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EPIC’s Top 10 Things We’re Thankful for in 2012

It is Thanksgiving today in the United States.  A time for reflection, family, and saying thank you.  Here at EPIC we have had an especially monumental year, and we wanted to highlight some of the things for which we are thankful.  It was a difficult task, but we narrowed it down to the top 10 things we are thankful for in 2012.  Thank you for reading, and we hope you have a wonderful holiday.

No 10: TEDx Baghdad, Erbil, Baghdad Youth, and Baghdad Women. These opportunities for Iraqis to share innovative ideas provide such an inspiration to us.

No. 9: Iraq’s leading environmental conservation organization, Nature Iraq, for all they do to restore & protect Iraq’s natural heritage & their amazing role with our Iraqi Youth Hike!

No. 8: The right to vote and those who have sacrificed for others to have that right from Selma to Baghdad.

No. 7: The Iraq national football team for their winning teamwork & ability to unify the country! Next stop: the U20 World Cup games in Turkey and then Brazil in 2014.  Read more

Diplomacy in Iraq-Without the Fortress

Recently The New York Times Magazine published an article about the bunker-ing of United States embassies in conflict-zones.  In it, Robert Worth describes the changing face of American diplomacy; one that is becoming more focused on security.  “Security has gone from a marginal concern to the very heart of American interactions with other countries”,Worth explains.

Prudence Bushnell, former ambassador to Kenya, says “The model has become, we will go to dangerous places and transform them,and we will do it from secure fortresses. And it doesn’t work.”

Diplomacy is, without a doubt, dangerous work, as the recent tragic death of Libyan ambassador J. Christopher Stevens demonstrated. The investigation into his death along with three other Americans in Benghazi begins today.  NPR’s Morning Edition had an interview with former U.S.ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker.  Crocker explains that diplomats must act as reporters and understand the countries in which they work.  He points out that they are working in dangerous places at a dangerous time, but it is necessary to take some risks for the sake of bettering the future of these countries.    Read more

Kirkuk: A divided city with a unique opportunity

There are, of course, rarely any “silver bullets” to intractable political problems, and this is especially true in the complex world of Iraqi politics, where ethnicity, religion, alliances, history, and power all play keys roles in shaping the political scene. But few issues have proven to be as divisive as the status of the ancient city of Kirkuk.

I first visited Kirkuk this previous summer while working in the Kurdistan Region of northern Iraq. Before I stepped foot in the city, I made sure to read up on every book, report, and account of the city as I could get a hold of, but as I suspected, nothing could have prepared me to experience how the conflict plays out “on the ground.” Like all things Iraq, complexity is the foundation of every day life in Kirkuk. In some ways it was easy to forget about the history of conflict with the city. The city center, bustling and full of activity, was a place where Kurds, Arabs, and Turkmen interacted without the weighted divisiveness of politics. Shopkeepers solicited my Kurdish guide, wanting his money more than his support for nationalistic causes.

Yet the dangers persisted and reminders of the fissures that remain a fundamental fact of life for the reality of many Kirkukis were also evident. In the two hours after my departure, the bombing of a café, targeting a visiting Kurdish politician, ripped apart any complacent sense of cooperation that had naively developed during my short stay.

It is no surprise that Kirkuk is a divided city. Historically and still today, it has remained marred by conflict from the fragile relations between its ethnic communities, including Kurds, Arabs, and Turkmen, who all lay claim to land and political control of the city. I have learned that one thing the people of Kirkuk all hold true is that the conflict over the status of this ancient city remains one of the single most divisive issues between Iraq’s ethnic and sectarian communities.

But an often forgotten consequence of this tragic conflict is that it creates a unique opportunity. The magnitude of the conflict shows the value that making incremental progress on the sticking points can have in lessoning tensions across the board with the large scope of Iraq’s communities. Kirkuk is something all Kurds, Arabs, and Turkmen talk about, whether they live a block from the city center or in Duhok or Basra. In short, it presents a center of gravity underlying a large amount of inter-communal tensions in Iraq, and is a critical piece in efforts to build inter-communal peace and understanding.

Of course, the political issue driving the conflict in Kirkuk goes beyond the scope of many field projects aimed at empowering youth and building understanding. But it’s exactly these kinds of small-scale, high-impact projects that make tangible progress towards shifting the every day realities of the conflict as it plays out in people’s lives.

At EPIC, this understanding lies at the heart of our approach in working with Iraqi youth of all backgrounds to empower them to seize the opportunity to achieve a prosperous future. With projects like PHOTOVOICE IRAQ and initiatives in outdoor education and grassroots advocacy, we hope to advance the progress of cities like Kirkuk for a better Iraq and stronger and deeper relationship between the United States and the Iraqi people.

TEDxBaghdad 2012

Since 1990 TED conferences around the world have been inspiring innovation through engaging talks on a variety of topics.  Over these last two decades the TED universe has continued to grow and in 2011 3,200 TEDx events took place over 126 countries in 42 different languages.

In October the fantastic TEDx Baghdad demonstrated the innovation and creativity coming out of Iraq.  In November three other TEDx events will continue this trend with TEDxErbil, TEDxYouth@Baghdad, and TEDxBaghdadWomen.

On October 22nd the second annual TEDx Baghdad was held at the Al-Rasheed Hotel focused on the topic “The Beginning Begins”.  Speakers came from a diverse range of backgrounds and included artists, youth activists, diplomats, and environmentalists. Videos can be watched of many of the sessions

Martin Kobler, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s Special Representative for Iraq and Head of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI), was the event’s headlining speaker.

Kobler began his talk with the question, “What are your dreams for Iraq?”.  He then went on to discuss his own dreams for the country, highlighting the importance of educating Iraq’s huge youth population–an issue we also hold dear here at EPIC.  “Education is the primary concern of this country because the young people of today are the adults of tomorrow.”, Kobler explained.

Kobler continued to highlight the importance of youth saying, “My message to you, the young people, coming from this experience, take your own way! And my message to the fathers and mothers that are listening is to tolerate.”

Take a few minutes to read more about Kobler’s talk and his dreams for the future of the country.

TEDX Erbil is on November 10th and focuses on the theme “Our Future is Now”.  The line-up of speakers includes singers, photojournalists, mine clearance experts, and many more.  These TEDX events continue to inspire us here at EPIC!

Vote!

The U.S. presidential election is tomorrow and though many Americans will exercise their democratic right to vote, voter turnout rates may remain lower than in other parts of the world with only 50% of citizens of some states going to the polls. Today we find inspiration from the people of Iraq where voter turnouts are high and voting is a celebratory event where families come together.

In the 2005 general election 75% of Iraqis voted, and in the 2009 regional elections in the Kurdish region of Iraq, the  Independent High Electoral Commission estimated a 78.5% turnout. Even though turnout dropped to only 60% in 2010, it was still on par with the total U.S. voter turnout in 2008. The 2008 U.S. election had been hailed as a record turnout, while this was Iraq’s second election ever after 7 years of war. A vital part of democracy is not taking the power and responsibility to vote for granted.

At EPIC we find inspiration from the people of Iraq. If you are in the United States today we hope you are inspired to vote. In the words of former U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt: “Nobody will ever deprive the American people of the right to vote except the American people themselves and the only way they could do this is by not voting”.

Remember the joy is participating in your democracy’s future, and go vote!

You can head over to our Facebook page to see more pictures from EPIC Director Erik Gustafson’s trip to the Kurdish region of Iraq to help monitor the 2009 regional elections.