The AMAR Foundation

The AMAR Foundation is an award-winning charity working in the Middle East, helping vulnerable communities to rebuild their lives when faced by conflict.

The Iraqi Children Foundation

The Iraqi Children Foundation intervenes with love and hope in the lives of children who are vulnerable to abuse, neglect and exploitation.

The Arab American National Museum

The Arab American National Museum opened in 2005 and is the first museum in the world devoted to Arab American history and culture.

The Wolf of Baghdad

In the 1940s a third of Baghdad’s population was Jewish. Within a decade nearly all 150,000 had been expelled, killed or had escaped.

Combat Stress

For over a century Combat Stress have been helping former servicemen and women deal with issues like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety and depression.

Sailing Baghdad's river bends, young Iraqis rock the boat

Mariam Khaled squinted her eyes, drew in her sail against the wind and set her white dinghy towards a point on the riverbank: Adhamiya, to be precise, in central Baghdad. 

With the orange sunset saturating the sky, a cluster of mostly teenage sailors, windsurfers and jet-skiers were making waves along the river Tigris. 

"It's a difficult sport that requires a lot of effort, and plenty of patience and perseverance," 16-year-old Khaled, a former junior swimming champion, told AFP. 

"But I want to show everyone that we, Iraqi women, can succeed," she added, after pulling her dinghy up the muddy bank. 

The water sports are also revolutionising how Iraqis interact with the historic Tigris and Euphrates, which gave the country its byname of the "land between the two rivers" millennia ago. 

Water levels in the twin rivers have dropped by half because of dams upstream in neighbouring Turkey and Iran. 

One year in Baghdad, the levels drew so low that residents could squelch between the banks of the Tigris on foot. 

Following the US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003, Adhamiya became the heart of a Sunni insurrection and one of the most dangerous places in Baghdad. 

The dark years of Iraq's sectarian fighting from 2006 until 2008 pitted it against the Shiite district of Kadhimiya, just across the Tigris. 

The remains of victims who were thrown into the river back then still sometimes wash ashore -- but today, Baghdad's river bends see much more life than death. 

- 'Place of leisure' - 

Along the waterfront, restaurants and small funfairs are teeming with families who gaze out at the young athletes.  

"It's now a place of leisure and relaxation," said Ghazi al-Shayaa, a sports journalist. 

"It's a joy to see Baghdadis gathering here nearly every day to watch the swimmers or the boats go by," he said. 

The latest major round of violence in Iraq ended in 2017, when the government declared victory in its years-long fight against the Islamic State jihadist group. 

The next year, Ahmad Mazlum came up with a crazy idea: setting up Iraq's first water sports federation. 

Its riverside headquarters in Adhamiya is identifiable by the rows of white dinghies and bright windsurfing sails. Half of the 10 dinghies are Iraqi-made, at around $600 each. 

"An (imported) sailboat can cost $10,000. So we had to build our own in a workshop we set up with the club members," said Mazlum, the federation's deputy head. 

The around 100 mostly teenage members -- eight of them girls -- wear matching fluorescent athletics clothes, as bathing suits would likely contravene Iraq's widely conservative norms. 

Boys and girls train together under Anmar Salman, a regional rowing champion who was recruited from fellow rowers and Iraqi swimmers to launch the sailing club. 

- 'For the joy of it' - 

Aboard a motorised boat one late afternoon, he advised the young sailors on how to tack and deal with wind conditions. 

"Turn now!" called out the instructor with the neatly-trimmed beard. 

The stretch of river where they practise has surprisingly robust winds of up to 15 knots, likely because the buildings on either side create a tunnel. 

Salman is planning to take his young trainees to qualifiers next year in Abu Dhabi for the Tokyo Olympics. 

But since they can only train up and down the river, they may not have the same versatility as sea sailors. The team also suffers from a lack of funding, Salman said. 

"The problem is that athletic institutions in the country aren't interested in sailing -- but the Olympic Committee has backed us with some meagre means," he told AFP. 

Still, the federation is proud to nurture a culture of sailing in Iraq, where navigating the Tigris and Euphrates has been done for several millennia -- but usually on circular "quffa" rowboats. 

For the youth in Adhamiya, the spirit of camaraderie and discovery seems to be enough, Salman said. "Luckily, our athletes adore the sport and like to train for the joy of doing it." 

AFP

A Yazidi woman searches for her daughter, kidnapped by ISIS

At an orphanage in Mosul, Iraq, the woman and the girl sitting on the long, gray sofa communicate mostly through touch — the girl leans against the woman, playing with her blue bead bracelet. The woman smiles as she removes the bracelet and puts it on the child’s own slender wrist. 

There isn’t a lot of conversation between Kamo Zandinan, 40, and the 10-year-old girl she believes is her lost daughter. The girl, believed to have been kidnapped by ISIS when she was four, was raised by an Arab family. Zandinan, who is Yazidi, speaks only rudimentary Arabic — learned when she was forced to live among ISIS fighters who enslaved her in Syria six years ago. 

Zandinan is sure that the girl, found in Mosul in March, is her daughter Sonya. The girl, until now, has only known herself as an Arab named Noor. A DNA test will confirm whether there’s a match. 

“God willing, we will get the results soon and you will have the best daughter,” orphanage director Amal Zaki Abdullah tells Zandinan. She assures her that the girl is quiet and well-behaved. “Reunions make us very happy,” she says. “God only knows what misery and sadness they have been through.” 

Abdullah urges the girl to tell Zandinan about her art classes. In a soft voice, she reports she has drawn “flowers, a panda and a house.” 

So far, this orphanage, currently home to 21 children, has reunited three other Yazidi children kidnapped by ISIS with their families. It posts photos of the children on Facebook and on local television, and follows up with DNA tests for possible relatives who come forward. 

