Everyone stays at home. I am staying in Iraq

Shanti Chirayath is a CARE aid worker from Bonn, Germany. When the COVID-19 pandemic led to travel restrictions worldwide, she decided not to return to her home country and stay in Iraq.

Meet Shanti Chirayath, CARE program officer in Iraq, who recounts the first weeks of lockdown, the challenges of remote programming and what it’s like to celebrate one’s birthday in times of social distancing.
Cash for work program

Everything happened so suddenly. In mid-March, when there were still no coronavirus infections in Dohuk, we were not allowed to leave the city anymore. Dohuk is located in the very north of Iraq, and is home to around 1.5 million people. The announcement came with very short notice and resulted in many people literally getting stuck. A colleague who was in the neighbouring province for a CARE project had to stay put. To this date, she cannot go home.

I still get updates from the German Embassy when there are flight options to Germany. But it was clear to me right from the start that I did want to leave the team here. It would have felt very unfair to pack my bags. We are a team and we stand together—our Iraqi colleagues and us, the international employees. I can do much more here than remotely. At home in Germany, I'm sure I would feel very isolated and useless.

So for now, the planes to Germany will continue to take off without me.

Everyone adhered to the measures, they did seem reasonable. So far, I also feel quite safe here. Until two weeks ago, we had to wear a mask in public and when you entered a supermarket, they would hand you disposable gloves. But many families cannot afford these supplies. A mask used to cost $2 to $3 US dollars. Today you pay about $12 to $15 USD. Who can blame people if they use the masks multiple times or share them within their families? I am glad that the mask requirement was lifted. We are slowly reaching temperatures above 30 degrees Celsius here.

Only five people may be in our CARE office at the same time. I live on the first floor of the building in an apartment with three other international colleagues. So I walk down the stairs for work.

Aid continues to be delivered, despite all the restrictions. In the camps for displaced families, most of them Yazidis from the Sinjar mountains, we continue to provide water and health services and organize waste disposal. But we have to take a lot of precautions. Instead of distributing relief supplies, we are now planning to drop the “CARE Packages” in front of people's doors in the coming weeks and then also provide information on hygiene when the residents open the door.

In the past, people abroad might have wondered: Why do people in poorer countries not know that you have to wash your hands? It's not that difficult. But now everyone around the world is experiencing it firsthand. You forget essential hygiene in everyday life. Constant reminders are needed. CARE provides those reminders, either through personal visits, via SMS and Instagram. We try to reach people on all channels.

Next, we want to distribute food, because many communities, both refugees and the neighbouring villages, have lost their means of income. The countless day labourers who flocked the streets each morning to work on construction sites, markets or elsewhere no longer make any money. They need support which we can provide through so-called cash-for-work programs—money for activities such as road construction or agriculture. I hope we can organize that soon.

We still hope that we will soon be able to travel to other provinces again and that all of our projects can start up again. And that's why I want to be here too.

Of course it is difficult for me not to know when I will see my family and friends again. Easter was a bit tough. We held a small family service via video call. And a few days later I was there on screen when we cut my Mom’s birthday cake.

It was my birthday at the end of April, I turned 33.

A week earlier, I thought we could celebrate in a larger group. Now there was at least a small dinner with my roommates. I was looking for a recipe for potato salad online, a typical German dish. We toasted with pomegranate juice and a greenish colored banana shake. Of course the situation is difficult. But it was a nice birthday evening. And the next morning, we continued with our work for the people of Iraq.

And that’s what keeps me going.

The world will only be safe when all of us are safe. This global pandemic requires a global solution that includes women and girls. Together, we can build a more equal, more resilient world for all of us