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Why work with the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI)?

Sanctuary is synonymous with the KRI.

What the Kurds of Iraq owe to UK and the West for the policy of ‘Safe Haven’ which saved probably hundred of thousands of lives from Saddam Hussein’s vengeance in 1991 they have paid back many times over by generous hosting of some two million refugees who fled Syria and ISIS in nearby Mosul.

Receiving and offering sanctuary or ‘Safe Haven’ is core to KRI; it is integral to its recent history and proudly part of its public narrative. There has been much to flee from KRI for many Kurds over the past decades: conflict, mass killing and oppression by Saddam Hussein’s regime. Migration and displacement a regular reality over decades with all the trauma that entails.

And for those living in surrounding area many reasons to flee into Iraqi Kurdistan: ISIS, violence in southern Iraq and the Syrian tragedy.

The KRI has been a reliable sanctuary for refugees and IDPs at extraordinary cost – at the height of the ISIS and Syrian crises some two million people fled to KRI; the host population is something around five million. This at a time of existential fight for the Kurds against ISIS and a crash in the oil price – their main source of revenue. The international humanitarian community stepped up to some degree but much of the burden fell on the KR Government and society.

Looking back, the British Government’s decision to step in and protect Kurdish civilians from Saddam Hussein’s brutal vengeance was an extraordinary and ground-breaking decision in terms of global policy. Thousands upon thousands of Iraqi Kurds were able to come down from makeshift refuges in the high mountains and benefitted from the sanctuary provided by the RAF and US air force and that beneficence has been passed on to hundreds of thousands of Yazidis, other Iraqis and Syrians.

There has been a financial burden to that but what of the emotional scars for both Kurds who have suffered trauma and those who have sought refuge among the Kurds?

The Yazidi crisis marked a flection point for the humanitarian community. ISIS’s rape and torture of women and young girls meant that the victims needs were as much psychological as physical. The standard UN and NGO response of food and shelter was for the Yazidis necessary but not sufficient. Many NGOs struggled to find Kurds, who had the right language skills, with the right experience, training and expertise to address the deep trauma that many of the Yazidis were suffering from and continue to suffer from to this day.

That is because psychotherapeutic techniques are in their infancy in KRI. There was no qualified wellspring of expertise to draw upon from the host community – itself bereft of talking cures.

This despite the Kurds in Iraq suffering historically from physical and psychological trauma. Western societies have only recently begun to make significant progress in matching mental health means to needs and addressing the stigma that holds back many from reaching out. In KRI, the demands on the emerging governmental structures have been many and the region’s coffers variable and as such mental health services have not been the priority they perhaps should have been, as in much of the Middle East.

Many Kurds suffering from trauma and depression will have sought comfort in their families or religion. There are around two dozen over-worked psychiatrists but a paucity of therapeutic offers and lack of integration of mental health into the diagnostic process.

In most donor societies there is growing understanding, backed by WHO and health researchers, that there is no health without mental health. But that realisation and the expectation of increased mental health provision in the West has yet to be fully transferred to how the donor community sees its role in humanitarian and developmental situations around the world.

Many NGOs and the UN operate out of Erbil, the safest, close by and conveniently accessible. Many NGOs pre-position humanitarian supplies – tents, blankets, etc. – in Erbil for obvious reasons. Is it not time for those who understand the link between health and mental health, who understand that the more a society deploys a full range of therapeutic services to those who suffer trauma the more resilient it will become and who understand that the wider region is unlikely to be free of violence any time soon – in part because of the trauma that thousands have suffered – to pre-position mental health services in safe havens, like KRI?

What can be done?

UK Universities with a commitment to sanctuary, research, teaching and service, would be well-placed to establish a landmark centre in partnership with KRI to:

· Create through teaching a new cadre of talking cure therapists to address the psychological needs of Iraqi Kurds and those in the neighbourhood

· Research the interlink between trauma, conflict and violence within society, particularly against women and how to address that

· Advocate for change within a broadly receptive government and society

· Deepen the wellspring of resilience for those seek and benefit from sanctuary

Partnership options

KRI is an open, tolerant society with traditional values to be sure but a strong, western-leaning outlook buoyed by a committed diaspora in the UK and elsewhere. The KRG itself tends to be warmly favourable towards collaboration with UK and western universities.

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