Helping War-Affected Children in Iraq

Millions of children in Iraq have suffered incomprehensible loss and trauma in the decades of conflict. An alarming number of these children have lost parents and are living on the streets. According to a recent survey reported by the BBC: “between 800,000 to a million Iraqi children have lost one or both of their parents.

Iraq’s former Minister of Human Rights Wijdan Salem Mikhail explains, ”The phenomenon of orphans “is one of the most passive things that grew immensely during the past few years due to destructive wars and unbridled violence in the country.”

Despite the scale and urgency of the need, there are only a handful of organizations paying attention to the silent plight of Iraq’s war-traumatized children. The Sponsor Iraqi Children Foundation (SICF) is one of those organizations.

This week I had the honor of talking with Cindy Folgleman of the Sponsor Iraqi Children Foundation, as the latest installment in our series Partners for Change. Cindy is one of SICF’s full-time volunteer and most passionate advocates. Please take a few minutes to watch my conversation with Cindy:

SICF believes in bringing a “Surge of Love” to the millions of children who were orphaned or traumatized by violence in Iraq. There are only 200 mental-health providers for the millions of children affected by trauma. For Iraq’s population of 30 million, this is a ratio of 1/150,000 compared to the desired 1/10,000 ratio in the US.   As Cindy explains, SICF does this through a few different methods. The Foundation helps bring valuable training and capacity building to Iraq’s non-governmental organizations; particularly those organizations focused on helping children and youth. SICF works with Children’s Village of New York to bring valuable skills and knowledge to the Iraqi people.

The Iraqi Street Kids Center in Baghdad funded by SICF is a testament to the Foundation’s work. In 2010 the Center closed leaving many children without necessary resources.  SICF stepped in and re-opened the center. Through their funding the Center was able to once again provide a safe haven for children in addition to vital services.

Like EPIC, SCIF is also involved in important advocacy and awareness work to help garner international support for the young people of Iraq. As Cindy explains, “There are a lot of political issues in Iraq that we can’t address, but these kids deserve better.”

One important ideology especially binds EPIC and SICF.  We both believe in love, peace, and understanding being necessities for the future of Iraqi young people.  Cindy explains how the United States and Americans needs to be part of this mission.  “This needs to be our legacy, not war, but love.”

Read more about SICF’s mission in this op-ed by Jonathan Webb, the foundation’s vice president. SICF is in the midst of a fundraising campaign where you can directly see the impact of your donation has for young people in Iraq.  Consider donating to their inspiring projects this holiday season.

The Tigris River Flotilla Project

This is the second part of my conversation with Virginia Tice of Nature Iraq and the Nature Iraq Foundation and the second video in our series “Partners for Change” highlighting people and organizations making a difference in Iraq. If you haven’t already, take a few minutes to watch the first part of our conversation to learn more about these fantastic organizations.

Here we  focus on the Tigris River Flotilla Project, a journey down the Tigris River from southeastern Turkey to Iraq.  The trip will use traditional boats in order to bring awareness to the multitude of threats facing the Tigris and celebrate the rich cultural heritage of Mesopotamia.

Watch our conversation here to learn more about this amazing project:


As Virginia explains, in addition to being the journey of a lifetime this project will also bring much needed awareness to the degradation facing the Tigris River.  This project cannot happen without your help, though.  Show your support for the Tigris River Flotilla Project here.


Environmental Stewardship in Iraq

This video is the first in our new series “Partners for Change” where we highlight people and organizations making a difference in Iraq.  We will be featuring conversations with other change-makers in the coming weeks.    We are excited about this series and the great conversations which will follow!

Recently I had the opportunity to sit down with Virgina Tice, the CEO of the Nature Iraq Foundation (NIF) and attorney for Nature Iraq.  Ms. Tice spoke about how she became involved with advocacy in Iraq, environmental issues facing the country, and the projects of the NIF. Nature Iraq is the first and only environmental conservation group in Iraq.  It is an Iraqi organization and is accredited to the United Nations Environment Programme.  The NIF is a U.S.-based public charity that provides support to Nature Iraq and other organizations working on environmental issues in Iraq and the Middle East.

