A pupil at a reconstructed school in Al Amarah;
Writing on a wall in Al Amarah
The remains of tables piled high in a classroom of a school awaiting restoration;
Distributing essentials to get people through the winter
Children sleep in terrible conditions in the poverty-stricken marshland area of Maysan Province
A team of workers hired by The Salvation Army to help clean up the streets
Lieut-Colonel June McLaren spent two months working with The Salvation Army’s relief team in Iraq. Here she brings readers of All the World up to date with the latest news of the Army’s work there
Iraq: Looking Beyond the Hurt
by Lieut-Colonel June McLaren
Iraq is meant to be the location of the Garden of Eden but you wouldn’t guess that from seeing the 2004 version. In the garden today the tree stands barren and so do the lives of those living in Maysan Province in Iraq, where The Salvation Army is at work.
As I walked through the area, I saw what years of oppression and war had done to the people. Death came in many forms – through war, disease, starvation and even mass executions.
The people knew what they needed. They needed peace to live a life free from oppression and war. They wanted to be free and to live without fear of prison or death. They wanted the freedom to make their own decisions as to how they would live. They wanted to feel secure in their homes and cities. Our task was to help rebuild not only their lives, but also the communities in which they lived.
We had long-term and short-term plans in place. In the short term the people had to be helped through the winter. During the cold weather season of January and February we distributed blankets, plastic sheeting, kerosene heaters and personal hygiene items to more than 3,000 people.
Other plans looked to improve the quality of life for many people over a much longer time. Many of the plans involved improving buildings used by the public that had been neglected for many years and, in recent times, had been all but destroyed through war and looting. Immediately after the war, a great number of public buildings such as government centres and schools were looted of all fixtures. Most even had the windows taken.
The Salvation Army, in cooperation with the Coalition Provisional Authority, hired contractors to restore more than 50 schools. School buildings that had been neglected for many years, often because Saddam Hussein did not provide money for the southern areas of Iraq, have been refurbished. They are now clean and usable and the people are very proud of the way their schools now look. The refurbishment schemes went beyond the obvious essentials and local children now have playground areas that are safe and clean and have proper equipment.
The Salvation Army also rebuilt a number of health clinics. As we attended the opening ceremony of a rural health clinic, I could see in the eyes of those attending how proud they were of this building. The Ministry of Health expressed its deep appreciation to The Salvation Army and will now staff the new clinic.
We were able to bring in what we thought were just a few medical supplies that had been given to us in Kuwait. When we arranged for the distribution of these supplies, the doctors were verwhelmed with joy.
We also rebuilt a leprosy house. It would be difficult to describe the condition before work was done on the building. In such poor areas, leprosy induces great fear and people are still very reluctant to enter an area where lepers live. We made the house bright and clean with proper sleeping areas, an eating area, an area where people could gather together and a toilet area.
When the local TV station learned of the project they went to film it for a programme on the work of The Salvation Army. They filmed from the road and would not enter the courtyard because of fear of the lepers and yet we would embrace the residents who yearned for a human touch.
We are also restoring a date farm to replant seedlings, as dates are a staple food of the area. The Minister of Agriculture escorted us around and emphasised how important it would be for the economy of the area to have the date farm producing again.
Jobs are scarce and we began a scheme to hire men to clean the streets of the city. We hired over 3,500 men in teams of 10 to clean the streets of many towns in the area. Many others were able to find work through the building schemes we have taken on. By providing employment we have been important to the economy of the area, and the benefits of living in a cleaner environment, particularly with buildings and facilities that are worth looking after, are obvious to all.
We were concerned about the status of the women we came into contact with. We met intelligent, talented women with nothing to do. We bought sewing machines and some local women began sewing classes to teach others how to sew. The items they made were beautiful. They were so proud to show us the final products they had produced. We also purchased computers so the women could learn how to operate them and become proficient with computer systems. All this will have an effect in both the long and the short term.
In the short term the women who learn new skills will be boosted by their achievements and, in the long term, they will have new skills with which to earn a living, helping their families and boosting the local economy.
We heard repeatedly how highly The Salvation Army is regarded in Maysan Province because of the various projects we are doing.
It is remarkable to see that, in a Muslim country, there are now many signs on schools and buildings that say ‘The Salvation Army’.
When I arrived in Iraq and looked at the faces of the people I could see their hurts and injustices. I wondered if five people working on behalf of The Salvation Army could really make a difference.
God reminded me that everything could not be changed in only two months. We could only play a small, but not insignificant, part in helping the people to make a new start. As time goes on they will be able to make it on their own.
As I looked past the hurt and saw resilience in people’s faces, I also saw hope for the future.