Category Archives: Iraq

Annual Update Nine: a labyrinthine look at 2016

Dear family, friends, coworkers, and people I accidentally put in my contacts list:

Another year has passed and it follows, therefore, that it’s time for another annual update. In all of 2016, I published but a single blog post (aside from the last annual update), so as of late I’ve had a higher-than-average number of people asking where I was, am, and will soon be. I am presently in South Sudan, and will soon be somewhere else – where, exactly, I have no idea.

As for where I was in 2016, here’s the short version: Canada, USA, Canada, CAR, Spain, CAR, Greece, France, Canada, USA, Canada, Iraq, Syria, Iraq, Syria, Iraq, Syria, Iraq, England, Switzerland, England, Nigeria, England, Canada. 25 plane flights, 20 helicopter flights. 11 countries, including 2 that I’d not visited before. My first ever resignation from a job, couchsurfers galore, and a gangsta wrapper Christmas sweater.

Pie chart - percentage of 2016 spent in each country

And here, with a whole bunch of photos (click to view high-res copies), is the long version:

On 1 January 2016 I borrowed my mom’s car and drove out to Bowen Island to spend the day napping on the rocks in the midday winter sun, take a portrait selfie for posterity, and get a quiet night’s fireside sleep.

New Year's Day on Bowen Island
Woodstove on Bowen Island

The next day Dave invited a few friends to go curling – it was the first time for most of us!

First time curling in Vancouver

Right after curling, I drove a carload of run people to Liz and Yuen’s place in the far reaches of Richmond for dinner and a dance party, with Nate as our DJ for the night.

DJ enku

A few days later, I flew to New York City for work. It was my first time ever in New York, but I realised later that I had taken only 2 photos the entire time! Outside of work hours, I managed to catch up with my friend Lauren over ramen and kava, Maria over sushi, and Mark over brunch accompanied by strong black coffee and a spicy bloody Mary. On my last day in New York, I bought over two dozen real New York bagels to put in my carry-on luggage, which had the plane cabin smelling fantastic for the entire flight back to Vancouver, and served as the foundation for the first Bagelpalooza of the year.

New York City skyline at night

Back in BC, I hung out with all sorts of fun people, like Taylor:

Taylor with her new beard

I went over to Bowen Island for a few more days in late January, where I saw this great blue heron and some cool moss:

Great blue heron at Killarney Lake, Bowen Island
Moss on Bowen Island

The crocuses I planted with my siblings in the fall of 2014 finally came up in the spring of 2016!

Purple crocuses blooming on Bowen Island
Yellow crocuses blooming on Bowen Island

Back on the mainland, Danielle and I went for a hike on 2 February up to Lynn Peak. I wore my reliable steel-toed construction boots and Danielle wore runners. The only other person we saw was using snowshoes on the same trail. I believe he was overdressed for the occasion.

Forest walk up to Lynn Peak, North Vancouver
Making faces with Danielle on the Lynn Peak trail, North Vancouver
Forest view from the Lynn Peak trail, North Vancouver
Heading back down the snow-covered mountain in runners

Two days later, I was back at Bowen, taking Taylor for a hike up Mt Gardner.

Misty southern slope of Mount Gardner, Bowen Island
Taylor descending the North Summit of Mount Gardner, Bowen Island

A week after that, Danielle, Tiffany, and I went over to Bowen again for yet another hike up Mt Gardner searching for a robotic dinosaur followed by hours of joking around the fireplace back at the house. On the walk, we spotted this tree covered from bottom to top in mushrooms. I’ve never seen so many fungi on a single tree before! The photo doesn’t do it justice.

Mushrooms on a tree on the Skid Trail, Mount Gardner, Bowen Island

We also discovered an abandoned hobbit village, with its walkways shrouded in mist.

Mountain bike ramps, Skid Trail, Mount Gardner, Bowen Island

A warning sign at the north summit of Mt Gardner:

Balloons forbidden on the North Summit, Mount Gardner, Bowen Island

Tiffany led the way down from the summit:

Tiffany descending the North Summit of Mount Gardner, Bowen Island

Four days later, back on the mainland, Natassia took me to Capilano Suspension Bridge Park on the North Shore, using a special pass which got us both in for free. The last time I went was in grade 1, when my classmate Morgan’s dad put me on his shoulders to cross the bridge on the bridge staff’s instructions. I have a feeling they’re not allowed to say that anymore.

Capilano Suspension Bridge with Natassia

Since then, they’ve also added the Cliffwalk, anchored in the bedrock:

Capilano Cliffwalk, North Vancouver

…and a canopy walk called Treetops Adventure up high among the trees, which I hope to one day copy on my own land.

Capilano Treetops Adventure, North Vancouver

I spent some of my spare time in February converting my grandfather’s old suitcase into a coffee table. I had found it a few years earlier in the garage, where it had been sitting for a few decades hidden on a shelf among cobwebs and old apple crates. It’s one piece from a large set that came with the family from England in June 1952.

Old suitcase before restoration, exterior
Old suitcase before restoration, interior

I cleaned it as well as I could, tore out the rotten liner and put a new one in, coated the outer surfaces with a special clear coat to protect the woven material and leather, and put four old chair legs on the bottom. Viewed from most angles, it appears to be levitating in my parents’ living room.

Old suitcase after restoration, interior
Old suitcase after restoration and conversion to coffee table, exterior

I finished the suitcase coffee table project just before 4am on 3 March 2016. My flight out of Vancouver lifted off six and a half hours later, destination: Central African Republic.

Back in November 2015, while working for MSF in the frontline city of Taiz, Yemen, I had been interviewed and hired by the IRC (International Rescue Committee) to join their external emergency roster as a Supply Chain Coordinator. That was the reason I went to New York – for orientation. January and February were spent anticipating an imminent departure that never came, as there was no urgent need for my skill set. Finally, unable to remain unemployed in Vancouver for much longer, and with IRC’s knowledge and encouragement, I accepted a position with UNICEF (the UN Children’s Fund) in the Central African Republic (CAR).