Zandinan examines the girl’s arm, looking for a small scar from a minor injury from a time when her family was intact before ISIS entered their Sinjar region of northern Iraq. In the summer of 2014, she was a mother of six with a seventh on the way. Her husband Khalil was an Iraqi soldier. 

ISIS roared into Iraq and Syria that August, slaughtering almost everyone who opposed it. They declared members of the ancient Yazidi religious minority infidels and embarked on a campaign of genocide. ISIS killed Yazidi men, enslaved women and kidnapped children, seeking to erase their Yazidi identity. 

Several thousand Yazidis were believed to have been killed and more than 6,000 women and children were captured after Kurdish forces in charge of security withdrew. To this day, almost 3,000 Yazidis remain missing. 

Zandinan’s husband and eldest son were taken away; she believes they were shot. ISIS fighters also took two of her daughters — Suzan, 13, and Sonya, 4 — ripping the younger girl screaming from her arms. 

Zandinan and her four remaining children, then ranging in age from 3 years old to teenagers, were resettled in Canada as refugees three years ago. There, in March, she saw a Facebook photo sent by relatives, showing a girl found by Iraqi police in Mosul, rescued from an Arab family. Police have occasionally found Yazidi children as they look for ISIS fighters. 

This child had Zandinan’s distinctive nose and the scar that her mother says she recognized. 

A Canadian refugee resettlement organization agreed to pay for her ticket to return to Iraq. After pandemic restrictions eased in October, Zandinan flew to Baghdad with her two youngest children — six- and eight-year-old boys — for DNA tests to help determine whether the girl in the photo was hers. 

Two weeks after they arrived, the family gave more blood samples to try to identify Zandinan’s husband and eldest son Sufian from the remains exhumed from mass graves in Sinjar, filled with ISIS victims. 

Her young sons, who now speak English better than their native language, don’t remember their father or eldest sibling. To them, Iraq is just the country they come from. Like many Yazidi girls from poor families, Zandinan never went to school. Her first classes of any kind were the English lessons she took after she arrived in Canada. 

The prospect of having her daughter back — she has no doubt of it — fills her with joy. But returning to Iraq has been difficult. “Hard, hard, hard,” she says in her rudimentary English when asked what it was like to see her empty house and deserted village for the first time since ISIS overran it. 

Zandinan says in 2014, the family twice made it to safety on Sinjar Mountain, where hundreds of Yazidis escaped ISIS. The first time, they received a warning from ISIS that if they didn’t return to their village, the fighters would kill all the young men still left there. 

The second time, a trusted Arab friend persuaded the family to go back to their village and stay. “He betrayed us,” she says in Kurmanji, which is spoken by Yazidis in Sinjar. “He told us, ‘Don’t go, I will help you and bring you food and I won’t let anyone touch us.’ So we returned and ISIS took us — we were more than 10 families.” 

A few weeks after she and her family were captured and taken to the Iraqi city of Tel Afar, Zandinan gave birth in the house they were held in. Then, at gunpoint, ISIS took away her husband and eldest son. “We knew they would separate us,” she says. “The only thing we wanted is to finish another day together — we never knew when it was going to happen.” 

That was the day she lost Sonya too. “The same day they took my husband and son, they gathered all of us in the yard,” she says. “They were going to kill all of us, but they sold some of us instead.” Zandinan says her daughter Suzan, taken from her a few days later, was known for being unusually pretty, with delicate features and a heart-shaped face. 

“I told them she is sick, but they tore her clothes in front of me,” says Zandinan. “It was so difficult to see her in that situation … We were holding onto each other but they beat me with a stick and she fell on the ground and I couldn’t do anything.” 

“Suzan was crying and screaming, saying, ‘Mother, don’t leave me!'” Zandinan recalls, tears running down her face. 

ISIS took Zandinan and her remaining children to the Syrian city of Raqqa, where she was bought and sold by a succession of ISIS fighters, including a Syrian and a Western fighter. She says some of the fighters beat the children. She tried to escape three times before relatives in Iraq managed to borrow money to pay smugglers to rescue her. 

ISIS was defeated in Mosul, the capital of its self-declared caliphate, in a 2017 battle that flattened entire sections of the city. Iraqi forces are now firmly in charge, but most Yazidis are still afraid to go back. 

Making the four-hour trip to the orphanage from a camp for displaced Yazidis where Zandinan stays depends on getting a ride or borrowing money for transportation. Her journey to Iraq this year has meant not only navigating the city where so many Yazidis were enslaved and suffered, but also trying to navigate the court system. 

On the October day when she visited the Mosul orphanage, Zandinan also went to court to give power of attorney to her cousin, a shepherd, in case she had to return to Canada to care for her other children. The judge — seemingly unaware of what had happened to thousands of Yazidi women under ISIS — asked her why she spoke Arabic with a Syrian accent. 

Three years after ISIS was defeated, thousands of Yazidi women and children remain missing. Some, enslaved and held by ISIS fighters, are believed to have been killed in battles across northern Iraq and Syria. But hundreds of others are thought to be living still with the families of ISIS members. 

The younger children among them have forgotten they are Yazidi, if they ever knew it at all. There is no systematic effort by Iraqi authorities to screen children in camps housing displaced families who include ISIS members’ relatives. 

Zandinan believes Suzan is still alive — living with an ISIS family like Sonya was, perhaps even still in Mosul. “If there was serious help, I could find her,” she says. “I don’t know where she is, but my heart tells me she never left Iraq.” 

by Jane Arraf

Iraq's calm fight for cultural heritage

In the shadow of breaking news, the issue, and sometimes controversy, of cultural heritage remains. The National recently published an article about Unesco launching a competition to rebuild Mosul’s Al Nouri mosque, which was destroyed by ISIS in 2017. A global competition, notwithstanding its Iraqi subject, reminds us of our common responsibility to preserve heritage. 

