As a humanitarian talking with displaced Iraqis be prepared for a lot of anger. “You destroyed my country,” said one woman. “Those ruling have no place for us. What will you do?” Millions of people have been displaced inside and outside the country. Small numbers have returned home. For others, insecurity, plus the absence of the rule of law, infrastructure, employment prospects, or basic services like water, sanitation, education or health care prevent them from returning home.
President Obama’s speech to the Muslim World in Cairo was a complete home run.
He highlighted the shared religious values of peace and justice that unify the People of the Book--Jews, Christians and Muslims who live by their Holy texts, the Talmud, the Bible and the Koran. He addressed the differences that currently divide the faiths, and he proposed paths for dialogue, partnership and peace in the future.
When President Obama met with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki in Baghdad last week, he mentioned the U.S. interest in helping displaced Iraqis return home. Currently, 20% of Iraq’s population is displaced—almost five million people—and it is increasingly clear that neither Iraq nor the region as a whole can be stable and secure as long as this large-scale displacement continues.
Last month, my colleagues and I travelled around the center of Iraq -- formerly the most violent part of the country -- and visited infamous places such as Eskanderia, in the so-called "Sunni triangle of death" and Fallujah, in Anbar province. Everywhere we went, we met with aid workers, local and central government officials, and of course with displaced Iraqis or families who recently returned to their homes. We spent two weeks trying to find an answer to the key question all displaced Iraqis ask themselves: Can they return home?
Three years ago the bombing of the Al-Askari Mosque, a Shi’ah holy site in Samarra, triggered a wave of sectarian violence in Iraq that led to massive displacement. At one point five million Iraqis - 20% of the population - was displaced by violence between Sunni and Shi’ah Muslims.
Recently, the displacement has slowed, and in some cases it is reversing. "Some Iraqis are returning, but their conditions in places of return are extremely difficult," The International Organization for Migration reported in its most recent Emergency Needs Assessment. "Many returnees are coming back to find destroyed homes and infrastructure in disrepair. Buildings, pipe and electrical networks, and basic public services such as health care centers are all in need of rehabilitation to meet the needs of returning IDP (internally displaced persons) and refugee families."
On February 5th, a remarkable group of 60 friends of Refugees International gathered at a London reception hosted by Lord and Lady Malloch-Brown, two people who have been key supporters of Refugees International’s work throughout our 30 years.
London is full of hard-to-believe history. I remember the first flat I lived in when I moved there in 1998 was over 300 years old! All this history made me believe it would have been awe inspiring to hold RI’s first ever European event at Admiralty House-- the site of Winston Churchill’s former home and the location which played host to President Kennedy’s 1962 visit to the UK. And it really was. It seemed fitting in Refugees International’s 30th anniversary year to be surrounded by some of the great men and women of modern British politics, media, film, philanthropy, and business.