It didn’t take me long to realise the mistake I had made. I won’t go into detail, as it might be considered unprofessional to write openly about my experience with UNICEF in CAR. Suffice it to say it was a valuable learning experience; my six month contract turned into a three month contract just two months in, when I gave my contractually-obligated one month’s notice. This photo will say much of what will remain unsaid: it’s the fluorescent light bulb in the UNICEF office male toilet on 13 May, the day it was replaced, well over a month after the old one burned out; a very directly applicable metaphor.

UNICEF fluorescent light bulb, Bangui, CAR

There were some excellent highlights, however: a bunch of old friends had ended up in CAR and it didn’t take long to reconnect with them. I even ended up working directly with two old friends: Simon, who I’d met in South Sudan in 2010, was my direct counterpart in ACF (Action Contre la Faim, a French NGO); and Dominique, who I’d met in Côte d’Ivoire in 2011, was my direct counterpart in ACTED (Agence d’Aide à la coopération technique et au développement, another French NGO). Working right beside me in my own office was Carmen, the younger sister of my Spanish friend Àngela, who I’d met when we were both students in Sweden in 2007.

Hanging out with Carmen in Bangui

Lisa, for whom I was an orientation leader at UBC in 2004, joined me for dinner one evening when she came for a field visit for Mercy Corps, and I got to see my fellow NOHA classmate Evelyn, now working for MSF, and another former NOHA, Catalina, a bunch of times. I also made a number of fantastic new friends, experienced a backyard mud and soap slip ‘n slide, learned to play squash, and organised the release of over a million dollars worth of humanitarian supplies to organisations that were responding to the multiple ongoing crises within the country.

I also got to catch up with two of my old colleagues from my MSF days in Grimari and Bambari: Cyrille, an excellent Centrafrican nurse and Papa Zach, my top Centrafrican driver and right hand as we worked on repairing and building bridges, among many other challenges in 2014.

Catching up with Cyrille in Bangui
Reunion with Papa Zach in Bangui

One day, I came home at night to find the tiniest little baby bat outside my door. I put him somewhere the ants couldn’t get him, but without his mother I doubt he survived.

Baby bat on my diplomatic card, Bangui

Six weeks into my contract, I was already due for a week’s rest and recuperation, so I flew up to Madrid, Spain where I met up with Carmen’s older sister Ángela for the first time in 8 years! She took me all over town on foot while we caught up on all the years that had passed.

Hanging out with Ángela in Madrid, Spain

The next day I caught the train to Segovia, where a famous Roman aqueduct greets visitors entering the town. It’s hard to grasp the size of this thing, but if you see the vehicle parked underneath at the bottom righthand side of the photo you might get an idea.

Roman aqueduct in Segovia, Spain

In Segovia I couchsurfed with Clara from Germany and her flatmate Marie from Ecuador. We ate well, laughed a lot, and I slept like a baby. Perfect preparation for another half day wandering around town, seeing the sights:

Segovia Cathedral:

Segovia Cathedral, Spain

El Alcázar de Segovia:

El Alcázar de Segovia, Spain

The pipe organ in Segovia Cathedral:

Organ inside Segovia Cathedral, Spain

Fancy ceiling in el Alcázar de Segovia:

Ornate ceiling in El Alcázar de Segovia, Spain

Looking out through an archway in the Roman aqueduct:

Looking through an archway in the Roman aqueduct in Segovia

That afternoon I headed down to Toledo, where for the first time in my life I had a couchsurfing host cancel on me. I managed to find a hotel, wander town a bit in the rain, and eat a Middle Eastern supper that the restaurant owner thought I couldn’t possibly finish alone.

El Alcázar de Toledo:

El Alcázar de Toledo, Spain

The next day I walked around Toledo some more, visited the Visigoths museum, looked around the shops, and generally got soaked by the mid-April rains. It was in a somewhat grumpy mood, shivering and wet, that I pulled my phone out of my pocket at this very spot:

El Puente de San Martín, Toledo, Spain

There on my screen was a Skype message from an old friend, now working for IRC in Greece. He was drowning in work, as refugees arrived in the thousands on the Greek islands seeking EU asylum. We chatted a bit, and later that day I made up my mind to give my notice to UNICEF on my arrival back in CAR a few days later: it would be the first time I ever quit a job before the intended end date.

After walking along the river for a while, I wandered back through the old town, grabbed my bag from the hotel, then headed to the train station to return to Madrid.

Streets of Toledo, Spain

Back in Madrid I spent some more time with Àngela, ate way too many tapas with Nick who was in town from Luxembourg for work, and enjoyed the botanical gardens with heaps of peacocks roaming loudly around.

Peacock in Real Jardín Botánico de Madrid
Peacock in Real Jardín Botánico de Madrid

Back in CAR, I gave my notice on the first day back in the office. Within less than 24 hours of doing so, I was asked if I could go straight to Greece as soon as my time in CAR was up which, of course, I accepted. I finished work in Bangui on 24 May and began briefings in Athens on 25 May, fresh from the airport.

Athens, Greece

I spent the next five and a half weeks working for IRC in Athens, while learning the organisation’s policies, procedures, and jargon. The workload was heavy, but being in Athens had distinct advantages rarely found in humanitarian work: zero security restrictions on movement or dress, decent cafés every few steps, excellent restaurants, reliable electricity and running water, and of course all the stuff that tourists seek out in a place like Athens (ancient ruins and museums, live music, interesting architecture, a humming nightlife).

