor the bill, check out FCNL's report.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Iraq Peacebuilders Storm Capitol Hill

From right to left: Iraqi peacebuilders Samuel Rizk, Sister Helen, EPIC's Erik Gustafson, Hero Anwar, Lynn Kunkle and Lisa Schirch, outside the Hart Senate Office Building. (photo by Geoff Schaefer)Yesterday was intense. I spent the day on Capitol Hill with longtime EPIC colleague Lisa Schirch and a delegation of peacebuilders from the region, who are implementing active peacebuilding programs inside Iraq. There’s a real hunger in Washington for genuine peacebuilding solutions, especially solutions that come from the ground. At the Capitol Hill briefing we helped organize, we had standing room only and had to turn dozens of people away. The audience was a good mix of congressional staffers, government agencies, NGOs and academics. Although the press was invited, none showed up.

As our regular blog readers and subscribers have noticed, we’ve been writing a lot about the absence of Iraq peacebuilders in the media and in Washington. There’s lots of talk about “military options” ranging from “the surge” to all-mighty withdrawal, but not a whole lot of talk about what’s needed as part of a comprehensive political, diplomatic and economic strategy for ending the war.

As much as the marketers at Boeing and Lockheed Martin may wish us to believe otherwise, peacebuilding does not land in helicopters or launch from battleships. Sure, there might be a role for the projection of military power under certain circumstances, but entrusting sustainable peacebuilding and development to a foreign occupying military and weapons systems makes about as much sense as a screen door on a submarine.

The more the international community, U.S., and Iraqi government overlook peaceful agents of change, the more we will see men with guns step in to rule the day. It’s time for governments, regional agencies, and international organizations to start getting serious about directing resources to those in Iraq who are truly part of the solution: Iraq peacebuilders.

For those of you half-expecting me to invite everyone to hold hands for a round of Kumbaya, let me introduce you to a few folks who are the real deal.

Hero Anwar is the human resources and program monitoring & evaluation manager for REACH, an Iraqi nongovernmental organization established in 1995 to work in community development. A Kurdish Sunni Muslim, she has extensive experience working with Community-Based Organizations (CBOs) in villages and towns throughout Iraq. REACH is also involved in humanitarian relief, and promoting the abilities of vulnerable Iraqi groups to stand for a fair sustainable livelihood regardless of political, race, religious, or gender affiliations. All this with only a $1 million annual budget (including a microcredit program dispensing over $300,000 in $1,000 loans to Iraqis) and 45 staff members between four offices, one of which is in the troubled Diyala Province.

Samira Samarji (“Sister Helen”), was the director of St. Jackob Monastery in Baghdad from 2000-2006, before moving to Lebanon to work at the Patriarchal Institutions of the Syrian Orthodox Church. An Iraqi, she worked with Iraqi youth and knows well the humanitarian needs of people in Baghdad.

Samuel Rizk is the Executive Director of the Forum for Development, Culture and Dialogue (FDCD). FDCD works to empower marginalized, oppressed communities and address the challenges they face through a process of dialogue, inter-faith solidarity and cooperation among communities. FCDC also promotes sustainable development, justice and reconciliation, and strengthening the role of women and youth in inter-cultural dialogue. Here is FCDC’s latest newsletter on their work in Iraq (PDF) where they are supporting 15 Iraqi NGOs implementing projects in conflict resolution and peacebuilding in their local communities.

Following the Capitol Hill briefing, Lisa and I took the delegation to meet with Senate offices. The reception was very positive. The delegates shared detailed accounts of successful and ongoing projects that are building security from the ground up.

On very modest budgets, REACH and FCDC are implementing 100s of projects throughout Iraq. Both organizations rely on local involvement, protection and ownership. Their projects are helping to create jobs and restore public services. Furthermore, many of these projects are sources of genuine conflict prevention and resolution by engaging diverse communities in shared probelm-solving for the common good.

In other words, “peacebuilding through development” is not just a catchphrase for fuzzy thinkers. It works, and I was honored to spend the day with some of the men and women who are on the frontlines of those efforts.

People Who Are Part of the Solution

From right to left: Iraqi peacebuilders Hero Anwar, EPIC's Erik Gustafson, Sister Helen, Lynn Kunkle, Samuel Rizk and Lisa Schirch. (photo by Geoff Schaefer)It is one thing to read an interview, but quite another to actually meet the peacebuilders working for change in Iraq -- to see the way their eyes light up when they talk about the successes they've had, and how committed and passionate they are about their work. And in interview after interview, conversation after conversation, what gets me most is that they all say the same thing: peace is possible. Reconciliation between Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds is possible. They've seen it, they've been a part of it. They know.

