Once a Humanitarian Worker, Now a PhD Student: Reflections from Post-ISIS Iraq

Kathleen Rutledge conducted field research on the role of faith in coping and recovery amongst women survivors of the ISIS conflict in Iraq earlier this year.

Her research is part of a one-year HAD/Islamic Relief-led research project on faith, gender and trauma response in Tunisia, Turkey, Iraq and Syria. In this blog post, Kathleen, who used to work with a humanitarian organisation in Iraq during the ISIS reign in 2015-17, reflects on what it is like to be back in Iraq as a researcher.

‘It looks the same, but it feels different’: Arriving (again) in Iraq

It looks the same. But it feels different. The same advertisements greet me as I step off the plane.

I still don’t want to buy the SWISS watch. But the airport is more alive.

The HERTZ rental car shop that had been shuttered during the time of ISIS from 2014-2017 is lit up again.

Stepping out of the terminal, there are more cars waiting for passengers. Most of the cars weren’t allowed up to that part of the terminal area before.

They were kept at a second terminal area in the distance.

As I wait for the bus, one noticeable change is the lack of swooping helicopters out front.

They were not always evident, but the coalition forces and other military combatting ISIS used a section of the airport as a military base.

The widespread ISIS occupation has ended now – with the pivotal defeat in 2016/2017 as Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, was recaptured.

From the airport the helicopters seemed to often fly to the west, toward the Mosul region and the front lines, and to other parts of IS occupied Iraq.

Toward the end of my time in this region in early 2017, as the intensity of combat with ISIS came to a head, the military presence – particularly dark green and other black helicopters – were much more prominent, usually at night.

At times you could hear them at night, from miles away, passing over other parts of the city, shuddering the air – with vibrations you could almost feel.

There were many Chinooks – with powerful double rotors sweeping the sky.

Most of the helicopters were at the airport, and as I travelled through the airport at the end of 2016 and early 2017, helicopters in a line formation would pass over our vehicle as they descended to land – the nose of the helicopters raising very slightly, like a horse lifting its head.

Former colleagues that have become friends

But today, March 4th, 2019 – nothing but quiet outside. Nothing moving or visible in the former military area just ahead. Only families next to me just waiting for the bus.

As I arrived in the second terminal, a dear friend from before – who picked me up my first day in Iraq in April 2015 – was there waiting yet again.

He was there in those early days when our humanitarian response was fledgling and finding its way.

And he was there as we grew to new cities and faced challenges and triumphs.

He used to drive 2.5 hours every day to help our team work in a new location that wasn’t secure enough for us to stay overnight.

He did this for more than a year – 5 days a week. He helped us set up offices and navigate government closed doors and he came to my rescue one Saturday when the pipes in my sink burst.

Though it was a holiday and a weekend – he got a plumber there within the hour. He was hired to be a driver – but he became part of us. He’s a Kurdish man with a wonderful family and he adopted all of us.

We’ve shared his wife’s legendary dolma and he’s hosted us in the mountains in his home that overlooks the ‘Grand Canyon’ of Kurdistan.

And here he was again, picking me up as my friend. It can be like that sometimes, the team (that goes through the building, the strain, the tears and the most difficult early days in trying to setting up humanitarian operations in a new country, in contexts formed primarily of obstacles and urgency) bonds in a way that the word friendship will never quite cover.

On the plane to Iraq: Spotting humanitarian workers in the crowd

This time I am arriving in a different capacity. I am a student now, not a part of the humanitarian industry.

Not a director or a worker or a leader or an employee with goals that will not be reachable until the day of departure.

Just me. Coming back as a student. I had been a director before – overseeing the operations of the organization I worked for, in Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon, but based in Iraq.

I lived here from 2015 to 2017. I smiled while on the airplane on the flight in. In certain destinations where there is no tourist population using the same planes, the humanitarian workers tend to stick out.

In coming to this location, you can frequently spot humanitarian workers and oil workers.

Before I left, you could spot foreign military personnel heading out on the domestic flights as well (they’d grown beards, which was important in terms of blending in, but still had the unmistakable close cut hair styles.