Lampshade street décor in Athens, Greece
Tortoise on the walk up to the Acropolis in Athens, Greece
The Acropolis, Athens, Greece

I also got to meet up with and host loads of couchsurfers in Athens, as well as having a couple of friends meet up when they were passing through town, like Aurora, Lauren B, Maya K, and Sebastian:

Dinner with Sebastian in Athens

The last day in the office was also the day that three members of the cast of Game of Thrones – Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey), Ser Davos Seaworth (Liam Cunningham), and Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) – visited us at our Athens office to wrap up their tour of refugee sites in Greece. I had nice conversations with each of them, but I was most impressed by Liam Cunningham, who was incredibly passionate about the injustice faced by refugees and the inaction of so many people. He told me how he started to feel like part of the problem, as he sat yelling aloud at the people on his television for their xenophobic and unhelpful behaviour. Nobody could hear him yelling at the TV, so now he’s standing up for refugees and trying to make a difference. And yes, he has all the fingertips on his right hand in real life, as seen on my shoulder.

Lena Headey (Cersei Lannister), Orestis, me, Liam Cunningham (Ser Davos Seaworth), Ilias, Amy, Corita

I flew out of Athens on 2 July, ready for a break from work after 4 months of long office days.

Greek coastline, south of Athens

My flight back to Canada had a 19 hour layover in Paris so, as is my habit, I left the airport. I spent the evening walking through Paris with Fleur, who I’d last seen seven and a half years earlier in northwestern Thailand.

Walking through Paris with Fleur

We watched a UEFA Euro 2016 football match (Germany vs Italy) with Fleur’s lovely friends while dining on very fancy snacks, and before long I was soundly asleep on an inflatable mattress in her home office. I woke up early and slipped out the door to catch my final flight back to Vancouver, admiring the ancient staircase as I spiralled down to the cobblestone street below.

Old staircase on Passade de la Main d'Or, Paris

Back in Vancouver, I learned of a secret plot and was asked to take part just days after landing. A group of us surprised our friend Stash at the train station, and took him down to Portland for a post-wedding surprise bachelor weekend.

Stash boarding the train for Portland

It was super boring, we did nothing interesting, slept early every night. I did spot this old fire extinguisher swallowed long ago by a curb-side tree, and a bicycle sign that looks really small until you see notice the standard-sized bricks that make up the building wall on which it’s painted.

Old fire hydrant in Portland, Oregon
Bicycle icon in Portland, Oregon
Dunno where this came from...

I only had three and a half weeks off, so I crammed in as much adventure as I could. I returned to Bowen Island for a couple nights, walking around Killarney Lake on a sunny summer’s day:

Killarney Lake, Bowen Island

I also spotted these donuts in disguise at the Snug Cafe, my favourite local eatery on Bowen, before hiking up Mt Gardner with Ashley, who had driven up from Washington for the day.

Donuts in disguise, Snug Café, Bowen Island

And this insane little mushroom poking out of the forest floor:

Amazing yellow mushroom on Bowen Island

Back in the summer of 2013 I started restoring a little old yellow rowboat named Jaro, having been told while I was in Iraq that it had “to be refibreglassed”, I immediately volunteered for what should have been a simple fix. Unfortunately, as soon as I looked at the boat I found that it barely needed any fibreglassing at all – the main problem was that much of the wood had rotted out. Past annual updates have included photos of the slow progress I’ve made in fits and bursts in the three years that followed. In 2016, with just a couple of days to work on Jaro, all I managed to do was add a rough new layer of fibreglass to the interior of the hull to strengthen it and ensure it has a long life. Even worse – I ran out of fibreglass and had to return to Vancouver to buy more before I could finish. I didn’t have time for touching up, shaving off rough edges, adding more resin to get the right finish… all those things will have to wait for the next non-winter visit.

Before adding new fibreglass:

Jaro before fibreglassing

After adding the new fibreglass, halfway done applying yellow-tinted resin to the glass:

Jaro halfway through fibreglassing

On 23 July, I watched what was easily the worst fireworks show I’ve ever seen at the annual offshore Celebration of Light fireworks festival. It was still fun, but simultaneously somewhat agonising to watch the light bursts that weren’t at all synchronised to the music, which itself had no rhyme or reason (we get a bit snobby about fireworks performances, I’ll admit…).

Netherlands fireworks performance over English Bay, Vancouver

The next day I went for the final hike of the 25-day summer: up to St Mark’s Summit with Josephine and Danielle! After a classic “forgotten-coffee-falls-off-car-roof-and-hits-side-window-with-a-bang” start to the morning, we hit the trail. Soon, Danielle was enjoying one of Mother Nature’s free snacks, the famed North Shore Bearclawlipop Fungus. Apparently it tastes like a sweeter version of a certain donut-like dessert pastry.

Danielle and the giant fungus

When hikers passed us going the other way, we sang “hellooo” to them in three-part harmony, garnering many a laugh on our way to the top.

Josephine, Danielle, and me at St Mark's Summit

Looking down from St Mark’s Summit to Bowen Island:

Looking down on Bowen Island from St Mark's Summit

This tree on the hike back down has a hollow straight out of a fairytale:

Amazing tree on the descent from St Mark's Summit

We also ate sooo many berries on the trail. Blueberries, huckleberries, and delicious salmonberries:

Delicious salmonberries

Three days later I was on a plane bound for Iraq. I spent the first month in Erbil, pushing more paper than I’ve pushed in a long time. One weekend a small group of us did manage to head out of town for a little adventure. We went to Korek Mountain, stopping en route to admire this beautiful canyon:

Canyon in Kurdistan, Iraq

We had hoped to walk up Korek Mountain but, on arriving at the base, the two of us with hiking experience immediately realised it would take all day just to get to the top, in sweltering heat with zero shade and insufficient water and food. So, we did what all good hikers do in such situations: we paid to ride the gondola up!

