When the world calls you
I: Why did you decide to come to Iraq and work with STEP-IN?
Z: The first reason was to find out about the problems in the Middle East, especially the refugees and IDP’s. I wanted to see it with my own eyes and make my own opinion. In Europe people seem to have a very negative opinion about these problems. Second reason was to get to know the country and its people. Also, I’ve heard very good references about STEP-IN’s work in Iraq and I knew that I would love to work with them. First I came only for 3 months. I ended up staying for one year. You can see how much I loved it. [laughs]
I: Before coming to Iraq, you have worked also in Uganda and Cambodia. What was your experience there?
Z: First, I was in Uganda. After seeing a huge need to have a clinic for HIV positive children, doctor Silharova decided to start one. At that time, she needed an administration and logistics support. One of her friends got in touch with me and I went to Uganda. Together we established the clinic. The experience was very fruitful.
After that I went straight to Cambodia. There I was responsible for 2 orphanages for HIV children. It was hard to run an orphanage. In total there were 120 children. The project there was already running for 12 years so by the time I came, children were already teenagers. They had a lot of problems with confidence, existence and they were having a hard time dealing with some aspects of HIV. Therefore, it was more emotional support they needed.
Also the work with the local people in Cambodia was quite difficult. Their personality is very much different from Africans, which I was used to. Africans are very talkative, straight and somewhat unrestrained, but in a good way. Asians are the opposite. Maybe because of the past experience of Khmer Rouge’s regime, they became quite submissive. But the truth is that it is very hard for them to open to you. With children it was the exact opposite. This is a result of a long lasting impact of foreigners that were working in a project. It was common that they were hugging us. What kids loved the most was touching your belly and they were always happy when they found foreigners with a big belly, especially our professor.
I: Do you have an example of something that you did during your time at projects, which does not typically fall under the duties of logistic manager?
Z: In Uganda, we run this small project. Its aim was to establish a chicken farm with 100 chickens. At the beginning we needed to find out what we are actually going to need. So the first thing was to build an African style shelter.[At this point I just started to laugh. But Zuzka continued with a serious tone…]
Then we needed a well. So we started digging but there was no water. The main problem in Africa is access to water. So we used this hole as a toilet. Anyway, we needed to get water there one way or another because chicken cannot exist without it. Therefore, we built a concrete square under the wall, we covered it and there we had our water source. After that, we built a shelter and we bought chicken. Fun did not end there because just then we learnt that chicken need vaccination every 6 weeks. We hired one guy – chicken man we called him – he lived on a farm and took care of all those small chicks. After we had eggs, they were sold on a local market. The money we got from selling them were used for the needs of the clinic and women with HIV.
I: After all you have seen and experienced, what surprised you about Iraq?
Z: What truly surprised me, in a nice way, is that wherever you come, either into an office of someone or you visit people in the camp, everyone is so hospitable. Wherever you come, first thing you receive is a very strong and sweet Iraqi tea. At the beginning I could not get used to it since it was so sweet but now I am addicted to it. Another thing very nice about the Kurdish people is that you don’t need to take care about your personal things. Like your purse. You loose it on the street and there is someone running after you saying: “Madam, madam, your purse.” They don’t steal your things. In Africa you really need to watch your back, but here its not the case.
I: Can you think of something funny that you have come across in this country?
Z: The way people ‘go hiking’ is rather funny. They get into their off road car, drive really up on the mountains, even on the top if possible, get out of the car, look around and say: Wooow, its beautiful – we did a great hike. They take some pictures, get into the car again and drive back home. Here hiking is an equivalent to driving. [laughs]
I: You are leaving Iraq in couple of weeks. What are you going to miss the most?
Z: I am going to miss the people I worked with. My colleagues and the local staff. Here, I met local people that showed me a lot about this country. Kurdistan is somehow very specific. People here are willing to help you any time which is not so common in Slovakia. Its been an honor for me to work with locals and foreigners here in Iraq. Also, I became friends with people from Europe that had the same goal as I did. After all, I hope I will bring this message of what I’ve learnt here back to Slovakia.
I: How did your experience in humanitarian field change your perception of the world?
Z: The first thing I learnt is not to judge people based on how they look or what others say about them. Now I know, that I need to always make an opinion about something or someone by myself. Also it taught me to be more tolerant. All humans around the world are only trying to survive and be happy.
I: After 5 years living abroad, you are returning back to Slovakia. How do you feel about that?
Z: Honestly, I am a little bit afraid whether I am going to get used to it back in Slovakia. Its been a long 5 years that I was living abroad in a completely different environment. But I believe and I hope that I will be able to use my experience from abroad at home. My friends used to tell me: “Why are you going abroad to help people there when your own people in Slovakia have problems here?” The truth is that I went abroad to understand different views and people. Now I ready to contribute my knowledge and experience from abroad back to Slovakia.
I: You have an extensive experience with projects with developing and humanitarian projects in third world countries. What would be your advice to young people that might be interested in doing this kind of volunteer work?
Z: Young people have a lot of enthusiasm and energy to make a difference. I do strongly support and encourage them to go and try something different from what they are used to. The best knowledge is your own experience. It will give you a wider look and a freedom of self judgment. You will see the problems not only from the media and what politicians say but also from your personal experience. You’ll gain some of the best experiences you can achieve in your life. Just go. Don’t sit on your chair at home.
Zuzana is leaving Iraq next week after one year of working here. She is returning to Slovakia full of hope that her experience will be used to the benefit of her country and the people. She certainly did that here in Iraq. Her personality and past experience certainly brought a lot to all of us in STEP-IN and also to the project itself. During her time here, Zuzana did not know such a thing as a work shifts. Many times, after she finished her work in the camp, she would come back home and worked until late at night on everything that was needed. The time that she invested into the project certainly made a difference and we are grateful for it.