Last night, I was privileged to be invited to a dinner attended by the Iraq peacebuilders featured earlier at the Capitol Hill briefing, "Peacebuilding in Iraq and Afghanistan: Building Security from the Ground Up" (look for more info on that event here soon). Amongst these brave Iraqis was Hero Anwar, Program Manager of REACH, an Iraqi community development organization. I spent most of the evening hearing, and being moved by, her stories.

Hopefully we'll be doing a Ground Truth interview with Hero soon. But in the meantime, I just want to convey how incredibly hopeful she was about the prospects for peace and an end to civil war in Iraq. Hero talked about an area outside of Mosul, where Kurdish and Arab villages initially refused to work together on a water distribution program, each village administration wanting to negotiate separately with REACH. But eventually, they came to understand the necessity of collaboration, and managed to form a single team, work with REACH, fix the problem and resolve their conflict.

As Hero explained, sectarian rifts seem a lot deeper and more important when one is unemployed, lacks access to electricity and clean water, and is wondering where the family's next meal is coming from. But give people ownership and responsibility of a project to improve their situation, listen to, value and incorporate their input, and it is amazing how unimportant those rifts suddenly become.

We've heard the same things from other peacebuilders, such as Bruce Parmelee of CHF International, Daniel Rothenberg of IHRLI, and Michael Miller of ADF. Work with the people on small, inclusive projects, and the progress may seem incremental and localized, but overtime it can have a cumulative impact.

I told you a couple weeks ago how Sunni and Shiite leaders have been reaching out to end violence and negotiate differences. And everything I said then has been validated by Hero Anwar and the other Iraqi peacebuilders I met last night.

Make no mistake -- clearly there is still a lot of work to be done. The media may be painting an unnecessarily bleak picture of Iraq by not telling you stories of successful peacebuilding, but they're not lying. And Hero never for a moment implied that her work in uniting Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites in small communities was easy. But the point is, everybody who really knows what's going on in Iraq is saying the same thing: it can be done.

I, for one, have never felt so hopeful and excited about the work we're doing at EPIC, and the long term prospects for a peaceful Iraq.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

When Doctors are Heroes

Hala Al-Saraf, right, stands with Iraqi Ambassador to the U.S. Samir Shakir Al-Sumaydi after receiving an award from the Embassy of Iraq for outstanding work in helping her people. Hala now returns to Iraq in hopes of working with Iraqi legislators to create a more sustainable health policy.I've always had a great deal of respect for those who commit to medical professions. All those years of school, then internships and residencies, 80-hour work weeks, all the loans for that expensive education, and all so they can provide the greatest possible service to humanity: saving and improving lives. Of course, doctors in this country make a great deal of money once they get rolling, so that more or less compensates for their sacrifice.

But what if they didn't make all that money? In Iraq, even established doctors earn only the equivalent of a few American dollars a day. They lack anything close to the facilities, equipment, text books, resources and training we have in the U.S. Worst of all, they are constant targets of violence: Iraq’s Ministry of Health reports that 102 doctors and 164 nurses were killed between April 2003 and May 2006, and some 250 Iraqi doctors have been kidnapped in the past two years.

I learned all this and much more about the desperate state of Iraq's public health sector through my work on EPIC's latest Ground Truth interview, with Iraqi public health expert Hala al-Saraf. This is truly a must-read. Hala speaks first-hand about the incredible hardships doctors and medical professionals face in her country, including the forced migration of more than 12,000 physicians who are essential to the health of the Iraqi people.

Yet many young Iraqis seek medical education, even for the lousy salaries and death threats awaiting them once they become doctors. Including Hala herself, who recently returned to Iraq to pursue a career in health policy, these brave men and women are true heroes and peacebuilders, answering their country's desperate cries for help at their own great risk.

To turn things around, Hala argues for a more sustainable approach than what we’ve seen so far from Washington and Baghdad. Instead of building new facilities such as the “Laura Bush” Pediatrics Hospital in Basra, Iraq needs assistance from the U.S. and international community to rehabilitate existing healthcare centers and cultivate a new generation of physicians and healthcare workers.

To learn how Iraqi professionals such as Hala maintain hope in the face of overwhelming odds, and what translating that hope into action can mean for their country, please take a few minutes to read our Ground Truth interview with Hala al-Saraf.