Gondola ride up Korek Mountain, Kurdistan, Iraq

Up at the top, we wandered around the bizarre rides, played on a swing, and eventually managed to get hooked up to this contraption, which dragged us backwards up the hill then pulled us forward at high speed for a few seconds to give the impression of flying:

Skyflyer with Hajja and Simon on Korek Mountain, Kurdistan, Iraq

Three days later, on 22 August, I headed up to Duhok, where I’d worked for a few months back in 2012. This round building, home to the General Directorate of Culture and Arts of Duhok, had been under construction when I left. By 2016 it was not only completed, but already ageing quickly…

General Directorate of Culture and Arts of Duhok, Kurdistan, Iraq

I spent the next few weeks shuttling back and forth between Duhok and Derek, pushing paper and trying to help others learn how to push paper, while drinking lots of coffee.

Coffee in Derek, Kurdistan, Syria

I also got to see two of my old MSF friends, who took me out for dinner multiple times and never let me pay. One day I will succeed to buy these gentlemen dinner!

After a final big dinner in Duhok with Salih and Ziyad

In mid-September I was driven back down to Erbil to wrap things up.

Tunnel through a mountain on the drive from Duhok to Erbil, Kurdistan, Iraq

By 21 September I was flying out of Iraq, arriving in London late in the evening and flying down to Geneva early the next morning for a quick 31-hour visit.

Le viaduc de la Jonction, Geneva, Switzerland
Street art in Geneva, Switzerland

The next day it was back to London for four nights, drinking coffee at Prufrock on Leather Lane with Ximena, warming more coffee in an underground public toilet, eating fancy food in East London with Natasha and Nate, and seeing Martin, Dave, and Lori as well!

Coffee with Ximena in London
Warming up coffee in the Attendant Café, London
Satisfied after a great meal with Natasha and Nate in East London
Modelling with Dave in a London Underground station
Modelling with Nate in a London Underground station

This do not enter sign wasn’t far from the Attendant Café:

Sumo wrestler do not enter sign in London

While I spent a bunch of time socialising, the main reason for being in London was actually to get a visa from the Nigerian High Commission. Before returning to Heathrow for my flight down to Abuja, Nigeria on 27 September, I spent some time sitting by the Thames admiring the scenery while, to my right, a guy silently practised some mind-boggling dance moves with his earbuds in.

Victoria Tower, Palace of Westminster at night in London

I arrived in Abuja at 4:35am, got some sleep in a hotel in town, then was back at the airport for a UN flight up to Maiduguri, Borno State. Aside from the ongoing Boko Haram insurgency, Maiduguri also features an insane number of tuk-tuks as motorcycles were banned due to being a favoured means of transport for insurgents. In Nigeria a tuk-tuk is called a keke NAPEP or simply keke for short.

Keke NAPEPs in Maiduguri, Nigeria

I soon caught my first ever helicopter flight, followed by 19 more helicopter flights over the next two months.

My first ever helicopter ride, in a Bell 412
Boarding a Bell 412 in Monguno, Nigeria
Takeoff from Maiduguri airport in a Bell 412 helicopter

The reason for all the chopper flights was to reach a small town called Monguno, where many thousands of displaced persons had ended up. After arriving in town, most of them had to build their own shelters. This required heading out of town in search of firewood to cook, and branches and straw to make the structure and thatch…

Displaced persons returning to Monguno, Borno State, Nigeria

…bringing it into town…

Displaced persons returning to Monguno, Borno State, Nigeria

…weaving thatch mats to sell to other displaced people or use for their own homes…

Women carrying wood, woven thatch mats for sale by the roadside in Monguno, Borno State, Nigeria

…and set up their new homes…

Thatch hut in an IDP camp, Monguno, Borno State, Nigeria

…in sprawling IDP (internally displaced persons) camps spread across the town:

IDP camp from above, Monguno, Borno State, Nigeria

In the camp pictured below, I was tasked with building a Comprehensive Women’s Centre featuring women’s protection & empowerment and reproductive health clinic facilities:

IDP camp from above, Monguno, Borno State, Nigeria

Most of the facilities we built in Borno State had to be temporary constructions using very simple materials, as the land on which they were built will eventually return to its intended use (public or private land, housing estates, schools, etc – many different properties were temporarily assigned as IDP camps). This is what it looked like during my final visit to Monguno, with about a week’s work remaining to complete it:

Comprehensive Women's Centre in an IDP camp, Monguno, Borno State, Nigeria

I also spent a lot of time cancelling a contract for poor performance, finding a new contractor, and following up regularly on his completion of a contract to build more than twenty latrine and shower blocks for a new IDP camp being set up in Monguno Stadium.

Latrine and shower blocks in a planned IDP camp, Monguno, Borno State, Nigeria

Contractors are notoriously difficult to deal with, especially in the countries where I work. One company agreed to build a pair of water towers in the same IDP camp, each having 4 x 5000L = 20000L storage capacity, but when I saw the size of the tanks I knew they were too small. So, I got his team to measure them – he was trying to pass 2500L tanks off as 5000L tanks!

Measuring water tanks for a camp distribution system, Monguno, Borno State, Nigeria

I was nearing the end of my time in Nigeria, so my successor took on the job of sorting out the contract and I got this photo 6 weeks later showing one of the towers with solar panels to power the submersible pump in the borehole below:

Camp water distribution system with solar panels, Monguno, Borno State, Nigeria

One day we got a good laugh before boarding the helicopter in Monguno. A tiny bit of a plastic shopping bag had become caught on one of the blades and was making lots of noise on the flight up, so one of the crew members climbed onto the pilot to take it off! (My camera lens cover hadn’t fully retracted, hence the artistic framing)

Removing a bit of plastic from the blade before flying out of Monguno, Borno State, Nigeria

Back in Maiduguri, we got a good laugh testing our theory that one of my colleagues could fit in a suitcase:

Fitting Jackie in a suitcase
Jackie ready to fly

I was also responsible for building a basic maternity, again out of temporary building materials, in an IDP camp in Maiduguri. I couldn’t have done this (or most of the rest of the stuff I did) without the dedicated effort of my driver and de facto logistics assistant, Ajalan.

