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Mosul, an inside story, part 5: “The dark chapters are behind us.”

Iraq -

This is the last episode of a five-chapter series we have been sharing in the past weeks. Former Cordaid employee Othman Khalil grew up in the city during the Iraq War and survived occupation by ISIS. In love with his maimed city, he began humanitarian work right after the liberation battle. This is his story.   

“After my time with MSF, I took a new turn and started working with another INGO, Preemptive Love. With them, I got involved in youth employment. Instead of caring for the wounded and the dead, this was more forward-looking. It was about increasing the skills and confidence of young people in a post-war situation. Connecting them with employers and with the outside world. We supported them in their business ambitions and tried to increase their employability.

This young generation, people in their early twenties like me back then, had only known war for at least half of their lives. They had and still have big gaps in their education, and are all traumatized, but extremely hungry to move on. And they are talented! It takes many skills to survive a decade of war and extremism. Many of them only needed a small amount of investment capital – a few hundred dollars or a thousand – to start running, even flying, as entrepreneurs. Money they could never get from a commercial bank.

“I have learned that showing people the way works much better than putting them on the way.”

What I liked a lot was helping to find a suitable job for women who couldn’t leave the house. After the liberation women were allowed to go out again, but many families, mostly the very conservative ones, still wanted the daughters and wives to stay inside. A very effective way to support them was to find employment that fitted their context and to provide proper training and tools for it. This consisted mostly of digital work, like entering and processing data. All they needed to start was a smartphone, a computer, an internet connection and basic skills in English and digital work.

A baker in Mosul, Iraq.
A baker in the historic part of Mosul who makes over 500 flatbreads a day.

A sister and a brother

But we also supported women in finding jobs in companies, acting as a matchmaker between job seekers and employers in the Mosul area. Some of them, like this incredibly talented graduate in computer science, Hanine Saif, went on from there to start her own business in IT training and web design. That’s a big leap forward! When she applied for Cordaid’s employability support, I was approached by her mother, who told me that her daughter was not allowed to leave the house alone. She asked us to support one of her sons as well to act as her mahram (chaperone) during the training sessions. And today, she has her own business, managing it on her own. The brother, by the way, was not nearly as successful as his sister.

I have learned that showing people the way works much better than putting them on the way. For example, except for those who were extremely poor, most of the job seekers we worked with had to rent laptops and phones. Providing everything for free in one go doesn’t work. You can create an opportunity for participants, but the option, the decision to take a certain direction has to be theirs.

“Having a job not only means food on the table and the means to go to school. It means interaction, beyond the city borders, the governorate, and even national borders.”

Today, more or less five years later, the majority of the women we supported working from home, work outside. They have good positions and work either for themselves or with companies. And their families are fine with that. It shows that a lot has changed. A lot of factors contributed to this change. Most importantly, the situation is more stable. And a lot of refugees have come back with a different mindset after years of living a different kind of life elsewhere. I wouldn’t say that people have become more liberal, but at least they are now more tolerant towards women. But the relatively simple act of creating job opportunities for women who were locked in their homes has definitely also contributed to changes. In the lives of individuals, in families, in Mosul.

A man who exemplifies resilience

Over the last five years, I have been supporting hundreds of young entrepreneurs and job seekers in Mosul, also with Cordaid. Many of them have inspired me, with their stamina, their talents, and their lust for life despite the challenges of war and utter hardship. One of them is Mohammed Hussain, whom we supported with Cordaid. For me, he exemplifies Mosul’s resilience. He had and still has serious heart issues. Today, at age 25, he is the owner of a five-branch printing and advertising company, employing 15 young Maslawis. And he only needed some support to start his business to get there. Before, he used to work for other companies. Hard work, too hard for his medical condition, and little money. With a Cordaid grant, he was able to rent a printing shop and buy some equipment. It was clear from the moment we met him that he had all the entrepreneurial skills, the motivation, and the talents to succeed. He only lacked the money to start. That, plus the fact he came from a very poor family and his medical problems which required a lot of money, made him a good candidate for Cordaid’s business support. It took him three years to start and grow his business, up to having five branches and providing salaries to fifteen families. As for himself, he got better treatment, his medical condition improved a lot. If you ask me, Mohammed is a dark horse that can win any race.

Three men in a bar in Mosul, Iraq.
Othman Khalil (middle) and two young Maslawi entrepreneurs who were supported in Cordaid’s private sector development programme. The man on the right is Mohammed Hussain Maree, who owns several printing shops and employs a number of young job seekers.

