Next month I will be taking up a new job based in Erbil in northern Iraq. I will be supporting humanitarian programmes for displaced Iraqis alongside key partners operating in the region. This is the type of job I have dreamed of doing since I was 18 – maybe even 16. For years now I have been so very keen to embed myself in a new country, a new culture and have the opportunity to engage with another way of life. To shift my centre of gravity away from London.
I have worked on the Middle East and North Africa region for over two years now and studied regional politics for many more years at university. Despite having been fascinated with the region for such a long time – slowly (and unsuccessfully) teaching myself Arabic – I only visited for the first time in October 2014 when I went on holiday to Lebanon. I have since travelled to Lebanon (again and again) and Kuwait but have desperately wanted to see so much more of the region. I hoped that when the opportunity eventually came for me to take up a new role I would be able to move to the Middle East.
When I imagined moving to the Middle East, I would be lying if I said that Iraq had been at the top of my list of places to live and work. If I am honest, Beirut had always been the dream (it still is!). However, the political and security situation in Iraq, as well as the broader legacy of our own involvement in the country, will make it both a challenging and fascinating place to work. It is a country that has been in the background of our daily lives for the past 13 years, yet most of us will never have the chance to experience what it is to live in Iraq today and to meet Iraqis. I see it as an enormous privilege to have this opportunity.
But I also have a number of anxieties about making this move.
Surprisingly, security is the least of my worries about moving to Iraq. That is not to say that I am not thinking about the risks. But I am reassured that Erbil, and the Kurdistan region at large, is fairly safe and well-protected despite being alarmingly close to the “border” with Da’esh (ISIL). I also know that I will be well looked after even when I leave the safety of the city. I suspect that I will feel most nervous on my first visit to Baghdad. I’ve been told that the city still feels very much like a conflict zone – burnt buildings, remains of car bombs, and heavily armed check points. That may be the first time I am exposed to the real security situation in Iraq and, indeed, the life that most Iraqis experience on a day-to-day basis.
The thing that plays on my mind most however is saying goodbye to friends and family. Some of these anxieties are ridiculous: of course I will still have friends when I eventually return to London in 12 to 24 months time. Others are more reasonable. Living and working in Iraq will at times feel very, very isolated. I will be living with a very small group of people in a constrained security environment for quite intense periods of time. My social life will be very restricted. My only contact with friends and family back home will be via FaceTime, WhatsApp and social media. And I am going to miss everyone enormously.
I sometimes imagine that it must have been so much harder for people to make this type of move 30 or 50 years ago. They would have had almost no contact with close ones for the whole time they were posted away (though I do romanticise letter writing). However there is a cruelty in being so hyper-connected to everyone through social media and internet communications. You are exposed to everyone living their lives, having fun together, and you cannot join them. I worry that I will struggle to remain relevant to other people while I am away. But we will be able to talk, and I will have opportunities to come home occasionally. My very closest friends will stay in touch I am certain, and others will always be there when I am back.