Mixing cement for the floor of the basic maternity at an IDP camp in Maiduguri, Borno State, Nigeria

I left Nigeria when it was about 90% complete:

Basic maternity under construction in Maiduguri, Borno State, Nigeria
Basic maternity under construction in Maiduguri, Borno State, Nigeria
Basic maternity under construction in Maiduguri, Borno State, Nigeria

The other construction project I managed was a 9x9m medical storeroom built within our existing warehouse. I designed it so that we would gain an additional 81 square metres of storage space, by building it from steel I-beams so that the “roof” of the storeroom could support the weight of heavy stock on pallets. The walls and the ceiling all had a 12-15cm air gap for basic insulation, formed by putting up plywood walls and false ceiling. By the time it was complete, it was cold inside and we hadn’t even installed the air conditioners yet!

Clearing space in the big warehouse, to build a medical storeroom in Maiduguri, Borno State, Nigeria
Medical storeroom under construction in Maiduguri, Borno State, Nigeria
Medical storeroom under construction in Maiduguri, Borno State, Nigeria
Medical storeroom under construction in Maiduguri, Borno State, Nigeria
Interior of the medical storeroom, nearly complete

One of the benefits of being in northeastern Nigeria that time of year was the omnipresence of guavas. As soon as I realised there were guavas at the roadside fruit stalls, I declared the beginning of Guavapalooza, which meant I had to eat a minimum of one guava per day for the rest of my stay in Nigeria. I not only succeeded, but exceeded expectations.

Guava

Of course, it’d be inconsiderate of me not to share this photo of two chameleons we saw chasing each other at the Maiduguri airport one morning:

Two chameleons playing at Maiduguri airport, Nigeria

Two months working in Nigeria without a single full day off was pretty exhausting, but I soon had a night in London to see Nate again and catch up with Ricardo, who I hadn’t seen in many years!

Tower Bridge, London
Having a beer with Ricardo in London

This do not enter sign was on Brick Lane:

Dinnertime do not enter sign on Brick Lane, London

I even managed to grab a quick breakfast with Natasha before she started work, then I returned to Heathrow to fly home for a real break!

Catching up with Natasha before work in London

I arrived in Vancouver on 1 December, and spent the next two weeks on all sorts of mini-adventures, beginning with a Christmas party at Ricardobel’s house, where giant hops lanterns greeted all who entered, and followed by a very important mulled wine Christmas party the same night at Sonja’s house.

Massive hops lanterns at Ricardobel's house

On the 7th, Harpreet and I tried our hands at making rubber stamps, which was a great idea.

Coffee rubber stamp

On the 11th a bunch of us had an amazing lunch prepared by Aunty Pat.

Aunty Pat and Josephine

And later that same day, Liz and Yuen threw an entertaining dinner party in the far reaches of Richmond:

Liz, the best No 7 Road party host

A visit home wouldn’t be the same without a trip to Bowen Island, and this year I was lucky to go over for two nights while the whole place was covered in snow! It was magical. This tree had bent over and created a perfect sleeping area, but I chose to sleep in perfect comfort next to the fireplace, instead.

A nice sleeping spot on Bowen Island

Moss Mountain covered in snow:

Snow-covered moss mountain, Bowen Island

The sun rises over West Vancouver:

Sunrise over West Vancouver and the snow-covered lawn at Bowen Island

On 20 December I joined a bunch of old high school friends for a longstanding tradition: the 15th Annual Christmas Dinner (photo by Mae Jamoyot)

Annual Christmas Dinner 15 (photo by Mae Jamoyot)

Lisa spent Christmas in Ontario this year, so before she left we made sure to have a family dinner with her, on 21 December:

Early Christmas dinner with family in Vancouver

She took the occasion to announce this:

My sister got engaged

Making the night even better, Lisa gave me a new double-walled glass French press, which keeps the coffee warmer much longer than a traditional press, and looks really neat to boot.

Me with my new glass double-walled French press

In other happy news, I successfully repaired Bryan’s beer fridge a few days before Christmas without him noticing, then stocked it for him on Christmas Eve while he was out. His favourite four-legged companion seemed to approve of the surprise:

Pooper approves of Bryan's repaired beer fridge

Come Christmas Day, we had a nice day with family. Matt had a surgery coming up in the new year, so I surprised him by making version 2 of the Cranderson Enterprises accELeration speedcrutches:

Matt shows off his accELeration speedcrutches on Christmas

The next day we had our annual extended family Boxing Day party, and our little cousin got to try the accELeration speedcrutches too!

Trinity tries the accELeration speedcrutches

On 30 December, Mark and Renée hosted the final Bagelpalooza of 2016 at their apartment. It was delicious.

Bagelpalooza spread

Finally, on 31 December, with just over an hour left in 2016, Stash played Pie Face…

Stash plays Pie Face

…and won:

Stash wins Pie Face

If you made it this far, I’m impressed. As always, I’d love to get an update from you – whether we know each other well or not at all, whether it’s a quick hello or a rambling email telling me every little detail of your life. I promise to read it, no matter how long, and eventually even reply. It took me 11 months to reply to a few people last time… but I did reply!

Good luck in 2017, we’re all gonna need it.

