A social worker’s experiences in Iraq

Five years ago today the allied invasion of Iraq began as American and British forces launched an attack on the city of Basra. Away from the media reports of bombs, attacks and deaths, social workers are quietly getting on with the business of trying to make life better for the Iraqi citizens. Kevin Pettican (right) reports on his working visits to Kurdistan

The picture presented by ordinary people in Iraq may well differ from that presented on our television screens and in print, especially for those fortunate enough to live well away from the obvious conflict hot spots.

For those living away from the obvious conflict hot spots in Iraq, ordinary people are making the best efforts they can to get on with their daily lives, despite great hardships, to create a sense of normality for their family, for their children and for their future. This is especially true in northern Iraq, (Kurdistan), which has benefited from relative stability, independence and economic growth over the past few years. There are of course many security concerns here too from occasional suicide bombers, from kidnappings and from the most recent military activity with neighbouring Turkey, but Kurdistan is demonstrating what can be achieved in Iraq despite the obvious privations.

In this context what is little known is the substantial contribution being made by social workers and social care services for the citizens of northern Iraq. Social care services, like the economy, are growing and indeed flourishing despite the severe conditions.

Development of social care in northern Iraq

I have now had the opportunity to make four working visits to northern Iraq over the past three years and to play a small but significant part in contributing to social development through the provision of training for government social workers including those working in prison and in the community with children and families. Sponsored by an international non-government organisation, which specialises in assisting working children and street children, (www.step-uk.com) I have been able to discuss and advise members of the regional government, academics and service managers about the need for better education and training for social workers and for the need to develop specific targeted services, particularly child care and child protection.

I have witnessed the enthusiasm and ingenuity of the Kurds to understand social needs and to work hard to develop relevant family-based services in a way that is far more professional than before. I have also seen the translation of fears into hope, passivity into activity and ideas into reality as colleagues and stakeholders work successfully together.

Building a new sense of partnership

Government social workers and the huge number of staff from international NGO’s are learning that partnership working brings many advantages without necessarily compromising independence. In addition, by creating systems of care, in partnership with families, they can combine their scarce resources and be more visible and effective in providing a rich mosaic of local services for needy individuals and families in the community.

In particular NGOs, from all parts of the world, provide much needed care and support for people who have been traumatised by war or displacement or who have serious mental health problems. They assist families with a disabled child and adults with learning or physical disabilities and provide limited care services for older people.

On three separate occasions I was begged to help in getting wheelchairs and prosthetics out to Iraq as they simply do not have them available and so many desperately need them. The challenges facing the community, social workers and care providers generally are substantial especially as resources are very scarce despite the irony that the region is sitting on a bed of oil worth trillions of dollars.

(The beautiful landscape of northern Iraq)

Developing child protection system and services

The urgent need for child protection training for NGO and government social workers, and for related professionals such as doctors, teachers and support/care workers, first brought me to northern Iraq. Despite the best efforts of so many NGOs, needs are often overwhelming and planning and co-ordination of services is poor or non-existent. It was often hard to know where to start – I contributed to countless meetings with social workers, NGO staff and with members of the regional government to agree on the tasks before them, the need to agree a common set of goals, shared values, priorities, resources, strategic and organisational planning, re-organising existing services and creating new ones, staff training and so on.

Recognition of the need for change was certainly present but the pathway was, of necessity, very challenging not least when the translators could not find an equivalent Kurdish word or idea for particular concepts.

I also felt it important to work together to seek Kurdish solutions to Kurdish problems with Kurdish people and to resist the temptation of quick off-the-shelf western solutions that were designed and developed at a different time and place to work in a different context. Many times I was asked: “Tell us what we should do” and I had to consciously keep turning the question back to colleagues and talk instead about how we could figure out a good plan together. 

I have now had the opportunity to provide various forms of training to different staff groups and on child protection and professional intervention even to an occasional multi-disciplinary audience including the police, something of a rarity. Since there is no formal child protection system of any kind, I have been working with my NGO and Government colleagues in the design and delivery of such a system although progress is incredibly slow in actually achieving the intended outcomes.

Lack of practice training

One of the fundamental drawbacks, apart from the challenging social conditions such as daily power cuts, water shortages and security concerns, is that social work education and training at universities in Kurdistan still does not include any practice learning elements. In addition there are no practice teachers/assessors to support and facilitate practice learning and the social work knowledge and theory base provided for students is extremely limited and provided in non-Kurdish languages.

The degree programme is essentially a social research degree which does not equip social workers for their job. It leaves them struggling to cope and unprepared to intervene effectively in different situations. Given the enormous demands and severe conditions experienced by professionals each day, it is clear that the job would present a severe challenge even for the most highly trained and experienced worker who received good support and regular imaginative supervision.

Most social workers and social carer workers receive neither. Many do not have job descriptions and professional supervision is a new concept. Plans are in place for a number of local universities to twin with particular European universities which will speed up the development of a wide range of educational programmes including social work.

But given a choice between contagious gloom and infectious optimism, I prefer the latter. My experience in Kurdistan gives me grounds for optimism. With enthusiastic and resilient professionals, emerging social and professional networks and a growing willingness to tackle the lengthy development agenda through co-operative and collaborative strategies, I believe progress will continue. The new partnerships are beginning to bear fruit.

I asked a social worker from Kirkuk how he coped with all the bombings and disruptions, the security checks and regular blackouts. He shrugged his shoulders and smiled saying he just gets on with his job and does the best he can in the circumstances; after all, he said, what’s the point in moaning? It doesn’t make things better. He said maybe he couldn’t cope with my job, too stressful, then left to return to work: just another busy day in the office I thought.

Kevin Pettican is programme leader social work at University Campus Suffolk. If you would like to contact him about this article, email k.pettican@ucs.ac.uk

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