(BAGHDAD, Iraq) -- Jonathan Webb was sitting in the chapel of the U.S. Embassy in Iraq when he heard a message that would alter the course of his life. An Iraqi pastor recalled to the crowd the moment when American soldiers arrived in his country in 2003. The pastor said he was happy because it meant his congregation could come out of hiding, worship in public, and build a church facility.
That message, that some Iraqis were excited about the soldiers' arrival, was a turning point for Jonathan, who was working for the private military security firm Blackwater in Baghdad. He had served in the Iraq War before returning to the country a few years later to work for Blackwater. Jonathan admits that he hated the Iraqis who killed his friends, but the pastor changed his way of thinking.
"I was focusing on me the whole time when I realized that people were actually very, very thankful for what we had won in a very large way," Jonathan said. "I could spend the rest of my life bitter at these people, or I could learn to love them."
In 2007, Jonathan and Maxwell Quqa, who served in Iraq as an American bilingual bi-cultural advisor to U.S. personnel, founded the Iraqi Children Foundation, which assists orphans (there were 5 million Iraqi orphans in 2013) by providing a safe place for them to learn reading, writing, math, and social skills. The organization aims to get orphans off the streets of Baghdad where they can be influenced by terrorist organizations. Jonathan said the idea for the organization originated when he started helping an Iraqi church collect blankets.
"It started small in my mind," he said, "We're just going to help some of these kids stay warm during the winter…from there it blossomed."
He opened two clinics to provide free care for orphans and widows. One clinic still operates today, along with the facility where children receive a free education.
Jonathan is not the only Iraq War veteran turned humanitarian. Zack Bazzi, along with fellow Army veterans Scott Quilty and Patrick Hu, founded TentEd (Tent Education), a non-profit which supports the education of Syrian children in two refugee camps in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.
After his military service, Zack spent time working as a consultant in Iraq for a development firm and came to understand the difficulties facing Syrian refugees. He and his co-founders designed TentEd as a small, flexible, rapid-response effort that complements the ongoing operations of bigger, established organizations in the area. TentEd functions under a parent organization, the Education for Peace in Iraq Center.
Like Jonathan, Zack's experience as a soldier greatly influenced his decision to launch a non-profit in Iraq.
"Wherever life takes us [veterans] after the war, Iraq still tugs at us," Zack told the Huffington Post in April. "At the most random of times, you might find yourself wondering what the roads you spent so many hours patrolling look like these days or if any of the local friends you made are still alive. In some ways, it's that tug that has motivated so many other fellow veterans to want to help me make TentEd a reality. Perhaps it's a way to reconcile the whole thing."
Operating amidst violence
In June, the Sunni radical group called the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (referred to as ISIS, ISIL, and the Islamic State) captured the city of Mosul in Northern Iraq. Over the course of that month alone, ISIS gained control of Tikrit and major border crossings to Syria and Jordan.
In July, a United Nations report accused the group of "assassinations…sexual assault, rape and other forms of sexual violence against women and girls, forced recruitment of children, kidnappings, executions, (and) robberies." Yet, in the middle of this chaos and violence, Jonathan and Zack said their operations continue normally.
In the Kurdistan Region of Northern Iraq, Zack has found that the Kurds "are doing an exceptional job securing the region." As for Jonathan in Baghdad, he's also undeterred.
"ISIS to me is just another group of individuals that have a different belief system and are willing to kill other people to forward their belief system," he said.
Jonathan's "business as usual" attitude can be attributed partly to his military experience.
"For me, there were plenty of bad guys in Baghdad when I was moving around [there]," he said. "There was a vacuum, and they're just a group of individuals filling that vacuum."
And while the Iraqi Children Foundation facility is not under threat of ISIS at the moment, it's hard to imagine Jonathan ever backing down.
"When a bunch of people start getting killed in Baghdad on a regular basis, it's kind of something we’re used to," he said. "We'll just keep trying to operate as well as we can in that situation."
Fundraising for an Iraqi non-profit
Violence is not the only obstacle these non-profits encounter. Jonathan and Zack also described the difficulty of fundraising for an organization that operates in a country whose name conjures up memories of a deadly war.