Twelve

Arabic number twelve

Last week I sat on a mountain ridge overlooking the city of Duhok, snacking on curry-dusted broad beans and talking work and politics and culture for hours with a Kurdish friend I’ve known for four years. Located in the far north of the Kurdistan Autonomous Region of Iraq, Duhok Governorate hasn’t seen conflict in over two decades. Since the outbreak of the war in Syria it has hosted many thousands of refugees, including those in Domiz Camp where I worked with MSF in 2012 and 2013. In 2015 and 2016 many of these refugees, as well as a number of locals, made their way abroad and others are planning to do so in the coming months.

My friend weaves Kurdish sayings into everyday conversation at an impressive rate, and the occasional joke slips in as well. As we talked of the exodus from this stable and extremely peaceful area, he told me this one:

I was speaking with some young people, and they said they plan to go to Europe when they have the chance. I asked them, “Why you will go? Here it is safe, and Da’esh is losing the war in both Iraq and Syria. They will never arrive to this region. You should stay.”

“Yes,” they replied, “but don’t you remember? Before Da’esh we had Saddam, and after Saddam we had al-Qaeda. So you see there is always another evil waiting to take the place of the last one. Even after Da’esh is destroyed, it will be even more worse: Thna’ash will come.”

Before I continue, non-Arabic speakers need to understand a couple of basics:

  1. Da’esh is simply the Arabic acronym for ISIS. The meaning is exactly the same, but in Arabic acronyms are very rarely used and in this case it is largely the reduction from a grandiose name to an ugly acronym that the group’s members dislike. You can read a detailed explanation here: “Decoding Daesh”.

  2. The number eleven in Arabic is officially أحدعشر but commonly pronounced حدعش or hda’ash, which sounds very similar to داعش (da’esh) when spoken quickly. The number twelve is commonly pronounced ثنعش or thna’ash.

And now, back to the joke:

“What are you talking about?!?” asked my friend, perplexed. “What’s Thna’ash?”

“Zombies!” they replied.

(Another version of the joke substitutes Donald Trump in place of Zombies)

Domiz Refugee Camp and the Blustery Day (March 2013)

[This post is being published out of order: the story is from March 2013]

From September to November 2012 and again for two weeks in March 2013, I worked in Domiz Refugee Camp, a few kilometres outside Duhok, in the Kurdistan Autonomous Region of northern Iraq.

A view of the city of Duhok, Duhok Governorate, Kurdistan Autonomous Region, Iraq:

A view of the city of Duhok, Duhok Governorate, Kurdistan Autonomous Region, Iraq

At the time, the camp was expanding like a child who outgrows her clothes faster than her parents can buy new ones. The local government institutions and local and foreign humanitarian organisations were struggling to keep up with the needs of the ever-increasing numbers of refugees crossing the border from Syria. They made a serious effort, though. There was even a garbage service in place, though the truck sometimes encountered difficulties getting around the camp:

Garbage truck stuck in the mud in Domiz Refugee Camp, November 2012

Some areas of the camp had sprung up haphazardly during one of several sudden surprise influxes of refugees. Having not been planned out ahead of time, these areas had worse conditions than most of the camp, like these makeshift latrines installed in an area that flooded as soon as the first rains fell:

Ill-placed latrines in Domiz Refugee Camp, November 2012

In the final weeks of my first stay in Duhok, I had the great fortune of being invited by the Directorate of Health (DoH) to offer my input on the design for a new health centre to be built by the Kurdish government and jointly managed with MSF (Médecins Sans Frontières aka Doctors Without Borders) in Domiz Refugee Camp. I met with their engineer, and over the next two weeks we passed designs back and forth by email until we had a final version that satisfied everybody.

The construction process was managed entirely by the DoH. The Yazidi contractors they hired were soon breaking ground and setting the foundation for a new health centre in a spacious area on a hill overlooking the camp, a significant improvement on the cramped, makeshift health centre housed in prefabricated containers right across from the UNHCR refugee registration offices in one of the busiest and most crowded parts of the camp:

Crowds fill the area between the MSF primary health centre and UNHCR refugee registration area, November 2012

The cramped pharmacy in the old health centre:

Cramped pharmacy in the undersized MSF primary health centre in Domiz Refugee Camp, November 2012

Starting the new health centre:

Beginnings of the foundation of the new primary health centre in Domiz Refugee Camp
A member of the Yazidi construction team takes a smoke break from building the foundation of the new health centre in Domiz Refugee Camp
Two MSF drivers admiring the new health centre foundation

By the time I left Domiz Camp on 28 November 2012 the foundation work was just about done but, sadly, I wouldn’t be there to see the rest of the centre built. I spent the next six months splitting my time between Kirkuk and Hawija. These two cities were a world apart from peaceful Duhok. Suicide bombers, exploding vehicles, roadside bombs, and armed attacks were commonplace in these two cities, though they were never aimed at us. However, in March 2013 our entire team was relocated from Kirkuk to Erbil (the incredibly safe capital of Iraqi Kurdistan) for security reasons for about three weeks. Rather than twiddle my thumbs at a desk in Erbil, I returned to Duhok to lend a hand for two weeks. Arriving back to the camp after a three and a half month absence, the first thing I wanted to see was the new health centre, now in use:

March 2013: the new primary health centre is up and running in Domiz Refugee Camp

The new health centre was a tremendous improvement, but the camp population hadn’t stopped growing, so the building was already a size too small by the time it opened. Part of my job during my short stay would be to order prefabricated sandwich-panel portable buildings and install them on the health centre grounds to house some of the health services such as a planned child malnutrition ward. I made the simple floorplans with advice from the medical team, ordered the buildings, and soon afterwards we began receiving them:

Lowering the prefabricated malnutrition building into place

Just a few metres from the health centre, there were a series of modular tents left behind by a German medical organisation. MSF was using these tents as temporary medical facilities while we planned to build something more permanent:

Tents helped MSF handle the overflow of patients at the new health centre in Domiz Refugee Camp

On 16 March I was at the camp, as usual. It was a breezy morning, and as the hours went by the breeze became a strong wind. As the wind increased in power, the tents began swaying. I would learn later that day, on closer inspection, that the German medical organisation had not installed the anchors correctly for the guy lines. Not knowing this, in the early afternoon I and a couple of helpers set about weighting down the tents with cement breezeblocks and checking that the guy lines were taut.