The camouflage back-packs also gave them away). But now, I could spot the humanitarian workers immediately.

There is a culture I could almost feel. They had laptops out, working furiously.

Even in the airport, waiting for our bags, there was a man sitting on the floor working on his laptop.

I don’t know why but this work (humanitarian work) tends to require about 10-12 hours or more each day – particularly when the emergency response phase is underway (and that can last for years unfortunately; Syria is one example).

Aid workers often work into the nights and on the weekends. This is hardly a difficulty compared to what those in harm’s way or those affected by the disaster are suffering.

And we, as aid workers, choose this, while others caught in the conflict have no choice. But it is a distinct experience and there is a definite feel to the humanitarian ‘culture’. 

‘Now I can seek to be useful in a different way’

But this time, on the plane, I wasn’t one among them. My feelings were mixed. But I felt mostly relief. I am so excited that – this time – though the research will be intense and hard work – I am able to come now with the time and space to fully be present – here.

Now. With people who are facing the struggles, sitting with them for longer-periods, more frequently, than I have ever been able to.

I used to say that ‘people were the point’ to remind myself of the ‘why’ of my work – but mainly not to get irritated when I had so much ‘to do’ and there was a knock on my office door with team members needing me.

I did not always succeed! But in this case, the people really arethe point.

No ‘to do list’ other than learning from them. I’m so delighted and excited. This was what I thought this type of work would be when I started all those years ago – I thought it would be me under a mango tree talking to folks.

I never really had that season. Large scale disasters (like the Asian Tsunami) and the need for leadership even from fledgling aid workers meant that I went straight into running the operations – rather than spending the time ‘under the mango tree’ that I had longed for.

Now I can seek to be useful in a different way. So, while it felt strange not to be hammering away on my laptop on the plane and in the airport – I felt mainly relieved.

In my work here before, I once conducted an interview of a potential staff member – in the airport; I had collected my bags, sat on a bench and took part in a joint-interview on Skype via my phone – with people in four countries – the UK, Jordan, here and the Philippines.

We were recruiting an advisor to start our psychosocial care programmes.

She got the job and became a dear friend. This time, I looked at the bench where I conducted the interview. Smiled. Collected my bags and walked out.

Once a humanitarian worker, now a PhD student: A different me in many ways

One hour later, I was walking around the flat that used to be our office, having another ‘I’ve been here but have I?’ moment.

The organisation I was with before kindly agreed to provide accommodation while I’m here this time.

That organisation is frugal and seeks to use funds well, so not everyone has their own place.

Most of the team share accommodation in rented houses nearby.

Walking in the ‘office’ I smiled again. I had picked out the blinds in 2016. But this is a new world now, a new team – and a new (or changed) country.

The field contracts are usually two years. Most of the team I worked with are long gone.

I walked down the hall to the room at the end – the room where I would be living.

It is the room that used to be my office. I shared the office with the finance manager, who remains a dear friend. Instead of our desks, there is a single bed, with sheets the logistics manager Matt bought in 2015.

The current director kindly brought the bed from the guesthouse for me to use.

There is a lone chair next to it. That is the only furniture in the room.

She also kindly put some boxes together (empty printer paper boxes) for me to use as shelves for my clothes for a time.

So I unpacked, with my clothes tucked into the printer box shelves, and lay down to go to sleep, in the old bed, in the office that represented a different time.

A different me in many ways. Just a few feet from where my desk used to be. It made me smile. I loved that season of life. But it was a season bookended in time and a time in history that has also closed. As I fell asleep, the thought of sleeping in that old office, now my bedroom, put a smile on my face again. 

Written by Kathleen Rutledge

HAD Postgraduate Fellow

Kathleen Rutledge is a HAD Postgraduate Fellow and a doctoral student at Queen Margaret University in Scotland. She served in humanitarian response leadership for nearly a decade, in locations such as South Sudan, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East. She was a humanitarian director in Iraq from 2015 to 2017 and is currently researching the role of faith in coping and well-being among displaced Muslim women from Mosul, who were affected by the ISIS occupation and conflict.