38. Amy

Amy and I spent a year working together in the Big Green Building (aka- the Oxfam Australia office). Within a week of her arrival, we whisked Amy away for a gals  weekend in the Yarra Valley and within another week she was subletting a room in my share house. Over the next 12 months our friendship was cemented with countless after-workies, brunches, games nights and dinner parties. Four years on, I was lucky enough to spend another summer in Melbourne with Amy and more recently, a weekend exploring the LA tourist trail. Despite her constant exposure to humanitarian and natural disaster, Amy, is one of the most upbeat and easy going people I have the privilege of calling a close friend. I’m so grateful that she was open to sharing her personal and professional journey over a Melbourne brunch. I am in complete awe of this incredible woman!

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I didn’t have a very clear path when I finished school. I deferred from journalism, worked in retail, went traveling and eventually decided I wanted to get into fashion.

At the London College of Fashion I discovered a love of photography, but I grew to dislike the fashion industry. So, I tried my luck with event photography and wedding photography, wrote a dissertation on how war photography feeds our perception of war, and wound up applying for an internship at Oxfam.

I remember walking into the Oxfam office for the first time. Everyone was so relaxed and welcoming, and there were big photos all over the walls. I immediately loved it! I was offered the internship and that was that – I stayed there for 10 years!

In the beginning I worked on the picture desk – sorting images, dealing with the archive, managing image requests from other teams, and providing general photography support to Fundraising, Media and Campaigns.

Following my internship, I was working on campaigns and projects and traveling a lot. My first deployment came following severe floods in Pakistan. I’d travelled a lot growing up, but my time in rural Pakistan was so different to anything I’d experienced. I was still quite young and I had never worked in such difficult conditions, but I couldn’t wait to get back out in the field after that first trip.

Then the Syria Crisis took me to Lebanon and Jordan and it fast became my ambition to be based in the Middle East.

While doing a maternity leave cover in the Oxfam Australia office, I travelled to Vanuatu for a cyclone response and met the Humanitarian Director for Oxfam America who later encouraged me to go to Iraq. At the time, I didn’t even realise Oxfam worked in Iraq, but I earmarked it as a potential trip for that year.

Our fundraising and campaigns teams weren’t keen as they considered Iraq too controversial- assuming we wouldn’t garner support for an issue so political. But I managed to convince them and ended up traveling to Iraq for three and a half weeks. I was blown away. There was so much to see and so much to learn. Every single person you meet in Iraq has an interesting story. Everyone has fled a conflict and been displaced. We ended up moving from one place to the next, trying to cover a story a day but feeling quite overwhelmed with the sheer volume.

Supporters responded so well to the stories that I was asked to return to Iraq and ended up staying for three years. It was the opportunity I’d been waiting for!

It’s hard for people to understand how ISIS garnered so much support in Iraq but in poor areas, they were filling the gaps left unfilled by other service providers. They promised job security, electricity and a way of life that resonated with conservative families.

In many of the areas I visited, people told me that before ISIS control,  their villages had been controlled by militias. For a time they thought ISIS brought them the stability they had longed for. They no longer had to fear kidnappings or attacks from opposing militia groups.

But gradually, ISIS imposed more rules – women had to cover their faces, mobile phones and TVs were confiscated – people’s freedoms were slowly removed. At their strongest point, ISIS had control of 40% of Iraq, including the second largest city, Mosul, which acts as a corridor for getting goods in and out of the country.

The Iraqi government knew that there would be a big fight to reclaim Mosul. The government and NGO sector needed to prepare for up to one million people being displaced. Planning for different scenarios and having staff, equipment and materials ready to go was key. Camps were set up so that as armies moved across the country and neighbourhoods were cleared, civilians could come to the front line. Once these neighbourhoods were retaken, people were vetted and able to return home.

Oxfam was working both in the camps and in the retaken communities, ensuring people could return home quickly by repairing water systems, building livelihoods, restoring local markets, giving out loans and generally repairing much of the damage caused by ISIS. Some towns and villages had been almost completely demolished.

We were basically getting towns back up and running so people had a life to return to. This sort of holistic post conflict programming was something I’d never seen in all my years of traveling. It was impressive.

I’ll never forget my first day at a camp. Army vehicles started arriving and when the doors opened hundreds of people came flooding out. The women, who had been forced to cover their faces, eyes and hands by ISIS were tossing their niqabs until the fences at the entrance to the camp were covered in black material.

Other people were literally collapsing with happiness at the sight of family members they hadn’t seen or spoken to in years. People waited at the gates all day hoping to see a familiar face in the crowds scrambling from the army trucks.  

I spent the latter half of 2016 working in these camps and also in an area called Qayyarah, which was one of the first towns to be retaken in the Mosul offensive. In Qayyarah, ISIS had set fire to tens of oil wells causing apocalyptic like destruction. Oil gushed out of the wells for months, sending plumes of black smoke in the air over a 20km radius.

I can remember standing on the roof of a family’s house and catching pellets of tar in my hands as they rained down like hailstones. It was surreal. Near to the well heads it was permanently dark, even on sunny days. Everyone we met complained of ill health and the few doctors that were servicing the area were despairing. One old man I came to know died of carbon monoxide poisoning from the smoke inhalation.

My role was to develop content to raise awareness of these issues and to put pressure on the Iraqi government to do more to put the fires out.

There were risks involved in the work we were doing but we had strict security guidelines and processes in place to mitigate them. For me, the importance of Oxfam’s work outweighed the risk but of course, sometimes it was difficult. The trauma centres on the front line were often filled with people who had been badly injured. And I had friends – journalists working on the front line and embedded with the army –  that were badly hurt.

There’s nothing you can do to prepare yourself for this sort of work but we built a community of friends and supported each other. We worked long days for a long time but, as cheesy as it sounds, the reward is seeing the impact the work has on people. For some, just seeing us there trying to make things better gave them hope after years of a brutal regime and months of fighting.

I always naively thought that when a country is at war, the entire country is in a state of flux. But, Iraq taught me that life goes on. In Mosul, when the west was still under ISIS control, the east was coming back to life – people were painting their houses, shops were reopening, the community was rebuilding and all a couple of miles away from ISIS control. I remember standing on the roof of a family’s house in east Mosul watching as bombs dropped on the west. They had managed to go home but just across the river people were still living through hell.  Similarly, my team and I would spend all day on the front line and then retreat to the safety and peace of Erbil where we could go out for coffee or dinner and live a relatively “normal” life.

Iraq wasn’t at all what I’d expected. The war is all we tend to hear about in the West. We don’t hear about Iraq’s beautiful mountains, the villages out in the countryside, the temples, the history of the country, the delicious food, the incredible dancing and the amazing traditions. I loved every minute that I got to spend with my Iraqi friends, enjoying their culture. It’s such a shame that all we see on TV is a warzone.

When I left Iraq a few months ago, I left my job, my friends and my community. The intensity of the work, the environment and relationships made leaving it all at once even more of a wrench. I grew up a lot during my time there. I learnt a lot about people and a lot about what’s important.

Next week I’m moving to New York to work as an editor and content producer in UNICEF’s social media team. In the long term, it’s always been a dream of mine to set up an all female production company that focuses on providing communication support to NGOs working in the Middle East.

As for Iraq – the government and NGO sector need to determine how to move forward in a positive way ensuring reconciliation and reintegration are a priority so that Iraq can recover and this crisis isn’t protracted.

My hope is that people can move forward and build a stronger Iraq for the future.”

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