October 2012: Sunday Times: “My Week” diary piece

The article below was a diary piece for the Sunday Times (Irish edition) published in October 2012 (this is the original piece – published article was slightly different due to editing.)

John Reynolds Sunday Times Oct2012 (opens PDF document)

AS a part-time freelance business journalist, many of the Irish businesspeople I speak to in the course of my work are often on a plane or just getting on one when I contact them.

This week though I’m notching up a few air miles of my own to attend a TedX conference in Baghdad followed by a few days in Dubai to meet some supporters of my charity project 4Basra.

I’m interested to meet a few of the TedX speakers while also seeking inspiration for potential social business ideas that might generate funds for my Vienna-based colleague who organises life-saving operations in Europe for children from Basra.

Amongst a United Nations of passengers on the Emirates flight from Dublin – which makes for interesting people-watching as we board the plane – the service, food and attention to detail on it and the Dubai-Baghdad journey are all the more noticeable compared to the more workhorse, shorter flights that our island relies on.

ROUTE IRISH

THE Iraqi capital’s airport has seen better days and although an official from the Prime Minister’s office whisks me past my fellow passengers through a fast-track route, their efforts are unfortunately hampered by a 45-minute wait for the suitcase I had checked in.

We then take “Route Irish” (a title immortalised in a film by Ken Loach) in their Land Cruiser, passing workers who are landscaping the central reservations and verges of the road from the airport towards Baghdad city centre which was the scene of so many bomb attacks up until around 2006.

While it may now be safe, the following day two bombs explode beside a market in the Khadimiya district, killing 11 people and wounding 38 more.

Unable to find the location of a meeting where a group of students experimented with a 3-D printer, using it to design a logo and then print a three-dimensional mock-up of it, I organise a lift for the following afternoon with a friend of the organiser.

Declining my offer to contribute to his next fill-up, engineering student Mujtaba takes an indirect route through numerous checkpoints and several different parts of the city so we can drop off three of his fellow students who have also availed of a lift. We also collect Susu, the only female member of the group.

Zawra Park in the city centre is where I meet US-based Iraqi Bilal Ghalib who is behind this project, which aims to inspire young people to nurture their creative minds by experimenting with software, art, materials and gadgets.

We take panoramic photos to hopefully be uploaded to Google Streetview, so that the wider world can see there are playgrounds, fast food and toy stalls, boating lake and a zoo here and that Baghdad isn’t just about bombs and checkpoints.

After joining the group for a ride on the park’s Ferris wheel with views over the city as the light fades, the group lark around and strike various poses taking dozens of photos of each other. “We’re taking so many because we don’t have very many happy memories,” says Layth, a TedX volunteer who is studying medicine.

THE GREEN ZONE: TEDXBAGHDAD

TEDXBAGHDAD takes place in the heavily fortified Green Zone and the 700-strong audience is particularly enthralled by a youth orchestra, microphotographer Ghaith Salih, three young orphans-turned-musicians and artist and cancer survivor Mahdi Al-Mualim who uses candle smoke in his drawings.

One key message is that Iraq needs young skilled people to stay here and leaders who want to help their country: half its population are under 18. Perhaps that means people like Bilal, many of whose group seem to look up to him.

A thought-provoking talk by Matteo Montevani describes how climate change is causing worsening droughts in Iraq: “Agriculture is dying in the place where it was born.” Historians believe the first farming and seed cultivation took place in Mesopotamia – known today as parts of Turkey, Syria and Iraq.

One of the conference speakers is interested in visiting the hospital I help in Basra with a view to helping improve its budget for, and access to, vital medicines. Several people express an interest in my project and ask me to email them my details.

Another of the TedX volunteers tells me that Iraq needs and wants new ideas and ways of thinking, but that it’s sometimes very difficult when there’s so much bad news about bombs and terrorist attacks.

THE following day takes me to a US compound in the centre of the city to meet with managers of small business grant-making and healthcare USAID projects.

After lunch there with Ray Mendenilla and some of his colleagues, the healthcare project manager offers to continue talks about helping in various ways.

On reflection, it’s been an eye-opening visit. The young Iraqis in particular that I met were great ambassadors for their country.

I can’t help think Ireland should be reaching out more to Iraq and the other countries in this region. We’ve done it before: we used to manage the Ibn Al Bitar Hospital in Baghdad and train Iraqi doctors there in the 1980s.

 

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