It also represents Iraq wresting back control from extremists of that which it rightfully owns. At home and abroad, Iraq has recently scored a number of wins for its cultural heritage. This includes both the return of artefacts, in tandem with the development of local knowledge to protect, preserve and restore some of the world’s oldest and most precious treasures. 

Examples of such successes include last month’s announcement by Britain to return 5,000 Iraqi artefacts by next year. It will be the largest repatriation of Iraqi antiquities in history. This was not brought about by cantankerous politics, often a feature of debates around the ownership of cultural heritage. The transfer of these pieces is instead a vindication of a more collaborative and diplomatic approach. 

And it is paying off. In another instance, the Iraq Museum in Baghdad and the Slemani Museum in Kurdistan, with help from the UK Cultural Protection Fund and other international backers, have recorded and marked with SmartWater – an anti-criminal tracking technology – 270,000 objects in just one year. 

Across the world, institutions and centres of expertise are acknowledging this shifting approach to preserving our heritage, which focuses more on empowering local groups in home countries. This is correctly replacing the older preference for so-called rescuing of artefacts from their lands of origin. In emergencies this is justified, but it has throughout the ages become an excuse for hoarding. 

One such programme that recognises this shift is the Nahrein Network. Based out of University College London and Oxford University, as well as ones in Kurdistan and Al Diwaniyah, the organisation aims to provide jobs for locals in the cultural heritage sector, tackling their historic exclusion. 

Current progress in Iraq, therefore, makes a strong case for global cooperation in the fight for our history. 

We also need to embrace rational debate when approaching the issue, as there will always be a fragile balance to strike between restoring our World Heritage Sites, powerful in their completeness of structures, artefacts, location and landscape, against the need to preserve global museums, where visitors can experience in one place objects from all over the globe, spanning pre-history to modernity. 

We cannot do this by descending into nationalist political point scoring. The only basis of our discussion should be the wellbeing of our heritage. We owe it to our ancestors, who not only furnish our lives with beauty, but our very progress as a species. In the case of the Mesopotamia, now in present-day Iraq, this incudes breakthroughs in writing, farming, law and astronomy. 

Access to a country’s heritage is an essential part of maintaining a common identity, particularly in nations recovering from violent trauma. It is no coincidence that groups such as ISIS, who wish only to impose their extreme and violent view of the world, revel in the destruction of that which will always outlast them: the beauty of our shared history and heritage.

Nightmare over but Iraqi Christians still dream of leaving

The bells of St Joseph’s Chaldean Cathedral echo across Baghdad, signalling the start of Mass for the dwindling congregation that has stayed in the scarred Iraqi capital against all odds. 

“This is a safe space,” says Mariam, a 17-year-old Chaldean Catholic among the few dozen attending the service. 

Elderly women pray solemnly, their hair covered in delicate black veils. Red ropes block off every other row to enforce social distancing in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, but there aren’t enough worshippers to fill the church in any case. 

A few hundred thousand Christians are left in Iraq, where a US-led invasion in 2003 paved the way for bloody sectarian warfare that devastated the country’s historic and diverse Christian communities. 

Like Mariam, the 53-year-old deacon of St Joseph’s Cathedral preferred to identify himself only by his first name, Nael. “My father, mother and siblings emigrated after 2003. I’m the only one left in Iraq, and I stayed because I was hoping the situation would get better,” he said. 

But after 35 years serving at St Joseph’s and watching the parish shrink year by year, Nael has little hope. “It used to be full even on regular weekdays,” he recalled. “But there’s been a drop in numbers and ongoing emigration in the last three or four years, especially from this parish,” he lamented. 

Blast walls, rusted locks 

As hardliners fought each other starting in 2006, Iraq’s ancient Christian communities — Assyrian, Armenian, Chaldean, Protestant and more — were directly targeted. 

One of the most horrific attacks was in 2010, when gunmen took hostage and eventually killed dozens of Christians at the Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad. 

Then in 2014, the Islamic State group swept across Nineveh province, the heartland of Iraq’s minorities.  
Christians — but also the esoteric Yazidis, Shiite Turkmen and other communities — streamed out of their homes as the militants closed in, or were forced to convert under their rule. 

There are no reliable statistics on the number of Christians who fled Iraq during these consecutive waves of bloodshed. 

According to William Warda, co-founder of the Hammurabi Human Rights Organisation, Christians left in Iraq number up to 400,000, down from 1.5 million in 2003. 

Their absence is stark. 

Churches across Baghdad have shuttered, including the Holy Trinity Church in the Baladiyat district, closed to regular services for four years. 

At the Armenian Catholic Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, a terracotta structure in the Karrada area, a rusted lock has barred entry since 2007. 

The churches that have remained open are surrounded by a labyrinth of concrete blast walls and security forces. 

The southern Baghdad district of Dora was once home to a thriving community of 150,000 Christians, including doctors, businessmen and cafe owners, Warda said. Now, “there are only 1,000 left,” he told AFP. 

‘I have no home in Iraq’ 

Iraq declared Daesh defeated three years ago, but “threats, kidnappings, extortion and deaths still persist”, said Yonadam Kanna, a leading Christian politician. 

While Iraq’s constitution ostensibly affords the same level of protection to all communities, Chaldean Patriarch Louis Sako said de facto prejudice was locking Christians out of society. 

“There’s no direct pressure on Christians today, but there’s day-to-day discrimination. If you’re Christian, there’s no place for you in state institutions,” the head of the Chaldean Catholic Church said. 

“It’s caused by corruption and it leads to emigration.” That has eroded the feeling of belonging, some told AFP. 