Placing cement breezeblocks to weigh down the tents during a building wind storm

Well, the wind kept howling and pretty soon it was a full-blown blustery day in Domiz Refugee Camp. I noticed a slack guy line at the corner where the larger consultation tent met the stabilisation tent, so I bent down to tighten it. As I was doing this, I caught a sudden rush of movement in my peripheral vision to the left of me, and instinctively dropped to the ground. My body naturally rolled without any conscious decision to do so; I watched canvas flying over me, metal poles passing just inches from my body, as the enormous consultation tent lifted, flipped, and twisted. It carried the smaller consultation tent, stabilisation tent, and central hall with it through the air, along with dozens of cement blocks we’d added for weight, and the medical examination tables, desks, and chairs that were inside. I was relieved to be unhurt: just a little dirty from the fall, my shirt torn, and my phone no longer in my pocket – an acceptable outcome, considering the circumstances. I took a photo of my torn shirt when I got home:

My shirt, torn as I rolled on the ground while the consultation tent flew over me

One of the health centre cleaners was deeply saddened by the destruction and needed a moment to settle her emotions:

Cleaner fights back tears as she ponders the destruction of the medical tents

I made a sketch of the tent setup for my incident report at the time. In the photo below, I’ve marked a small circle where I was working on the rope when the 6 x 10 metre consultation tent flew over me. The tents labelled 1 through 4 ended up in the area marked “4 tents mangled”:

Sketch of the medical tents in their original and post-storm positions

By late afternoon we’d given up hope of getting anything productive done with the tents that day, so we readied ourselves to leave. We climbed into the vehicle but, as we began to drive away, I spotted a man walking among the tents so I got out and spoke with him. I could tell he was hiding something, so I asked him to open his jacket. He did so, revealing the electrical cabling he was trying to steal. He returned it and left, and as I walked back to the vehicle a loud noise took over the skies, and out of nowhere grains of sand began hitting my face. I rushed to the car and within seconds we were in the middle of a sandstorm. We opened the vehicle doors to let in some refugees caught in the storm nearby, then watched as the 6 x 10 metre triage/waiting tent stood up on end for a moment before flying across the yard and catching on a streetlight. In the sketch above, it’s tent number 5 that flew to the top left corner of the sketch – over 50 metres.

In this photo, the tent doesn’t appear very large, but have a look at the people to the left and note that it’s caught on a full-sized streetlight:

A 6x10 metre tent blown straddles a streetlamp in Domiz Refugee Camp, 16 March 2013

At the end of the blustery day, only two tents remained standing, one of which was damaged and later repaired with poles salvaged from the wreckage. Here, between the two remaining standing tents, you can see the large footprint of the consultation tent that flew over me:

Between the two remaining standing tents, you can see the large footprint of the consultation tent that flew over me

Removing cement breezeblocks from inside the destroyed tents:

Removing cement breezeblocks from inside the destroyed tents

Cleaning up after the storm:

Cleaning up after the storm at the primary health centre, Domiz Refugee Camp, March 2013

Tent poles and posts sheared off:

Tent poles and posts sheared off
Tent poles and posts sheared off

As we cleared the rubble, we found my phone wrapped up inside the remains of the consultation tent a far distance from where I’d been standing. The phone, which I’d bought in 2011 in Côte d’Ivoire, still works to this day (2015).

Nokia 1280 found amongst the rubble

We took down the isolation tent (which, though still standing, was damaged), found replacement poles among the wreckage, and put it back up next to its last surviving relative:

Two surviving tents at the MSF-supported primary health centre, Domiz Refugee Camp, March 2013

The tents weren’t the only things to be tossed around like children’s playthings. The prefab malnutrition building pictured earlier had tried to escape during the storm:

The prefab malnutrition building tried to escape during the storm

I measured the distance from point to point and made the sketch below, showing that one corner of the malnutrition building shifted 8 metres (~26 feet), while the other corner shifted 11 metres (~36 feet) as the building slid and rotated. respectively.

Sketch of the malnutrition building in its original and post-storm positions

Immediately following the sandstorm, dozens of people were rushed to the health centre, mostly suffering from breathing problems caused by inhaling sand, and a small number of injuries from flying objects. The refugee homes were mostly untouched, as they were lower to the ground and securely fastened.

By noon the following day, it was perfect spring weather in Domiz Refugee Camp:

Perfect spring weather in Domiz Refugee Camp, 17 March 2013

Like the ill-fated tents, this kid flipped head over heels to get over the fence, showing me his parkour skills:

A Syrian refugee boy performs a gate vault, a move frequently used by traceurs in Parkour

Lastly, here are two random happy photos. A father with his children taking a break from setting up his new tent on a cement base, and a pair of siblings I bumped into a number of times in the camp:

A father with his children taking a break from setting up his new tent on a cement base in Domiz Refugee Camp, November 2012
Refugee children I frequently saw in Domiz Refugee Camp, November 2012

Refugee hospitality in Domiz camp, Iraq (November 2012)

[This post is being published out of order; the photos and experiences are from September-November 2012]

I arrived in Iraq in early September 2012, expecting to be sent to Kirkuk after some initial briefings at our coordination office. I had been hired to spend six months living in Kirkuk, working semi-remotely to support our project in Hawija, where MSF is supporting some activities of the local hospital. Unfortunately, there were a series of bombings in Kirkuk just before I landed in Iraq, so the team was temporarily relocated. Rather than have me sit twiddling my thumbs in the coordination office, waiting for the dust to settle in Kirkuk, we agreed that I would lend a hand up north in Domiz Refugee Camp for a week or two, as the young MSF project there had never had an expatriate logistician. The team would drive down to Erbil each weekend for some rest, so I would only need a few days’ worth of clothing. I packed my bag appropriately, leaving most of my stuff at the guesthouse in Erbil, and hit the road. Little did I know, those two weeks would stretch into three months.