Nature Iraq and the NIF have been fantastic partners for EPIC.  In addition to sharing our same goals for a peaceful strong Iraq, they also helped us with our recent Youth Hike.  These are fantastic organizations that we’re excited to support.

Watch part of our conversation here:


Environmental stewardship is both a complex issue rife with politics and an extremely simple concept. As Ms. Tice explained, “All people know when their water is dirty.  When their air is dirty.  When there are hazard wastes on the road side…people understand that this is a threat to their health.  They see the consequences for their crops, their business, their children.”

This concept that the integrity of our environment affects all people was the most impactful aspect of Ms. Tice’s message for me.  Take a few minutes to hear more about her journey as well as what Nature Iraq and the NIF are doing to improve the environment for all Iraqis.

Stay tuned for more interviews with Ms. Tice where we discuss the Tigris River Flotilla Project.  You can also learn more about these organizations at their websites: Nature Iraq and the NIF.

EPIC & The Tiziano Project: A Conversation with Jon Vidar

The old adage “a picture is worth a thousand words” remains as true as ever, even in a globalized world characterized by the power of technology. Frozen in time, however, is the powerful impact that a simple picture can have on perceptions of a state, religion, or people. At EPIC, we view this simple fact as an incredible opportunity to build understanding and craft the foundation for a peaceful and fruitful future Iraq.

So we’ve teamed up with the best photojournalists in the business at The Tiziano Project, working together to wield the power of photography and technology towards the task of building a durable piece for all Iraqis.

Founded in 2007 by Jon Vidar and Andrew McGregor, graduate students at the time at the University of Southern California, The Tiziano Project focuses on training, equipping, and partnering with community members in conflict, post-conflict, and underreported regions in order to shed light on personal stories which might otherwise not get out.

One of the amazing achievements of Tiziano is their pioneering use of the “StoriesFrom” platform, a program that brilliantly lays out videos, Tweets, and other story mediums in an interactive online set-up. Each story is represented as a dot of light on a map of world, showing how each and every personal story sheds light on an otherwise neglected region.

Tiziano rolled out their revolutionary “StoriesFrom” platform following their groundbreaking project in the Kurdistan region of Iraq called “360 Kurdistan.” I had the chance to talk with one of the co-founders, Jon Vidar, about 360 Kurdistan, the “Stories From” platform, and Tiziano’s goal more broadly. Here are a few of our questions:


EPIC: What do you see photography offering that other mediums can’t, and how is this relevant to peacebuilding in particular?

JON: “With photographed storytelling, you can bring two parts of the world and two audiences that would have never have connected otherwise. That’s kind of how we’ve been modeling Tiziano; we’re very much about using storytelling, using photography, using video to help connect parts of the world that would never otherwise interact and never otherwise get personal stories, to help shape perceptions of these communities. I think it’s a really powerful tool.”

Jon Vidar, Cofounder and Executive Director of The Tiziano Project (Photo: Jon Vidar).
Jon Vidar, Cofounder and Executive Director of The Tiziano Project (Photo: Jon Vidar).

EPIC: How did this lead to founding Tiziano with Andrew McGregor?

JON: In grad school, I met Andrew McGregor who came up with the idea. After we graduated, we decided to fly over to Rwanda and started teaching journalism at orphanage in 2007.

It was at a time when ‘community journalism’ were kind of buzz words in the industry. A lot of organizations were doing it, but weren’t doing it very well. They were just bringing cameras and equipment and just leaving it there, and not really bringing trained journalist or anything else.

Our model is that we bring professional journalists and professional documentary filmmakers to actually work with and collaborate with community members, to produce quality content. And that model seemed to have worked really well for us.

After we launched the 360 Kurdistan project, that’s when we really started to get some recognition for the power of our model. And 360 Kurdistan went on to win South by Southwest Interactive, beat CNN and NPR for a journalism award, and we built that website for 500 dollars at the time.


