A lifetime away from reality: Bittersweet Christmas

The holiday season is a mixed bag of thoughts, emotions, and reflections especially when working abroad.

2017 has been a difficult year in Iraq. Hundreds of thousands of people fleeing violent conflict defined much of the first half of the year. Political instability and fallout unbalanced the second half.

As an international humanitarian, working in the field is a constant exercise in being aware of privilege. We “go on mission to the field”. This might mean going to a school, a camp, or some other place where people are carrying out day-to-day activities. The “field” is a displaced person’s daily reality. But at the end of the day, I get to climb into an armored car and drive away, back to my comfortable expat life.

This recognition of privilege extends to the holidays. I was recently on Christmas countdown and dreaming of home — family, food, jokes, warmth, lovely decorations and presents. It had been a year since I was home and I yearned for its serenity.

This holiday reality of mine is a lifetime away from Iraq. Away from the stories of people being killed, of unthinkable violence, loss, and suffering. Far away from the children who will never celebrate another holiday with their parents. Or the parents who pawn their last goods and a piece of their pride to afford a treat for their children on a special day. My holiday reality is thousands of miles from sitting on a tent floor hearing another tale of eroded lives and destroyed dreams.

A group of girls sit on the ground in a camp.
UNICEF/Iraq/2017/AnmarUNICEF carries out a range of activities in Qayara Airstrip Emergency Site and the Jeddah camps south of Mosul. The people in these camps have been displaced from across northern Iraq since 2016.

It always seems callous to look forward to time away. People in the camps don’t get to take vacations. They don’t have the means or the national passport that allows them to just get on an airplane to anywhere but Iraq.

One of the hardest moments this year was visiting a UNICEF facility for children who have been separated from their families, or potentially orphaned. There was a little girl whose parents — foreign ISIS fighters — were presumed killed. She was screaming for her mother. For the hour we were at the center, her plaintive screams continued. “Mammaaaaaaa. Mammmmaaaaaa! MAAAAMMMMMAAAAAA!!!!” And continued. And continued. No one in the center spoke Russian to offer her any sort of comfort. The caregivers could only give her cuddles and words in Arabic.

It has been months, and the sight and sound of that little girl have stayed with me. It’s hard to just switch off the memories and enjoy home with the abandon I used to. There is so much acute need in Iraq.

I remember touching down in the United States and walking through airport terminals decked in their holiday best — seeing glamorously dressed people stroll past with suitcases bulging with presents; music playing, food in abundance, good cheer at its peak. It’s a form of cultural whiplash. I didn’t know where to look. I didn’t know what to think. I didn’t know how I was supposed to feel, but the emotions came thick and fast.

I was delighted. Overwhelmed. Ashamed. Sentimental. Disgusted. Sheepish. Impressed. So, so happy to be back home and so, so angry that people with so much could seemingly care so little about the people I’d just left behind.

I can’t be angry with people who have never traveled to Iraq and seen with their own eyes the scars of war. But it bothers me that so many people don’t take an active part in problem-solving. I understand it can be overwhelming. So many emergencies demand attention globally that it can seem beyond hopeless.

A close up of two girls, facing the camera.
UNICEF/Iraq/2017/AnmarIn the camps south of Mosul, UNICEF supports WASH activities including the provision of water and sanitation facilities as well as hygiene awareness activities.

But inside the sweeping statistics are people — children — like the little girl who needs her mother. How can an individual make a difference? In 2018, how can one person help her and the more than five million children in Iraq who need humanitarian assistance?

A tremendous amount of work needs to be done. We are shifting from the intensity of a full-scale emergency to the long-term work of resilience, rebuilding, and development. Clean water, hygiene awareness, education, psychosocial support, immunizations and health care are just some of the services that UNICEF provides across the country.

There are a number of ways you can get involved:

  • Donate to UNICEF or another organization. It’s been said repeatedly, but little donations add up to make a big difference.
  • Raise awareness: this starts with individual awareness. Read the news, please! Then talk about it.
  • Talk to your political representatives. Funding is critical, and many governments are reducing their foreign aid budgets. We can’t magic up life-saving assistance out of thin air. Read about some of our activities to get an idea of what funding can do.
  • Follow us on social media and share our posts — it helps with awareness and; you can find us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube.

This holiday season, I’ve been aiming to strike a balance between enjoying myself and refocusing on how best to serve the people I’m working for and with. Does this mean eschewing all pleasures of home and family to work endlessly for the benefit of others? No. That doesn’t help anyone.

Being surrounded by the sights and sounds of my family celebrating together, taking pleasure in simply being in each other’s company helped ready me for all the work ahead. But I had to ask my family to forgive me for being a bit quiet over the turkey and stuffing. It was a tough year, and there’s still a lot to do.

Jennifer Sparks is a communications consultant working for UNICEF Iraq.

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