We need more heroes like Hala in Iraq. And we need you to know her story.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

The New York Times Man in Baghdad: Ed Wong

First, let me introduce myself. I am the newest member to join the EPIC team. My name is Geoff Schaefer, and I will be interning here for the rest of the summer. I am currently a student of economics at West Virginia University, but I have lived just south of Washington, in Woodbridge, Virginia, most of my life. As my first day was yesterday, this post is my first task.

In our quest to bring you the ground truth in Iraq, our work is dependent on concise research, thorough interviews, and enlightening journalism. Today, I want to draw your attention to Edward Wong, journalist for the New York Times, who is a key authority helping us provide a detailed education about the actual truth on the ground.

Wong has been in Iraq for almost the entire war and has interviewed Iraqis about their thoughts, feelings, and history regarding sectarian violence, America's conduct and occupation, and their future prospects and hopes - a much appreciated alternative to the
current reporting that so thoroughly populates our media. This is why he is so valuable to us and should be placed at the top of your "must read" list.

Without a greater understanding of factional strife and its implications, we will never make significant steps in achieving a peaceful solution to the crisis engulfing each Iraqi's every waking minute. Edward Wong is methodically uncovering both small incremental changes and the hinderance of real progress. His article,
Iraq's Curse: A Thirst for Final, Crushing Victory, takes an intricate look at how the different sects are pondering their strategies and what that means for our inability to progressively change ours.

Going on his first-hand observations, Wong points out that “no faction — not the Shiite Arabs or Sunni Arabs or Kurds — has been able to secure absolute power, and that has only sharpened the hunger for it.” Wong conveys the fundamental nature of the strife. By understanding this at its most basic level, we can better develop policies that will really take root and flourish.

Without journalists such as Edward Wong risking their lives to bring us history and understanding, not merely numbers and information, we would be even further behind in drafting a policy that will do right by the people of Iraq, its neighbors, and us.

The actual truth on the ground may be hard fought, but it's not impossible to attain. Ed Wong is proof. Read away.

Friday, June 01, 2007

It's Not Too Late: Help Us Reach Our Goal

Thanks to a burst of support, we are within reach of our $15,000 goal. In the past two weeks alone, EPIC supporters have contributed more than $11,000 – so let's do it again! Please add to this effort right now with your generous donation to EPIC's work.

On Tuesday I wrote to you about our work to end the conflict in Iraq through peacebuilding. Today I want to tell you about how we’re responding to what the war has created: the worst humanitarian catastrophe in the Middle East since 1948. Beginning in November, we intensified our public outreach and pressure on Washington to address Iraq’s displacement crisis.

Consider the impact we’re having thanks to your help:
  • November: EPIC brings national attention to Iraq’s displacement crisis, including primetime television coverage of the deteriorating conditions generating the crisis. EPIC Director and Iraqi colleagues appear on PBS NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.
  • December: EPIC partners with Refugees International and intensifies communications to raise public awareness about “the world’s fastest growing refugee crisis.”
  • January 9: We release our Ground Truth interview with refugee advocate Sean Garcia who reports “no relief in sight” for Iraqi refugees and host nations. EPIC members flood the White House with letters, emails and faxes urging President Bush to help Iraqi refugees.
  • January 16: The Senate holds hearing on the plight of Iraqi refugees, taking the first step in recognizing the magnitude of the crisis. Within weeks, the New York Times and Washington Post run editorials.
  • January 23: On the day of the President’s State of the Union address, EPIC members send more than 650 emails to the White House urging President Bush to end his silence about the plight of Iraqi refugees.
  • January 26: We release our Ground Truth interview with Khaldoon Ali, president of Mercy Hands, an Iraqi NGO delivering relief to Iraqi families displaced by violence and helping those most in need.
  • February 14: The U.S. pledges $18 million to the UN Refugee Agency and says it will consider 7,000 applications of Iraqis seeking asylum -- a small, yet welcome step in the right direction.
  • March 6: 43 national groups join EPIC in urging Congress to close the $290 million gap in assistance for displaced Iraqis. EPIC members urge their Senators to support more humanitarian aid, not war.
  • March 26: The Senate approves emergency spending bill for 2007. Senate goes much further than House to fund assistance for Iraqi refugees and war victims.
  • May 25: After lengthy negotiations, President Bush signs into law an emergency spending bill that includes $85 million above his initial request for refugee and IDP assistance.
While the administration and Congress are beginning to take steps to help displaced Iraqis, they have much further to go – and so do we. But we need your help. Today I am asking you to join hundreds of new supporters who care about what’s happening to the people of Iraq.

Please make a secure online donation right now and help us reach our goal of $15,000. Your tax-deductible donation will strengthen EPIC as we work to generate lifesaving humanitarian relief and protection for the people of Iraq.
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