People like Mohammed Hussain are the cornerstone and the infrastructure of this city, not just the mayor and other big shots. When you talk about rehabilitation and resilience during and after the war, about people rising out of the embers, he exemplifies this. He leads by example. Supporting him will inspire others to follow his example. It gives a boost to employment, to social interaction, to confidence, to health. It gives people who went through hell, the possibility to breathe. To look forward and to grow. Having a job not only means food on the table and the means to go to school. It means interaction, beyond the city borders, the governorate, and even national borders. But it also means people can start affording a family picnic in the mountains or another fun outing. Things people have not had for years and years. I would even say that the interaction and physical movement that come with employment even gives you a more healthy brain. Employment means life. This is why Cordaid’s support for Mohammed Hussain and many other entrepreneurs is so meaningful.

Mosul-made potato chips

Among the entrepreneurs and job seekers we have supported over the years, there are many other inspiring people. Like Dhirar Duraid, a man who is known in Mosul as ‘the potato chips guy’. He is special to me, for many reasons, not least because he makes my favourite potato chips. The brand is called Al Sharq, meaning the East. Ever since I was a kid I simply loved his Mosul-made chips. His market used to be only Mosul. He is a relatively small entrepreneur, but he introduced new flavours long before the big companies. He is very successful, but believe me, he had to overcome a lot. His first factory, in West Mosul, was destroyed during the Iran-Iraq war in the eighties. He rebuilt it. The new factory, also in West Mosul, was again destroyed during the recent liberation battle against ISIS. He rebuilt it again. And recently he opened a second factory.

When Cordaid started to support him, he had only one factory, was only selling in bulk, mostly in the Mosul area, and his packaging and marketing were poor. But the quality of his chips was and still is unequalled. We knew that with his product and his fighting spirit, he was a goldmine. But he didn’t know it himself. With our financial and training support he was able to invest in and open a second factory. In East Mosul this time, not to test his luck too much. It has a fully automatic line for frying, drying, weighing, packaging and sealing the chips. We supported him in improving his marketing skills and preparing for expansion, and we connected him to entrepreneurs all over Iraq, in Tukey, Dubai and other countries. He entered new markets and seriously expanded. Remember that in 2017, after the war with ISIS, he had lost everything. He just had some big pots and pans. Today, he has two factories, and five shops and his Al Sharq chips are exported to all corners of Iraq. For Cordaid, the main goal was job creation, which is what we achieved by supporting Dhirar’s entrepreneurship.

“To ward off dangerous fools, brains and education are at least as important as weapons.”

Before, Dhirar never looked too far ahead, never dreamed too big. In Mosul, why take extra risks, if you have already been dealing with so many in the past? But with a little push, in a relatively stable setting, people like Dhirar and Mohammed can go much further and support many in their wake.

Better protected against extremism

There is another important side to this kind of business development. When people in a city so damaged by war and violence, are more confident, more educated, less poor than before, more aware and more connected to the outside world, it becomes less easy for extremists to take over the city. In 2014, when these few hundred ISIS fighters captured Mosul, people were unaware, didn’t know what was going on, very often uneducated and very poor. It was easy for ISIS to meddle with the minds of the youth, because back then, only less than 10 years ago, Mosul’s youth was completely disconnected from the outside world. Meddling with their minds was easy. Getting their support was easy, even before ISIS started their tactics of terror. Today, people, especially the younger generation, have a much clearer understanding of who is good and who is bad, regardless of the religious background of politicians or so-called leaders. Young people are better informed, better educated, and more connected, also through social media. They are less easily fooled by sectarian or religious propaganda. They will take it for what it really is: stupidity.

Today, with a growing, stronger and more educated middle class, exemplified by all the women who either fight to work from home, or break boundaries and find good positions in companies, or have their own businesses like Hanine, by people like Mohammed and Dhirar, Mosul is shielded a lot better against extremism and foolish propaganda than it was before. I am not saying Mosul will not be attacked again. We have been attacked for millennia. But at least we are better prepared.

To ward off dangerous fools, brains and education are at least as important as weapons. In that sense, we have moved forward. But we’re not there yet. Mosul today, as a city, is still full of fear and suspicion, because of the trauma, the pain and the grief people have experienced. International investors are still staying far away from Mosul. But, with some support from outside, like from Cordaid, we, Maslawis, are changing and are progressively changing the city from within. Mosul is brimming with talented young people. Smart people, with dreams and hopes, ready to move on. Any support to help them realise their potential has a fly-wheel effect and changes lives.

“Our trauma has united us”

When I walk around in my city today, I feel happy, confident, even safe. The dark chapters are behind us. They will not come back, not as dark. Many things have changed for the better. We have all suffered too much, and we have all learned the hard way not to be tricked by people, media, governments and countries with bad, divide-and-rule intentions. Our collective trauma has united us and made us stronger, and more aware than ever. At least most of us. Some people will continue to see or invent enemies until they die. But we can outsmart them, simply by believing in ourselves. We’re still these squirrels collecting food for bad winters, but we’re more open-minded. Trust is the key. Long live the people of Mosul, long live the future.”

Text and images: Frank van Lierde / Cordaid