"It [fundraising] continues to be difficult because I have to be honest with you, people were just done with the conflict. They didn't want to hear anything about Iraq," Jonathan said. "They're exhausted from the resources that have been spent in both Afghanistan and Iraq. They're exhausted from the lives that have been lost and those that have been injured."
Zack said Americans are "fatigued with Iraq," but the public is still very supportive of its veterans, who have been a driving force behind fundraising efforts for TentEd.
"The fact that hundreds of individuals, some of who know very little about the Middle East, supported TentEd, in some way, shape or form, speaks volumes about our culture and the altruistic values that underpin American society," Zack said. "We are, in many regards, a nation of givers."
Jonathan and Zack's organizations operate in a time when humanitarian aid to Iraq is dwindling. In fact by 2015, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) will cease to send any money to Iraq.
Ellen Laipson and Russell Rumbaugh of Stimson, a global security think tank, explained in a February article that the high funding that once was readily available for a variety of projects "has been replaced with a new reality where Iraq competes with other countries for various aid and assistance support."
Less aid is accompanied with a drastic rise in the number of Iraqi refugees. According to Brookings, half a million Iraqis fled Anbar Province alone between January and June due to violence. Thousands more left Mosul in July after ISIL issued an ultimatum to Iraqi Christians. Then in August, thousands of religious minorities were stranded on a mountaintop in northern Iraq without food or water. Despite all of this terror, there is simply not enough funding to help the efforts on the ground. A Brookings article in June reported that "only 10 percent of appeals for humanitarian funding have been reached [in Iraq]."
Perhaps most distressing is that this lack of funding is occurring when researchers are finding that the strength of civil society organizations, often funded by humanitarian efforts, is vitally important to the future of the country. A report by Mercy Corps, based off of 2013 public opinion surveys in Iraq, found "civil society plays a critical role in ensuring that government is open, participatory and accountable to citizens."
In a 2013 interview with the Education for Peace in Iraq Center, Daryl Grisgraber, a Senior Advocate for the Middle East with Refugees International, talked about her impression of Iraqi civil society organizations.
"There were just so few of them, and they seemed distinctly under-resourced," Daryl said. "Everyone we spoke to said it was a constant struggle to keep funds coming in."
It is in this reality that Jonathan and Zack push forward, doing what they can to help Iraqi orphans and Syrian refugees respectively.
They share a similar philosophy in how to approach their work. For both men, the way forward is through human interaction with the Iraqi people they want to help, not necessarily government intervention.
"I'm all for civil society and private sector type," Zack said about how aid should reach Iraq. "If the only time people in the Middle East deal with America was through the apparatus of government, we’re in trouble. Such institutional relationships run shallow and do little to prevent conflict in times of distress between states. It’s the raw people to people interactions that fuel authentic understanding and cooperation across borders, and ultimately, reduce the chances of armed conflict."
Jonathan also emphasized the importance of forming meaningful relationships.
"Only [by] getting to know their [Iraqi] culture, getting to know these people, are we actually going to finally accomplish the mission that we would like to see accomplished there," Jonathan said. "I just realized that we need to learn how to love these people."
Jonathan and Zack's organizations are just two of the non-profits working to better the lives of Iraqis. Others include the Education for Peace in Iraq Center, Mercy Corps, International Rescue Committee, Heartland Alliance International, and the International Committee of the Red Cross.
As the U.S. cuts all humanitarian aid next year and appeals for funding go unanswered, these organizations may play a vital role in the assistance of the Iraqi people whose country is suffering from violence.
And for these two veterans, their mission to help the country of Iraq, no matter how difficult, remains personal. When Jonathan explained why the Iraqi Children Foundation is so important to him, he listed the names of several friends, including Paul Josh Flynn, who died in the Iraq War.
"I don't want Paul's son ten years from now to look at Iraq in turmoil and for him to say, well why did my daddy die? What did he die for?" Jonathan said. "I know what I'm doing is not going to make a huge difference, but in my mind and in the mind of other people…the 60 or 70 kids that we're helping and keeping away from the terrorist organizations right now by having a non-disclosed location where we take the kids every day and provide food for them and we teach them how to love each other...just those 60 or 70 kids? Then I have accomplished something."
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