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it’s not all bad news
US expat writes from iraq

Matthew Willingham
An American working for a US-funded medical, non-profit organisation in Iraq has something to say to the nation on the anniversary of the Iraq War. Although he and co-workers face security threats daily, he…
22.03.2013  |  Baghdad
One of the Iraqis treated by Matthew Willinghams organisation, Preemptive Love
One of the Iraqis treated by Matthew Willinghams organisation, Preemptive Love

To the incredible people of Iraq,

My name is Matthew Willingham and I’ve been privileged to live in your country for the past two years. I work for the Preemptive Love Coalition, a non-profit dedicated to eradicating the backlog of children in Iraq waiting for a lifesaving heart surgery.

This month marks ten years since the Iraq war, and my organisation has worked here for the last six of those. This week there are countless negative headlines going to press around the world that question the war, Iraq’s current status, and how this country can move forward.

But I wanted to write you this letter to offer a different headline about my experiences in your country and about some of the incredible people I’ve met here.

Of course, I am not so naive as to think Iraq is problem-free. Recently, a group of men with automatic rifles entered the street where I live in Iraq. My wife was alone at our house when she heard the gunfire a few houses over. In addition to their target, the three men killed several nearby construction workers and a security guard. A friend later explained that these men had waited thirty years to avenge their dead family members in a blood feud, and they finally retaliated.

But to me, perhaps the saddest part of the story was how calm the rest of my neighbours were about this assassination. The patience required to wait three decades for revenge gave me chills but my neighbours in Iraq and my friends in America did not seem surprised. They expect stories like these.

And yes, admittedly, some of the experiences from my years of living and working throughout Iraq have been difficult. But I’m unwilling to let these negative stories define my time here. Travelling from Basra to Dohuk and most major cities in-between, I’ve seen firsthand how many Iraqis are patient, kind-hearted people who just want to live at peace with their neighbours and care for their families.

Even more than that, many of the Iraqi doctors and nurses I work with have chosen to forgive and to move on rather than to perpetuate violence. Rather than revenge, some have waited thirty years for a chance to become lifesaving heart surgeons and have even chosen to treat those they might have formerly considered enemies – and this, at the risk of their own reputation and safety.

For example, Mustafa, a taxi driver from Fallujah, heard that a team of Christian and Shiite Muslim doctors in southern Iraq might be able to save his daughter’s life; to correct her complex heart defect. Mustafa is a Sunni Muslim and his neighbours in Anbar thought he was crazy to take his daughter to their southern “enemy”. But it was Mustafa’s only hope.

Mustafa brought his healthy little girl back to his neighbours and showed them what the “enemy” had done to save his daughter’s life, with the pink scar on her chest as proof. And before he left the hospital after his daughter’s successful heart operation, Mustafa told us: “we must take this wall of fear that has been built up between us and tear it down. Because Iraq is one and we are all brothers and sisters!”

Mustafa’s story is just one of many. I’ve seen Kurdish cardiologists treat Arab children from Kirkuk. I’ve seen Jews, Muslims, and Christians collaborate to provide medical care. And I, a Christian myself, have been welcomed into Fallujah and Tikrit by Muslims who suffered greatly at the hands of my country.

I am convinced that simple, kind acts can create a new story for Iraq. They bring about desperately-needed healing. These Iraqi friends are people I believe represent this beautiful country and what it is becoming.

Of course, there are still many questions. My stories are nice - but what stories will Iraqis choose for themselves? Will Iraq continue to be known for violence and strife? Or will the Iraqi people become famous for forgiveness? Who will be considered “normal” – the murderers or the doctors?

Call me naive but I believe in the latter.

With love,

Matthew

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