The current situation in Iraq is bleak. According to UNOCHA, 7.8 million people need access to essential health services. 4.1 million need access to water sanitation and hygiene, and 4.4 million require food assistance. 45% of these people are children. Many are unaware of the full extent of this crisis, and those that are may read the newspaper or listen to National Public Radio with a grave look on their faces, but then return to the everyday routine of their daily lives. Others may get involved by donating to a charitable organization that provides aid to the many vulnerable Iraqis currently displaced by the violence of the Islamic State Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). An incredibly small percentage of people will actually risk their lives to travel to Iraq, roll up their own sleeves, and get involved in the situation themselves. Hala Al Saraff is one of those few people.
Iraqi herself, Hala is an impressive woman with a decorated career in international development. She is both the founder and director of Iraq Health Aid Organization (IHAO), which has been running for the last seven and a half years. IHAO is a nonprofit organization dedicated to implementing projects that benefit Iraqis on the ground—IHAO currently works to deliver aid to those who have been displaced by the violent acts of ISIS. In past years, Hala worked for the World Health Organization (9 years), and was a Fulbright Scholar at the US Embassy in Iraq (2 years). She received her Masters Degree from Columbia University, and received her Masters in Public Health, Health Policy, and Management.
I was fortunate enough to be introduced to Hala at my first meeting as an EPIC intern. As I filed into the café behind Erik, EPIC’s founder and executive director, I took a seat beside him, and exchanged my commuter-friendly Birkenstock sandals for professional flats (one must wear comfortable shoes if ever walking with Erik, extraordinary speed walker). I set my notepad and pen on the table as I prepared myself to meet this humanitarian extraordinaire.
Hala is a delicate woman for someone whose actions and words are so powerful. She speaks with such passion, such dedication, that it is impossible to ignore. I found myself listening intently to her every word, leaning closer to ensure that I heard all she has to say. She speaks with the power of first-hand knowledge—from having travelled to Iraq herself, experiencing the dire situations displaced people are facing, and connecting with people on the ground. In fact, Hala herself has a home in Baghdad, where she lives with her husband when she is not in the U.S. As I listened to her stories—my head rested on my palm, clearly entranced—Hala painted a picture of current IDP camps in the heart of Baghdad: for a population of 800 people, there are only six available bathrooms, and, perhaps more astonishing, only three water coolers. Two to three families live in each tent, and 60% of the camp population is children. These statistics would be horrendous to the ears of anyone, yet the deeply pained look on Hala’s face expresses how much farther than the average person her concern goes.
Hala’s organization (IHAO) is taking active steps to alleviate the suffering. IHAO is collaborating with Soccer Salaam to provide humanitarian aid to camps like these that she describes. Soccer Salaam is dedicated to providing necessary humanitarian aid, including soccer balls, to Iraqi children and families escaping conflict—recognizing that play is a crucial part of childhood that should be accounted for as much as food and water. So far, Phase I of Soccer Salam has delivered 5 tons of soccer balls and emergency winter aid to more than one thousand displaced Iraqi families at multiple camps and locations across Baghdad. Now, Phase II is ready to be launched, in which Soccer Salaam will be purchasing tents, water and air coolers, and providing and installing water filters. In addition, Soccer Salam will be delivering “Peace Baskets” for Ramadan, which contains emergency food aid. IHAO has already begun implementation in Iraq, with Hala leading the way.
Hala is an inspiration to humanitarian workers everywhere–regardless of the cause or the place. She is clearly incredibly dedicated to her cause, and is determined to deliver impactful aid to those in need. I think that many can learn from the role model that Hala sets, although I do not believe it is necessary for all to travel into dangerous war zones to create change. But perhaps she is a reminder to us all that although the work may be tough, and we may have to roll up our sleeves, we can all do a bit more to get involved in working towards a more sustainable future.