Into the danger zone
Master’s student of Humanitarian Action K. Rasool is doing his internship in an Iraqi refugee camp.
He flew to Iraq to arrange the internship himself.
The camp is flooded with refugees, threatened by the Syrian war and IS.
IS is only fifteen minutes away, but K. isn’t scared. He feels he must do what he can to help.
His decisions are strongly influenced by his Kurdish family who suffered greatly under the regime of Saddam Hussein.
He started driving south and will have arrived by now.
Friends and family think he’s mad. ‘You’re better off jumping from a roof’.’
Reading time: 11 minutes (1,433 words)
For five days in a row, K. Rasool has been waiting in the lobby of a refugee camp in Iraq. He wants to speak with the manager, who appears to be a very busy man. ‘Maybe today’, K. thinks on the fifth day. He doesn’t give up hope.
It’s 4 p.m. again, and the office is about to close. The 34-year-old Iraqi Erasmus Mundus student steps out of the building and hails a taxi back to his hotel. The sun is beginning to set as K. arrives at his destination, still empty-handed.
At 8 p.m., K. is in his room, mentally preparing to go to the office again tomorrow. His phone rings. ‘Could it be him?’, he wonders. He picks up: ‘Hello?’ Without a greeting, the camp manager says, ‘Are you the guy who is showing up at the office every day?’
K. came to the Netherlands ten years ago to work. Now, he is a master’s student of Humanitarian Action at the University of Groningen. In the third semester of the master programme, students are able to do an internship.
First intern ever
K. sacrificed his Christmas break in 2013 to fly to Iraq to talk to the manager of the refugee camp about doing his internship there.
He got accepted as an intern for the fall of 2014. The ambitious student convinced the manager through his patient persistence – K. will be the first intern the camp has ever had.
He has been planning to intern at the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) for a long time. While doing research for an essay for one of his classes, K. visited the website www.reliefweb.int and read about the more than 165,000 Syrian refugees that had flooded into Northern Iraq. All the while, the threat from Islamic State (IS) has continued to escalate. The camp – where mostly Kurdish and Syrian refugees seek medical aid and shelter – is built for 38,000 people, but shelters over 65,000. Many people share tents and sanitary conditions are critical.
Unarmed and defenseless
‘This is exactly what I wanted to do, the picture fit right away for me’, says K. The more he read, the more motivated he got to help.
The camp will be guarded, but IS forces are fifteen minutes away. He will be unarmed and defenceless inside the camp – he has no military training whatsoever.
The world is painfully aware that IS has murdered aid workers before, but K. isn’t scared. ‘I’d rather die while doing something that I believe in than die as an old man in my bed, lonely and sick, and full of regrets’ he says, with a slight tremor in his voice. Jokingly, he adds, ‘You can die doing a standard nine-to-five job as well, of course.’
‘God has put me into this position’
Being on the other side of the world has been tough, K. says. ‘It was killing me that I was not in Iraq, helping those people’. It’s clear that K. feels a strong urge to provide aid. ‘I can’t change the world’, he says, but just putting a smile on someone’s face is enough for him.
He is deeply troubled by the current situation in Iraq – he doesn’t understand how people can treat each other like this. He was raised with three religions: his mother’s side is Kurdish, his father’s side is half-Jewish and he was also influenced by Catholicism. His parents encouraged him to decide on his religious beliefs for himself.
‘I do believe in god’, K. says, but he doesn’t consider himself religious. He believes that the only way to reach peace is to understand all three Abrahamic religions. There are many similarities among them, but ‘people don’t want to see that anymore’.
K. also believes that god is the reason why he ended up where he is. ‘God has put me into this position – things happen for a reason.’
Persecuted for generations
His parents had a strong influence on his decisions, too. ‘They were always really open and supported me.’ His father in particular inspired him to become a humanitarian worker: he was one himself during the Gulf War for the International Rescue Committee (IRC).
Another source of K.’s passion is his family’s past: they have been involved in the Kurdish struggle for generations. K.’s family suffered greatly under Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime, and many in his family perished during the Kurdish uprisings in the early stages of the Gulf War. ‘I’ve lost my mother’s brother – two of his sons died, too.’
K. also understands the plight of refugees because his people have been persecuted for years. ‘It’s something I carry close to home.’
IS will only make things worse
The Kurds are known as a proud people who historically fought for more autonomy during colonial times and in the modern era as well, under Hussein’s rule.
Another reason why K. is going to Iraq now is because he fears for the future. Things will only get worse with a group as radical as IS potentially ruling the country, he says.
To K., IS embodies pure violence. They are dangerous because they are radicals driven by fanaticism, not by money or power. ‘They want to take the whole world back into barbarian times of the Middle Ages’, he says. ‘Everything you have pushed forward with your heart and soul is what these people are against.’ He believes that it will be a catastrophe for mankind if they get more power.
Despite his strong connection to the country and the culture, he says he would still care about the situation if it was happening elsewhere: ‘To me, it makes no difference that it happened in Iraq’, he says with conviction. ‘If it happened somewhere in Africa or the North Pole, I would still go.’ K. will stay for at least three months for the internship. ‘I will happily stay for longer if I’m asked to’, he says.
Wilder and more uncertain
His time in Iraq will almost certainly be very different from anything K. has ever experienced. ‘This journey will be wilder and more uncertain. I have no idea what will happen.’ Although K. will have a daily routine, it’s obviously not that ‘standard nine-to-five job’.
His main tasks in the camp itself will depend on what needs to be done each day. There will be supervisors from UNHCR and UNICEF on site to support vulnerable groups such as injured or sick people, the elderly and children. He will do anything he is asked to do, he says. That could range from nutrition, health and medication to food supply.
‘We do not get a fixed set of assignments or a list of things to do.’ From his previous experiences, he knows he will first be tested in different areas to see what he’s capable of.
Helping one individual will be enough
Although his family has inspired him to go, they are worried. His friends, lecturers and even his coordinator at the RUG all think he’s crazy. ‘You’re better off jumping from a roof’, one friend said.
A few days before K. left, the manager from the camp called and asked, ‘Are you absolutely sure you want to do this?’
It makes sense to K., even though it might not make sense to anyone else. ‘Even if I can only help one individual pick up his life again, that would be enough for me.’ He has noticed people growing more supportive, especially after he made his decision final.
K. is visibly yearning to go. Rubbing his hands together and grinning, he says, ‘I’m so excited. I can’t wait.’
Note: The Humanitarian Action department asked the UK to take this article down because they feared that the provided personal information would make K. an easy target. When he returned to the Netherlands in early 2015, the UK interviewed him about the experience.