“There’s a sense among Christians that the country is becoming more conservative, and that Christians — or even secular Muslims — can no longer live in it,” Warda said. 

Ninos, a beautician looking to emigrate, agreed. “Sometimes, I can see myself here. But most of the time, I find I have no home in Iraq,” the 25-year-old said. 

“The situation isn’t compatible with my work, the way I think or how I aspire to develop myself.” 

For others, it is a matter of livelihoods. Iraq has been hit hard by the twin shocks of an oil price collapse and the novel coronavirus pandemic, leading to the worst fiscal crisis the country has seen in decades. 

That has pushed Mariam to consider greener pastures outside her beloved homeland. “Honestly, everybody wants to stay in their own country,” she told AFP. 

“I dream of travelling, but I dream at the same time that my country could provide me everything that others have, so I could stay here.” 

AFP

Embracing my Middle Eastern ethnicity

Syrian immigrants on Hudson Street, Boston 1909. Lace work was a common occupation among Syrian women.
I have always felt a lot of unspoken pressure to be on my best behavior. I grew up speaking Arabic and English, and my family was, and often still is, the first Arab family that most people have ever met or interacted with in my small town of Denver, NC, located 20 miles north of Charlotte. 

My family originates from the Middle East, specifically the Levant areas of Lebanon and Palestine. When I chose to attend Davidson College, I knew that I would still be close to home, but I was excited to attend a liberal arts college and meet people from across the country and the world. I remember being very nervous prior to orientation. 

I was named after my grandmother, and I have an Arabic name that confuses people, so I struggle with introducing myself. I was also anxious about explaining my ethnicity to others, which is usually the follow-up question I receive after I’ve introduced myself. However, I was pleasantly surprised by how open-minded students at Davidson were, and the effort that people put into saying my name correctly. 

Throughout my life, I have often been met with microaggressions from students and teachers regarding my origin. A lot of people will remark that I don’t “look Arabic” because I have a lighter complexion. This comment always perplexes me because Arabs are one of the most diverse groups of people in the world. 

Our skin tones range from dark olive to porcelain white, and you will see every hair and eye color in the Middle East. I also get questions about my religion. I, along with the rest of my family, are practicing Roman Catholics. However, because people associate the word “Arab” with “Muslim” or use them interchangeably, I have been asked in the past when I “converted” to Christianity. When I get comments like this, I explain that Christians, Jews, and Muslims have always lived in the Middle East, and make up the Arab world. 

Because of how the U.S. misrepresents Arabs in films, the news, and other forms of media, I had an identity crisis growing up. I often felt like I was trapped between two worlds. In school, I would try and fit in: I asked my mother to stop packing me Arabic food after kids complained that it smelled and looked weird, and I would hide the fact that I spoke a different language. 

I stopped responding to my parents in Arabic and started calling them “Mom” and “Dad” because calling them “Mama” and “Baba” was “embarrassing.” However, doing this hurt me. I wasn’t being true to myself, and when I was around other Arabs and my extended family, I felt guilty for pushing away my culture and heritage. 

Now, thanks to my parents, accepting friends, and other Arab Americans at Davidson, I feel at peace in my own skin, and I can’t wait to share Middle Eastern and North African customs, foods, and traditions with students at Davidson through MENASA. There are so many misconceptions and untold stories about Arab Americans, and I want to help break down barriers and introduce people to cultures they may not have experienced or understood before. 

by Nahi Nadra

Youth activists in Iraq are waging a 'green revolution' to counteract climate change

'Yalla Nazraa' is Arabic for 'let's plant', and the motto behind a coalition of volunteers and horticulturalists steering positive environmental activism to counteract climate change. 

The youth-led initiative 'Green Iraq' is planting thousands of wildlings and sowing seeds, accelerating a local tree renaissance from Zakho to Basra. 

Decades of war have crippled agricultural capacity, and the sector's recovery remains inhibited by poor-governance and environmental stressors exacerbated by climate change. 

In mid-September, Baghdad partnered with the United Nations (UN), launching Iraq's National Adaptation Plan (NAP) for building climate resilience and investing in modern infrastructure. 

The NAP is undoubtedly an important stride, but green-thumbed volunteers and activists are quietly ahead, waging their own green revolution, and promising to transform sprawling cities and deserts green again. 

"Sustainable change requires sustainable funding," Green Iraq (GI) coordinator Taha al-Kubaisy said, lamenting its absence and the lack of political will to address looming risks, from water scarcity to creeping desertification. 

Kubaisy painted a picture of largely localised "community-funded" schemes, run exclusively by volunteers that met online. 

"GI consists of 14 teams, each ranging from 12 to 22 members. Their projects are determined by the topography and planting possibilities in their respective locality," Kubaisy explained. Teams are stationed across various governorates; Baghdad, Basra, Mosul, Kirkuk, Diyala, Nasriyah, Wasit, and the Iraqi Marshes, among others. 

By transplanting seedlings and reinvigorating residential spaces with shrubs, GI's tree-planting spree hopes to absorb excess carbon dioxide and harmful greenhouse gasses, and act as a buffer against sandstorms whose frequency and tempo has almost doubled in the past fifteen years. 

Kubaisy reserved praise for two teams, the "Husseiniya team" in Karbala, and "Al-Adhamiya team" in Baghdad, crediting them for planting the most trees". 

These horticulturalist activities are intended to lower heat stress in sprawling cities, revitalise green spaces and restore disused riverfront promenades to their former glory. Tree-planting in Karbala has gained particular traction. The Husseiniya team, Kubaisy said, "are planting anywhere between 100 and 200 trees daily. Overall, they've planted 10,000 trees." 

More important than GI's growing tally of planted trees, however, is community outreach, as the organisation's underlying philosophy, teaching people to enact the change they want to see. 