Domiz Refugee Camp, Duhok, Iraq

In April 2012, as fighting in neighbouring Syria intensified and spread, Domiz Refugee Camp was set up to receive some of the people who’d begun fleeing across the border the month before. The camp is located in the Kurdistan Autonomous Region in northern Iraq, about 10km southwest of the city of Duhok as the crow flies, or 15km as the tarmac lies (for unknown reasons, various websites and Google Earth say that the camp is northeast of town, but this is definitely incorrect).

Initially planned to hold about 5000 people, the camp rapidly surpassed that figure, straining the limited resources available to the mostly-Kurdish Syrian refugees living there. MSF was warmly welcomed into the camp in the spring of 2012 to help manage the healthcare needs of the growing refugee population.

Moonrise on a muddy evening near the main entrance to Domiz Refugee Camp, Duhok, Iraq

The refugees living in Domiz camp were incredibly hospitable to me. Each day that I was there, I made an effort to take a walk and say hello to people in the different neighbourhoods within the camp, and on these walks my colleagues and I were almost invariably invited to sit down for a hot drink and some friendly banter. One day, we even got invited for a meal of epic proportions in the tent of one of the first families to arrive in the camp months before. This family became known in the camp for taking in new arrivals who had not yet been assigned a tent in which to sleep or given a food ration to feed their children, and hadn’t enough cash to get by in their first days.

Head of the family

It was a surreal experience for me, to sit alongside my assistant and the Field Coordinator assistant, the Directorate of Health ambulance driver, and two of our MSF drivers, in a yellow tent extended upwards with makeshift low cinderblock walls, eating a multi-course meal that would easily excite Anthony Bourdain, in the oldest sector of a rapidly expanding refugee camp for Syrians in Iraq. While the family had limited resources, they worked very hard to help themselves and others, and the meal was their way of welcoming us and thanking us for the work MSF was doing in the camp.

Sitting down to lunch in Domiz Refugee Camp, Duhok, Iraq
Sitting down to lunch in Domiz Refugee Camp, Duhok, Iraq

While such a grandiose meal was uncommon, we were offered hot drinks everywhere we went. Strong Arabic coffee – black and bitter, with a thick sludge of grounds to leave behind at the bottom of the little porcelain cup, and the initially unfamiliar cardamom pungency which took me by surprise the first time it rose to my nostrils – dealt a caffeine slap that would have spun my head through a full 360° turn if my neck were only capable of it.

Strong coffee and cheap cigarettes in Domiz Refugee Camp, Duhok, Iraq

The more frequently offered option – sweet tea, a deep orange river with brown swirling currents steamily streaming into tiny glasses already a quarter to a third with white sugar – had a gentler effect on my heart rate, though too many glasses in one day risked triggering a hyperglycaemic headache.

Sweet tea in Domiz Refugee Camp, Duhok, Iraq

I soon appointed myself unofficial camp tour guide for any new MSF staff and visitors arriving in the project, taking them on walking tours of the key sectors of the camp, highlighting the rapid evolution of the camp and our activities, and, most importantly, taking time to sit down with camp residents for tea or coffee, no matter whether the new MSF arrivals felt they had the time to spare or not. Most people were excited at the opportunity, but when the occasional person felt otherwise, a simple phrase solved the problem every time: “They’ve invited us in for tea; we don’t need to stay long, but it would be incredibly rude to refuse the offer altogether.”

Armando, a Mexican MSF doctor who organised triage training for the health centre staff, was particularly keen to visit with camp residents:

Armando with coffee

During the time that I was working in Domiz camp, it was through drinking tea that we learned about the challenges faced by its refugee inhabitants.

Spending time with refugees in Domiz Refugee Camp, Duhok, Iraq

We also heard interesting information and rumours that were going around, some of which could affect the refugees’ healthcare needs. Sitting in tents brought us closer to the community, and helped the community members feel more at ease seeking healthcare at the primary health centre that MSF operated in the camp.

Spending time with refugees in Domiz Refugee Camp, Duhok, Iraq

We put a human face on what appeared otherwise to be a strange company employing foreigners to do who knows what. We learned what people did and did not know about the nongovernmental, charitable nature of MSF, and shared information about the healthcare options available to them, free of charge, including referrals and free transport to the local government hospital for some treatment options that we didn’t offer in the camp.

A friendly face in Domiz Refugee Camp, Duhok, Iraq

With this information, we could adjust our strategy for community health workers and counsellors doing outreach work within the camp. We also increased our own security: the community respected us for the work we were doing in the health centre, but also for the way we interacted with them closer to their homes, always waving and smiling as we walked or drove around, joking with the children, listening during our tea drinking sessions, and advocating for their non-medical needs to the relevant organisations working in the camp.

Spending time with refugees in Domiz Refugee Camp, Duhok, Iraq

Although Domiz is far nicer than Dadaab (the world’s largest refugee camp), living in a refugee camp is not easy, and conditions are tough. It rains heavily and snows every winter in Duhok governorate. It’s incredibly hot (average high of 41-42°C in July-August) and dusty every summer there. With no end in sight for the war in Syria, Domiz Refugee Camp may remain home for a long time to come for the refugees who welcomed me so warmly during my short stay there.

Refugee tents at dusk in Domiz Refugee Camp, Duhok, Iraq