EPIC: How did the name Tiziano come about?

JON: Tiziano is named after Tiziano Terzani, who was an Italian journalist known for going to where he shouldn’t, and helping local communities report on their own stories. He was the last Western journalist to stay after the fall of Saigon.


EPIC: What brought Tiziano to Iraqi Kurdistan?

JON: I knew, having worked in the region for so long, that the Kurdish region of Iraq and the Kurdish people were definitely a group that would be hungry for a project like this. They had so many stories to be told, and have been so under-represented for so long, that we knew that a project like ours would really thrive there. And back in 2009, to raise the money to do that project, we participated in the Chase community-giving program on Facebook.

To win that funding, we actually recruited the Kurdish community to actually be our spokespeople and go out and get votes and make the contest about a win for the Kurdish people. We ended up mobilizing thousands of people to vote for us, and that’s how we raised the money to go back to Iraqi Kurdistan.

The 360 Kurdistan project was our first real foray into collaborative storytelling and documentary work. That exhibit [in DC] was a real eye opener because we focused the exhibit around the students much more so than the work they produced. [After video conferencing in a Iraqi student]…people were just coming up to me after the event being like, “Oh I had no idea that girl existed, a 20 year old girl who speaks perfect English and goes to school, I just didn’t know that existed in Iraq.” 

It’s really powerful when you start to get that kind of media in front of people who generally only get what they hear from mainstream news, that’s really all they get about Iraq. And so to put cultural stories produced by community members really can help people connect and bridge that gap.

Tiziano’s “Through Our Eyes” exhibit at the Iraqi Cultural Center, August 2011 (Photo: The Tiziano Project).
Tiziano’s “Through Our Eyes” exhibit at the Iraqi Cultural Center, August 2011 (Photo: The Tiziano Project).

EPIC: Could you talk a little bit about the “Stories From” presentation?  Both the points-on-the-globe and wall-of-pictures effects are powerful; how did you arrive at that?

JON: “StoriesFrom” is all about doing collaborative, community documentaries that allow people to really go around and explore the world in a different way. We built it with a grant from the Knight Foundation and Google to take the 360 Kurdistan project and scale it up into an open, global platform for community based storytelling.

So we knew that the fundamental walls, the interactive walls of stories, was going to follow and very similar approach to the original 360 Kurdistan. We knew that if we were going to make this global, we needed a way to present that in an interactive map, and so we wanted to give the map the feel of shedding light on the darkness.

We wanted to show that it’s not just us, that people are talking and voices are being heard around the world. So we integrated both our own projects and a curated list of Tweets in real time.

The Tiziano Project engages in on-the-ground new media and journalism training to increase exposure to untold personal stories around the world (Photo: The Tiziano Project).
The Tiziano Project engages in on-the-ground new media and journalism training to increase exposure to untold personal stories around the world (Photo: The Tiziano Project).

EPIC: What lessons have you learned in carrying out you on-the-ground projects?

JON: One of the lessons we’ve definitely learned is that the community that you’re working with, as well as the audience that you’re targeting, neither one really wants to produce content on up-to-the-minute, daily news on society where it’s basically the equivalent of the facts that Western mainstream media covers on a daily basis. What the communities that we work with want to produce nine times out of ten ends up being cultural pieces, with the idea that they want to show their community to the rest of the world. They want to show their culture and other things that might be misunderstood about them to outside audiences. And what we realized in 2010 when we launched the 360 Kurdistan project and also redesigned our community news portal, was that the audiences that we were targeting just gravitated towards the 360 model. They gravitated towards real, personal accounts of local culture and community, as opposed to just cold-hard facts reporting. That was a real interesting lesson for us, and that’s where we took Stories From.

The real goal of Tiziano is to help local community members shape global perceptions of their culture and society. And I think that’s really proven successful for us, and photography and video especially are really good mediums to help shape perceptions because they are so personal.