Digital platforms have been instrumental in that, allowing GI to challenge environmental apathy, while raising awareness to the way elaborate mall construction, foreign imports, and garbage dumping harm the environment. 

Anonymised online platforms, like the one GI runs, empower green activists to report incidents of vandalism and equipment theft when they occur. GI's position of expertise has also emboldened locals to seek help, the most obscure was a request to relocate elderly trees that had outgrown the courtyard where they were planted decades ago. 

Critique is also balanced with educational social media posts, underlining climate change risks in rural farming-dependent areas and the Iraqi wetlands. Other posts are intended to promote horticultural activity and local food production, particularly date farming. 

GI's Anbar team launched an ambitious tree-planting campaign at the start of October 2 in the border town of Al-Qaim near the Syrian border, planting 11,000 trees, in a bid to combat desertification. 

In an area as prone to desertification as Anbar is, soaring temperatures, groundwater depletion, and prolonged drought (2007 -2009) continue to exacerbate land degradation, faster than the local community's ability to adapt. 

The UN currently estimates that as much as 31 percent of Iraq's surface is desert land. Earlier this year, the UN Environmental Programme ranked Iraq the fifth most vulnerable country worldwide, owing to the rapid depletion of water and food stock. 

These combined risks have also inspired important collaborations between GI and an Anbar-based Iraqi charity, Wasel Tasel, delivering humanitarian assistance programmes to war-affected families. Their projects are turning deserts green, through eco-sustainable solutions, primarily land-reclamation practices. 

Between May and Aug 2020, Wasel Tasel was able to reclaim seven and a half acres of land for agricultural use, the fruits of which will sustain fifteen families whose lives and livelihoods were upended following the Islamic State's conquest of northwestern Iraq. 

Wasel Tasel also works closely with local farmers that lost family members to counterinsurgency operations by hosting training workshops dedicated to sustainable farming and harvesting techniques. 

Despite falling short of its agricultural potential, local agricultural knowledge, in a country known as the birthplace of some of the world's earliest agricultural practices, remains reputably rich, despite lamentably outdated practices such as drip irrigation, which GI relies on. 

But as Kubaisy assures, gardening, as a pastime, remains highly popular, adding that "GI's planting initiatives have in fact stimulated healthy competition among communities. 

"Our endeavour is inherently collective, and requires the participation of every household to succeed" he said. "Our projects have been generally well received," Kubaisy said, sharing stories of when locals have pounced at the opportunity to help; donating tools, volunteering to water trees, and raising funds. 

"Still," Kubaisy says, "the uptick in environmental activism has not been without risks". He recounted three separate occasions in which the Baghdad team was harassed by unknown assailants, who, despite lacking official status, ruled that planting in public spaces was illegal. Teams also commonly encounter scornful restaurateurs and shop owners complaining; "you'll be attracting the drunkards in no time". 

Conversely, GI's vision has been understood by some municipalities, whose officials have granted planting permission willingly, and contributed additional public sector workers to support large-scale planting projects. In some instances, Iraqi Security Forces have also assisted with tree-planting schemes, Kubaisy said, careful to point out that GI receives no government support. 

Other municipalities are more suspicious, Kubaisy noted, "and have tried to deter us by declaring it illegal to plant in certain public spaces". 

"Political parties have also been in contact, promising media coverage and funds in exchange of tree-planting operations undertaken in their party's name. We of course refused," Kubaisy said. 

Lack of official support and recognition has done little to blunt this generation's fervour and commitment to change. Tree planting campaigns offer no lasting panacea to Iraq's long litany of environmental woes, particularly mercilessly hot summers. 

But initiatives like these have done more than any of Iraq's post-2003 administrations to restore a sense of pride to Iraqi communities, empowering Iraq's youth to reclaim urban spaces that armed conflict, neoliberal policies and plain negligence have decimated. 

by Nazli Tarzi

Inside the national gallery of stolen art

Shortly after midnight on March 18th, 1990, security guard Rick Abath allowed two men dressed as police officers to enter the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. This decision may have been “the most costly mistake in art history,” according to The Boston Globe. The men stole 13 artworks worth more than $500 million and left Abath handcuffed in the basement. 

The mystery of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist has never been solved. Today, the pilfered works are part of the National Stolen Art File, a database of looted treasures curated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. 

The 23 agents in charge of this effort are part of the FBI’s art crime team. Created in 2004, the team’s mandate is to track down and return stolen art. Its origins date back to the US invasion of Iraq when 15,000 artifacts were looted from the National Museum in Baghdad

Special Agent Tim Carpenter, who heads up the art crime team’s efforts, says, to him, arresting the bad guys is secondary. “Our primary focus is the safe recovery of the artwork,” he explains. If criminals know the FBI is closing in, they might try to destroy the evidence, which in his case can mean works of art. “That’s happened,” he says. “They’re afraid or they’re about to get caught, and they’ll destroy the evidence, and they burn a $10 million original painting. Obviously, that’s a nightmare scenario.” 

Carpenter spoke to The Verge about how terrorist organizations use stolen art to fund their criminal enterprises, and why museum heists are still a problem in the United States, despite major advancements in museum security. 

Your team was established in 2004. Can you tell me a bit about the idea behind it and why it felt necessary to build a group with specific expertise in tracking down stolen art? 

It started officially in 2004, but I don’t want to suggest that the FBI didn’t work art cases prior to that. We’ve had folks working these cases since the ‘70s. And frankly, the ‘70s and ‘80s were the Wild West with art heists in the United States. 

What happened in 2003 is we were occupying Iraq. Everybody knows full well the looting that occurred at the Iraqi National Museum in Baghdad. When that happened, the FBI was tapped on the shoulder, along with a number of other federal agencies, including the Department of Defense and Homeland Security. 

