Is there a better way to spend your first day of a real job than on a plane to Erbil? My induction to full-time with IOM-Iraq came in the form of an assignment to Domiz refugee camp, in northern Iraqi Kurdistan—I was sent to take lots of pictures and interview refugees. I arrived in Erbil on Sunday afternoon, accompanied by a few other staff members who would later on continue to Baghdad and Basra. We went to dinner at a German beer garden, I ordered cheese spaetzle and thought how weird it was that my first encounter with German cuisine was in Iraq.
Monday morning, a driver took me to Dohuk—far north, near the Turkish and Syrian borders. We tried to communicate in Arabic, but it didn’t really work. I thanked him in Kurdish (the only word I know, besides the word for “cheese”…paneer).
What can I write about the four days I spent traveling to the camp? Honestly, I’m not sure if I should even try. Not enough can be said about the conditions there, or about the aid workers who spend each day among the tents. I felt small and strange with my camera—how do you capture a crisis that’s part of an even bigger crisis? There are 4,000 tents for 9,000 families in Domiz refugee camp. Distribution registrations were crowded and smelly, often devolving into Arabic and Kurdish shouting matches. Still, there were moments of light. One time, a formidable woman in a hijab stepped in between an all-male scuffle and shut it down. Fadi, a Dohuk-based IOM employee, turned to me, “This woman can fight ten men.”
I returned to Erbil on July 4th, America’s birthday. I had two goals: to get pictures of the city center’s market and to find some Americans. I chugged a Red Bull, slung my camera over my shoulder, and headed out into the fray. Erbil on a Thursday evening is wild and untidy: 104 degrees, teeming with people and filled with odd smells and unintelligible shouting. Women walk around in the most beautiful fabrics, their makeup settling into shiny creases on their foreheads. I could feel their eyes on my frizzy hair and plainly non-Kurdish face. Men shouted at me to buy tomatoes. I kept snapping photos.
Night fell, and I was making little progress on second part of my goal. I visited two American bars, and found no fellow Yankees. Despondent, I wandered into a restaurant called “Athens Grill”—thinking, Americans love grilling. It turned out to be the fanciest of Greek steakhouses. The hostess smiled at me, her eyes flicked first to my camera, then my tennis shoes. “Are you a photographer?” she asked. “Um, kind of.”
She sat me at a small table at the center of the restaurant. Picking the salty, cheese-covered mushrooms out of my pasta dish, I thought about what I had to do back in Amman. I hoped I looked mysterious to the restaurant full of swanky onlookers – the underdressed Lebanese girl swirling her glass of wine at a table set for one. I pulled out my phone: “Do u know any americans?” I texted to the only IOM colleague I knew on Erbil, an Australian woman whose Irish name I still can’t pronounce. “No…mostly hang out with Brits” came the reply.
That’s fine. I resigned myself to the fact that I wouldn’t be sloppily singing the Star Spangled Banner with any expats tonight. They probably were all at a U.S. consulate party that I needed an inside invite to, anyway.
Slightly wine drunk and humming Mariah Carey’s new song, I walked around Ainkawa – Erbil’s almost entirely Christian sector. I thought about the cool people I’ve met, and how even though I feel like a sham most of the time it’s still okay for me to enjoy these incredible experiences that have been gifted to me quite undeservedly. It’s one a.m. and the taxi comes in an hour to take me to the airport. I sip my coffee and open my phone to a message from a friend in Dohuk I made this week: “How are you? Miss you and I hope you’re not feeling lonely.”
I’m not. Even though I’m spending this Fourth of July typing in an empty hotel room, lonely is the last thing that I feel.