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My Journey From Refugee to Aid Worker Is Proof Aid Works

Born in a refugee camp, Masood Ahmed came home to Iraqi Kurdistan in his teens. When ISIS attacks sent people fleeing to the area, he became a humanitarian aid worker himself. He appeals for international investment in refugees and the future of Iraq.

Written by Masood Ahmed Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Masood Ahmed is a humanitarian worker in Iraqi Kurdistan.Courtesy of Masood Ahmed

It will come as a surprise to no one that my country, Iraq, faces a long and arduous road to recovery now that the war with ISIS is over. More than 11 million of my fellow citizens currently need humanitarian assistance. More than 3.4 million Iraqis are still displaced from their homes.

In and around Mosul, where ISIS nearly demolished the country’s second largest city, an epic rebuilding effort is on the horizon. This work will take years – decades even – and will require tremendous investments from the international community. Many of these officials and businesses are meeting this week in Kuwait to discuss how to rebuild my country.

I know many people are thinking: Again? Does humanitarian aid even work? We Iraqis have been through more than any people should have to bear, enough that many people have become skeptical about investing more foreign assistance into our country. As an Iraqi and a former refugee, my answer is: Yes, again.

My family is from Iraqi Kurdistan. In 1991, Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime launched a violent crackdown there and thousands of people, including my parents, were forced to flee their homes. My mother, pregnant with me, and my father left with nothing more than the clothes on their backs. As soon as they crossed the border into Iran, they were taken to a refugee camp.

Hundreds of thousands of refugees like us streamed into Iran that year. International humanitarian groups provided assistance, including tents for shelter and a makeshift emergency medical hospital. A few months later, I was born in one of those tents.

An image of Masood in Iraq in the mid-1990s. (Courtesy of Masood Ahmed)

When my family finally returned to our home in Iraq, we found other people living there. We eventually got our house back, but everything inside was gone. My father had to work double time just to buy simple necessities such as food and blankets for our family. Eventually, my parents were able to rebuild their lives.

After the 2003 Iraq war, the Kurdish people of Iraq set up their own regional government. We found opportunities we never before thought possible. I went to school and started to learn English. I enrolled in a youth program offered by the global humanitarian organization Mercy Corps, which provided skills training as well as emergency assistance.

When I was 15 years old, I took part in a computer-training program. I learned everything from the very basics (how to turn a computer on) to how to use Word, Excel and search engines, not to mention my discovery of computer games. A few years later I graduated high school and went to study computer science in college –which felt like a small miracle in our fragile country.

It was not long before things in Iraq took another turn for the worse, as the security situation deteriorated in the aftermath of the war. Kurdistan remained peaceful, but we heard about terrorist bombings and violent clashes in other parts of the country. As the situation grew more dangerous, travel at night and between towns was restricted. We heard of more and more kidnappings and killings.

Then, in 2014, the year I graduated college, ISIS began taking over parts of Iraq. Once again, hundreds of thousands of people fled. Kurdistan, the same place my family once fled from, now became a safe place for others running for their lives. I knew that it was my turn to help. I became a volunteer for international organizations who were setting up tents for the new arrivals and providing food and assistance.

Today, I work as an emergency response program officer with Mercy Corps. After Mosul was retaken from ISIS in 2017, we were among the first aid workers on the ground there, and what we saw was horrifying. Everywhere we went, buildings and homes were destroyed and people were begging in the streets for help. There was no clean water and no electricity. Nearly every family had at least one person disabled from bombs or gunfire. So many people had lost their homes, and those lucky enough to find new ones often could not pay the rent.

Every day, we provide emergency cash so that people can purchase food, clean water and other essentials. Over and over again people tell me, “You came at just the right time. We had almost lost hope.” At the end of every day I go to sleep exhausted. But without question, this is the most important thing I have ever done in my life.

This is what keeps me going when I think of the journey ahead. Iraq faces a long road to recovery from ISIS. We cannot just rebuild our homes and our cities, we must invest in our youth, demand good government, learn new skills and rebuild our institutions. Only then can we ensure that the next generation of ISIS does not emerge. I dream of a strong, stable, and prosperous Iraq that nurtures its diverse communities – Sunni, Shia, Christians and others.

So many Iraqis are still living far from home – either as refugees or displaced within their own country. I know from my own experience how critical they will be to rebuilding this country. My family depended on emergency aid for survival, and my life has been transformed by humanitarian assistance, inspiring me and giving me confidence to pursue a career as an aid worker.

We Iraqis are grateful for the international aid and support given to Iraqis who are rolling up their sleeves to rebuild their country. We urge the world not to give up on Iraq, or on the assistance that will rebuild it. Refugees have not.

The views expressed in this article belong to the authors and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.

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