Basically, Congress said, “What are you guys going to do about this? We have this massive looting problem at this museum.” I think that was a seminal moment where everybody looked at each other and said, “Well, what are we going to do about this? We have some background in this and we have some expertise, but it’s these random associations of agents.” We didn’t really have a team that was capable of deploying on short notice to go and manage a massive event like this. That was the catalyst. 

When we think about what falls under your team’s purview, just based on the National Stolen Art File, it seems like “art” encompasses jewelry, paintings, even furniture. Can you describe the scope of what your team defines as art? 

Let me carve it up into two different things. First off, the types of material. What do we define as cultural property? It pretty much could be anything, right? It’s fine art, it’s sculptures, it’s antiquities, books, manuscripts, rock and roll memorabilia, sports memorabilia. You probably saw the news: we got back the ruby slippers from Wizard of Oz. 

Then I’ll shift gears and break it down into the types of crimes that we look at. Our bread and butter, what we’re well-known for, are theft cases. Museum heists, stuff from galleries, stuff from private collectors, and so forth. But truthfully, that represents a relatively small portion of our portfolio. A much larger part of our portfolio these days is related to fraud. 

We spend a lot of time and resources investigating fraud cases that involve fakes and forgeries. And that’s across the entire gamut of all of those materials that I just described. It’s not just the fake paintings, a fake Picasso or a fake Van Gogh. We see fraud involving forgeries and fakes across every corner of the market. Whether it’s Near East antiquities or coins or manuscripts or sports memorabilia, the market is rife with fraud. 

We do a fair number of antiquities trafficking cases — particularly since 2013, when ISIS started occupying territory and destroying world heritage sites and digging up archeological sites and trafficking in that material to support their operations. These days, our focus is more on money laundering. Using the art market to launder illegal proceeds is our number one priority at the moment.

It’s interesting that terrorist groups are able to use stolen antiques as a major funding source. It seems like those items would be difficult to launder. 

Well, it’s not easy to move that material into the marketplace. We have a lot of rules and regulations, we have import restrictions. The world is paying attention, right? And particularly the material that comes out of Syria or Iraq, that stuff is extremely difficult to move and nigh impossible to move in the open market. But we do see the stuff entering into the gray markets and the black markets. It’s an unfortunate truth that there are dealers and collectors across the world that aren’t necessarily concerned about the sourcing of the material. Maybe they just don’t ask questions they should ask. 

Can you share a bit about how you go about investigating these crimes? How do you start to understand where a piece of art came from and then return it to its rightful owner? 

These are criminal investigations. They involve art and cultural property. But at the end of the day, it’s a criminal case, and we’re going to work it just like any traditional case. How we approach a crime, though, largely depends on what the crime is. We’re going to respond to a theft case differently than we would a fraud case. 

Pick your favorite museum anywhere in the country, and say they had a heist today, and somebody stole a $30 million painting. That’s a traditional criminal case, right? I don’t want to say it’s run of the mill, but it’s a traditional case. We’re going to do the crime scene, we’re going to collect the evidence, we’re going to interview witnesses, we’re going to do all of those things that you would expect criminal investigators to do. It’s a simple whodunit. 

I will tell you this, particularly about theft cases: what makes them a little bit different than a traditional criminal case is what we’re trying to recover. In some instances, we might be recovering an original Modigliani or an original da Vinci piece or a Rodin or whatever it might be. So for us, and I know a lot of my law enforcement colleagues cringe when I say this, but for us, in the art theft program, arresting the bad guys is really secondary. Our first and primary focus is the safe recovery of the artwork. 

Maybe we really want to go after a certain target and make sure that we can arrest them and get them prosecuted properly, but then that exposes the artwork to risk because they burn the art. That’s happened. They’re afraid or they’re about to get caught, and they’ll destroy the evidence, and they burn a $10 million original painting. 

Obviously, that’s a nightmare scenario. So you have to treat them a little bit differently than we might do a traditional criminal case. Not to say that we treat them with kid gloves, but we just have a different objective. Our primary objective is the safe recovery of the artwork. 

Now, fraud cases, they’re different. Those tend to be more of a paper case. We’re doing subpoenas and search warrants, and we’re getting email records and phone records. You have to just follow the trail. And those tend to be long. They can take a long time. 

Do you have set academics who you work with for specific types of cases, or are you constantly having to seek out new experts? 

It’s both. Obviously, we have a fairly deep Rolodex that we use. And then there’s always new stuff that’s going to come up like, “Oh, we haven’t seen this before. We’ve got to go around.” 

I get this a lot, where people make this assumption because I’m the manager of the FBI’s art theft program that I’m some kind of a scholar or an academic. Listen, let me dispel that notion. I don’t have a PhD in art history. I’m not an archeologist. We’re criminal investigators. My expertise is in the investigation of art and culture property. It doesn’t make me an art expert. 

When I lecture and I go out and I give these presentations, I’m always quick to point out to everybody, “Listen, I’m not an expert in any of these fields. I’m an expert at finding experts.”  This is what I do for a living: I find experts to come in and help us work our cases. 

We do have expertise on the team. And of course, you pick up stuff along the way. 

You can’t do these cases and not learn along the way. How big of an issue is art crime in the United States? 

I’d imagine we’re a large market for stolen art, even if theft isn’t as big of an issue anymore, compared to other parts of the world. The United States is the largest consumer market in the world for cultural property, and that’s licit and illicit. We’re a wealthy nation. We have a lot of money in the United States. And where there’s money, people collect, and they’re going to buy culture property. 

There’s certainly laundering going on in the market. There’s money laundering where people are laundering illicit proceeds. Maybe it’s drug money or whatever it might be. And they’re cleaning that money through purchases in the art market, which is largely unregulated. 

