The Middle East is a story that has been told since the beginning of mankind. Once the cradle of our civilization and the birthplace of cities, religion, and even writing, recent decades have seen the region decimated from war. Walking its labyrinth of streets, however, and breathing in the smoky aromas of grilled lamb and spices will give you a glimpse of the thread that has continued since humanity’s inception. Today, Iraq is dire need of volunteers to help stabilize newly liberated areas, provide access to healthcare, and help young people heal from trauma and forge ahead. Volunteer in Iraq and make a difference.
Despite what we see on the news, parts of Iraq teem with life; mountain ranges, waterfalls, and the fertile lands between rivers all provide home to peaceful people who pride themselves on their culture and history. Kurdistan, a region that covers Northern Iraq and parts of Syria, Turkey, and Iran is one of the safest places to travel in the Middle East and offers glorious insight into an ancient culture.
Erbil is the mountain-encircled capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. It is heralded as one of the safest cities within Iraq and enjoys a culture unique to its non-Kurdish neighbors. Their relatively new government has changed the city’s way of life and with vibrant markets, giant mosques, a UNESCO World Heritage citadel, and dozens of sculptures throughout the city it is one of the more enriching ways to experience the Middle East.
Erbil may be the legal capital, but As Sulaymaniyah is the cultural capital in South Kurdistan. It has boasted great poets, writers, historians, scholars, and singers from its establishment in 1784—a culturally significant place for you to volunteer in Iraq. Two independently-run newspapers and political magazines are the hallmark of the city’s continuing commitment to creativity and free expression. Both men and women attend university and are vocal about their views.
As rural Kurds move to nearby cities, Dihok has grown to be one of the main cities in Kurdistan. It sits near the Mosul Dam along the Tigris River and is a center for the 18 refugee camps that surround the city. The city itself has several large universities, including the American University of Kurdistan, as well as one of the largest churches in the region, several amusement parks, zoos, and the Dihok Valley and Dam. Dolma-fueled picnics in the countryside are common, particularly during the festivals of Nawroz and Eid.
There is a lot to despair over in recent Iraqi history, but there is also a willingness and an effort to move forward and build a nation that can work peacefully both internally and externally. That’s where you come in, as a volunteer in Iraq.
The past years of destruction have decimated towns and villages. Civilians are finding that even if it’s safe for them to return, there is not much to return to. As such there is a great need for community development, particularly with rebuilding houses and supplying electricity to homes and businesses. With water sources largely unsafe and access to medical facilities limited, public health is another area of utmost importance.
Iraq has a huge youth population, yet job prospects are not promising and there is a growing demand for help with youth development. Modern technology is finding its way into these ancient cities, particularly Erbil, so with the right investments and education Iraq will be able to capture the enthusiasm and creativity of its youth. Already in Dihok there are programs in place to get young people talking about diversity and peace through programs that include art therapy and community get-togethers.
Living in Iraqi Kurdistan is cheap by Western standards, so you can volunteer in Iraq without hefting out too much money. A meal out might be around $10, but the bustling market culture guarantees fresh produce for less than a dollar. The refugee crisis has affected the housing markets and rent can be cheap, but if your program includes accommodation you’ll only be responsible for occasional meals and outings. You can create a fundmytravel account or check out the scholarship directory to help fund your trip!
Because so few foreigners come to volunteer in Iraq, accommodations will likely be in civilian-style homes rather than volunteer centers. There will be few modern conveniences— electricity and internet access will likely be limited— and in some cases can pose health concerns. If you are renting on your own, it’s worth it to do the research and pay the higher price to be in neighborhoods where sanitation is taken care of.
There are no preliminary visa requirements to enter the Kurdistan region of Iraq, but the airport will provide you with a free tourist visa that is good for 15 days. With this you can move freely within the Kurdistan region but must not cross over into Iraq itself. If you wish to stay longer than 15 days you can get an extension from the local residency office, and you’ll be required to get a blood test that should be repeated every 90 days after that.
For updated and country-specific info, check your nearest embassy.
GoAbroad's Inside Scoop
While many people shy away from this war-torn region, there is a lot to be discovered in its safe, Kurdish-run northern region. The history is palpable, and the hospitality disarming and tender. Familiarize yourself with local laws and customs and you’ll not only thrive in-country, but your life back home will be forever touched by its magic. Volunteering in Iraq is a rewarding and life-changing experience where you’ll do more than build homes; you’ll build bridges between perceived ethnic and religious boundaries in a place that sorely needs it.