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Spring Break – in Iraq

What inspires a professor in Chicago to travel to Iraq, over Spring Break? Opportunities to begin a compelling field study, to help distant colleagues and students, and to work with key players responsible for the recovery and sustainable well-being of a country and its people. An invitation and logistical support were also factors that moved me from interested to “all in.”

So off I went, first to Erbil via Austrian Airlines, then over hill and dale — and through heavily armed checkpoints — by car to Sulaimani (aka Sulaymaniyah or Slemani, depending on one’s ethnicity and politics). Sulaimani is home to the American University of Iraq (AUIS), which hosted the Sulaimani Forum. That event assembled political, religious and community leaders, investors, lawyers, journalists, representatives from NGOs and multilateral agencies, and of course scholars to discuss ongoing challenges and opportunities in Iraq and the region.

In addition to participating in the Forum, I was asked to make a presentation to students and faculty in the International Studies Program. After considering topics that might resonate, I opted for “Toward Sustainable Peace, Prosperity and Well-being: Comparative Lessons from Recovering Economies”, which offered a survey of several recovering economies, including potentially useful lessons on the complexities of and best practices for rebuilding civil societies in the aftermath of devastating wars. The presentation/discussion did indeed seem to resonate and several students enthusiastically participated in the subsequent field research, essentially a rapid market appraisal (RMA) to lay the foundation for a more thorough and rigorous research project.

So off I went, again, this time in the good company of new friends. We immersed ourselves in the marketscape of Iraqis, most of whom are Kurds in this largely autonomous area recognized as the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. We walked along streets; visited parks and museums; sipped coffee or tea at cafés, and ate at restaurants and food stands; perused shops and businesses, mom-and-pop stores and malls; strolled through various communities. Working as a team, the students thoughtfully translated questions and comments; thanks to their sensitivity and interpretive skills, candid conversations organically emerged. We were able to acquire some depth and breadth of understanding about the Iraqi people regarding their challenges, concerns, hopes, dreams, and their thoughts on policies and practices that must change or be implemented to move the country forward.

The week provided meaningful experiences, observations and insights, which I continue to process and reflect upon.

Iraq has many challenges, but it also exudes enormous potential; real opportunities, right now, to affect wise policy, benevolent business practices, and sustainable peace and prosperity for Iraqis, their families, their neighbors and other stakeholders. I will address some of these challenges and opportunities elsewhere, but I mention now the many Iraqis I met were extraordinarily kind and gracious. The dynamic in the Kurdistan Region is different from other parts of Iraq, to be sure; perhaps I would have been treated differently in Baghdad, Mosul or Basra — and I intend to find out – but my thinking on Iraq has shifted to guardedly optimistic, while also knowing we have much work to do, to ensure further progress.

That optimism is buoyed by the students with whom I worked, who so generously and energetically assisted with transportation, translations and nuanced interpretations. They and their families have personal experiences with the atrocities of war and genocide, yet despite all the suffering, they remain enthusiastic, hopeful, magnanimous and altruistic; hungry to learn, to participate and to build a new Iraq for the 21st Century. Props to these students, Forum associates and the leadership at AUIS who are steadfastly working to bring sustainable peace and prosperity to Iraq and the region. I am grateful to have worked with them, and look forward to future collaborations — what an energizing Spring Break.

(An updated version of this entry was posted to LinkedIn and Facebook, including a link to a video and commentary on peace murals: https://vimeo.com/326405910)

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