We also have provenance laundering, particularly for antiquities and so forth. They come out of the ground and are undocumented. You have to create a provenance in order to be able to sell them in the market. 

I don’t know if I’d say that we have less art crime than the rest of the world. I think we probably have more here in the United States. It’s just that we don’t suffer those Hollywood-style museum heists — that tends to be a Europe problem. We had that problem in the ’80s. Museum security has improved drastically over the years, so we see less of that now. 

We still have a fair amount of museum thefts in the United States, but they tend to be internal. About 80 percent of all museum thefts in the United States are internal thefts, out of the storage facilities instead of off the gallery floor. 

By Zoe Schiffer

How one man escaped Iraq and started an art academy in Denver

For many immigrants who come to the United States — starting a life and pursuing their dreams can be difficult. Not only are there language barriers and financial challenges — but immigrations laws are tightening and the amount of refugees allowed in each year is decreasing. 

Yet one Colorado man wants to serve as a symbol of hope. Ali Ghassan was born and raised in Iraq. After finding a love for art — he left his home country in the midst of war to come to the United States. Here, he worked to become a citizen and founded a classical art academy in Denver. 

Ghassan was born in Babylon, Iraq — where his passion as a child was actually for soccer and he dreamed of playing for international clubs. When he was just 14 years old — he developed an injury from the sport and was told he would never be able to play soccer again. Ghassan then poured all of his energy into becoming an artist and went on to receive both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in Fine Art from a university in Iraq. 

Ghassan left Iraq a few times as conditions in the country grew worse. He spent a few years in Egypt and Jordan. Yet as Al-Qaeda grew stronger — the militant organization began controlling more Iraqi cities and killings became commonplace. It was then, in 2014, that Ghassan left Iraq for good and became a refugee in the United States. Conditions in his home country and the surrounding areas were abysmal. 

“I had always wished that God had created me as a dog because the dog was treated in a way more respectful than most humans,” Ghassan said. “We were subjected to harassment by gangs because we did not have any rights.” 

Becoming a refugee in the United States is not a simple task. Throughout the 20th century, the United States accepted roughly 100,000 refugees each year. After the September 11 attacks — admissions were practically suspended. That number rebounded in 2008. In 2014 — when Ghassan arrived — a little under 70,000 refugees were granted asylum to enter the country. That number has dropped significantly since then. 

At the time, Ghassan had entered into an art competition in Minnesota, where he won first prize. According to Ghassan, that award gained him more recognition and opened the door for him to be accepted into the United States. Ever since then — Ghassan has worked nonstop to pursue his American dream. 

He was first inspired to create an art academy modeled after artists of the European Renaissance. Academies opened during this time period aimed to train students in the craft. Yet when Ghassan went to college for his fine arts training — he felt that the university’s goal was to just push students through to earn their degree without really teaching them formative art skills. 

“The studios of great artists were focusing on studying art in a scientific way, such as studying anatomy and the science of colors,” Ghassan said. “These things have disappeared in the art colleges of our time.” 

Ghassan was then determined to open an art academy that would teach the same classical approach that art studios in the Renaissance period were based upon. That was when he founded REAL Academy of Art Colorado. Ghassan shared that REAL’s name comes from the phrase “Renaissance Alive” which is meant to honor the realist artists of the Renaissance. 

Despite his determination — opening the academy was far from easy. On top of needing finances to start a business — Ghassan experienced the challenge of not knowing English very well and even experienced some racism in the industry. Yet despite these hardships — Ghassan vowed to not look at them as difficulties. 

“I just put my goal on the wall to look at on a daily basis so that I could cling to hope and not despair,” Ghassan said. “I had perseverance, patience and hard work in order to reach my goal I had since childhood.” Part of the reason why Ghassan was able to overcome many start-up costs was due to him doing most of the manual work in starting the academy. Instead of hiring contractors — he did the carpentry work, electrical work and construction himself. 

Once the art academy was finally open to students — it became the first and only art school in Colorado to be certified by the Art Renewal Center — one of the world’s leading organizations dedicated to evaluating representational art schools. The school now has a full staff and board of directors and teaches over 40 students. 

Students at the academy are placed in small class sizes so that they can receive individual instruction and learn in a supportive community. Anyone can learn at the academy — from expert artists to students with no experience at all. The curriculum is based on four levels of study — students must master one level of study before moving on to the next. Students can either study full time, three days a week or part-time. Ghassan has made tuition prices at the academy fairly low in comparison to other art schools in order to ensure that anyone who would like to learn can do so for a reasonable cost. 

As for Ghassan — he finalized his American dream by officially becoming a US citizen this past June. His students and staff decorated the art academy with the colors of the American flag. “My life was very difficult, I was scheduled to die at any moment,” Ghassan said. “I chose to come to America because I love it and I consider it my country in which my ambitions grew and flourished.” 

Ghassan hopes that people would recognize the sacrifices made by early immigrants to America. He shared that he wants today’s generation to remember the way in which their ancestors built this country. He also implores the next generations to keep working on making the United States accessible to everyone so that more people can achieve their dreams. If Ghassan could get just one point across to those that hear his story — he would want it to be hope. 

“Hold onto hope no matter how difficult it is and do not despair no matter where things are,” Ghassan said. “There is hope in life and difficulties are easy to break.” 

REAL Academy of Art Colorado is located at 2055 South Oneida Street #120, Denver. You can find Ali Ghassan on Instagram and Facebook

By Barbara Urzua

The Muppets bring child resilience into Middle Eastern humanitarian work

Six year olds Basma and Jad are best friends. Basma is a purple furred Muppet who loves to sing and dance. Jad has yellow fur and likes art. Followed around by a pet goat called Ma’zooza, who eats anything shaped like a circle and causes chaos, they have fun and adventures together. 

This may seem similar to any other TV show for 3-8 year olds, but specialists in child development and trauma helped create the characters and content in Ahlan Simsim (Welcome Sesame) to support the social and emotional development of displaced children in Syria, Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon. 

For displaced families 

The program is part of an initiative offering mass media and direct services for displaced families by Sesame Workshop, the US non-profit organization that produces Sesame Street, in collaboration with the International Rescue Committee (IRC), a global humanitarian organization. 

The John D and Catherine T MacArthur Foundation awarded the initiative £100m (€110m; $130m) to transform the way humanitarian systems serve children affected by crisis. Before developing the content, Sesame consulted child development and educational experts, humanitarian organizations working in the refugee camps, and parents and children living there. 

The new Muppets have special powers: Basma can create sounds with her hands and Jad, who is new to the area, can paint in midair. “They use these as non-verbal sensory ways to describe how they’re feeling,” says Shanna Kohn, senior manager of education for Sesame’s humanitarian program. 

Development of children’s social and emotional skills is as important as development of their academic skills. The first season of the program focused on managing emotions such as anger, sadness, jealousy, and fear through coping strategies—for example, breathing techniques and expressing emotions through art. Kohn describes these as “the ABCs of social and emotional learning” that will continue through the remaining three seasons. 

The second season, airing now, deals with challenges presented by covid-19, such as isolation. Season three will deal with social skills and conflict resolution, and season four will focus on perseverance, optimism, and hope. 

Community focused 

One of the experts Sesame consulted was Reem Khamis-Dakwar, professor of communication sciences and disorders at Adelphi University, Garden City, New York. “Every decision made in the design of the program and its production was based on the evidence and review of culturally and linguistically relevant studies and knowledge,” she says. 

Khamis-Dakwar, a Palestinian who studied in Israel, was impressed by the depth of Sesame’s consultation to reach expert consensus. “It was all in Arabic,” she says. “That tells me that they’re looking at the community.” “It’s really important that the kids really connect.” Children can relate to the program, she says, because the characters look like them, dress like them, talk like them, and even eat the same food as them. 

During production, Sesame tests all its programs with small groups of children and parents for appeal, for developmental and cultural relevance, and to make sure that educational messages are understood. 

The program is broadcast on the pan-Arab MBC3 satellite channel and local stations across the region. Episodes and bonus content are also available on YouTube. Many families in refugee camps have bought a television and a satellite dish, says Kim Foulds, senior director of international research and evaluation at Sesame Workshop, as there are few other distractions for families. Parents often watch the program with their children, she says. 

Multifaceted initiative 

The program is part of a multifaceted initiative to support the emotional development of children who have experienced extreme trauma, with services delivered by the IRC. 

The IRC runs year long preschool “healing classrooms” that aim to promote a sense of security, safety, and belonging and offer play based, developmentally appropriate learning activities to help children prepare for primary school. Videoclips from Ahlan Simsim are shown, and activities are linked to characters and storylines. 

Such formal programs cannot run in less stable areas, such as north east Syria, but the IRC establishes informal play and learning sessions in community centres and health clinics, and home visits support parents, explains Katie Murphy, the IRC’s senior technical adviser for early childhood development. 

“The covid-19 pandemic has forced us to rely much more heavily on digital and phone based engagement,” she adds, so phone calls and tailored text messages from teachers and facilitators have replaced home visits. Messages focus on play and learning activities and promoting children’s wellbeing as well as information about covid-19 and hygiene. 

The IRC says attending Ahlan Simsim activities at its centres helps reduce the impact of psychological stress among children who have experienced conflict, displacement, and familial loss. 

Muthanna Samara, professor of psychology at Kingston University, London, thinks Ahlan Simsim is “a very good initiative.” 

It explains the emotions that young displaced children may be experiencing in a way they can understand, he says, such as fear of the dark on movie night and frustration when friends don’t want to play or don’t play by the rules. It incorporates tried and tested techniques for helping traumatized children to express themselves, such as art and play therapy, and teaches them simple coping strategies such as “belly breathing,” he says. 

“When you have hundreds, thousands, millions of refugees, you cannot do this individually with each child,” he says. 

Samara’s research has shown cumulative exposure to violence may increase children’s likelihood of developing mental health, emotional, and behavioral problems,1 and that positive parenting and strengthening children’s emotional intelligence and friendships can help reduce mental health problems.

Independent evaluation 

Hirokazu Yoshikawa, professor of globalization and education, co-director of the Global TIES for Children Center at New York University, and co-chair of the network on early childhood development for the UN’s sustainable development goal 4, is leading an independent evaluation of the initiative’s effect. “The humanitarian sector has traditionally not had an emphasis on early childhood development and learning that goes beyond survival,” he explains. “Most of the early work has been around basic health, nutrition, and shelter.” 

“The point of this initiative was to think about early childhood development more broadly, to think beyond survival on to helping children thrive. So, to think about health and nutrition, but also learning and social and emotional development.” 

The evaluation will use vignettes to assess children’s ability to identify emotions in different situations and come up with coping strategies, he explains. Children will be asked how characters might feel and what they might do, and how they themselves might feel and what they might do in a similar scenario. In Jordan, this is being conducted in the context of a randomized controlled trial, with preschools randomly assigned to using Ahlan Simsim materials or to the government curriculum. 

The IRC’s Murphy says: “One of our overall ambitions is not just that this improves the lives of individuals within the four countries but that we are able to demonstrate that early childhood interventions can be effective, cost effective, and used at scale. “We can shift the humanitarian response so that these types of approaches become core to any emergency response.” 

by Ingrid Torjesen