An American therapist heads to Iraq and finds remarkable strategies for survival
By Adam Kaplan Aaron Ohlmann
In November of 2016, filmmaker and journalist Aaron Ohlmann teamed up with therapist (and backup cameraman) Adam Kaplan to document the effects of ongoing war in Iraq on those displaced by the conflict. Below, read Kaplan’s written observations and dip and tilt your screen to experience Ohlmann’s 360-degree video of their journey.
The call center
I’M IN A BRIGHT, CLEAN OFFICE LISTENING TO VOICES I CAN’T UNDERSTAND, trying (and failing) to stifle existential panic with cup after cup of instant coffee. A team of about a dozen operators on headsets switches between Arabic and Kurdish, their cadence measured, their tone calm. Nothing betrays the catastrophe and heartbreak on the other end of the line.
The United Nations' Internally Displaced Persons Information Center, or Iraq IIC, is really just a repurposed shipping container that sits on the sandy outskirts of Erbil, Iraq, about 200 miles north of Baghdad and 50 miles west of Mosul, just a short car trip from violence that has no place in the modern era: beheadings, crucifixions, instances of people being burned alive. Mosul, which has been under ISIS control since June of 2014, is currently under siege by an international coalition determined to oust the terrorist organization.
I knew I'd be encountering “displaced persons,” but the term is a bureaucratic euphemism, sanitizing what it really means to be uprooted by war. IDPs are civilians with nowhere to go and nobody to turn to, their homes, bodies, and relationships destroyed. The U.N. expects there to be approximately 1 million IDPs before the war is over, most in dire need of food, water, and medicine. One of their only lifelines is this call center, which connects them with resources like cash, shelter, health care, information about legal assistance, escape routes, and methods for finding missing persons.
My official role—if you can call it that—is to assist my friend, independent filmmaker Aaron Ohlmann, who is documenting the humanitarian crisis in and around Mosul. But I’m also a trained counselor, which means I’m playing the de facto role of therapist and observer, here to support traumatized civilians whether the camera is on or off.
The transactions that take place on these calls are unlike anything I've heard. Callers disclose the horrors they are experiencing, and the Iraq IIC operators try to provide concrete solutions. The bulk of the work boils down to two tasks: listening empathically and cataloguing atrocities in Excel spreadsheets. It’s a tough job, one that requires wading into a deluge of pain without much specialized training.
“We are human beings, and for human beings to listen to these kinds of stories, it is consuming,” says operator Suha Zangana, a woman I suspect is in her early 20s, though I’ve been informed it’s rude to ask. She was a career counselor before getting hired here a year and a half ago.
Though I’ve been trying to give the Iraq IIC operators a few strategies for reducing burnout and vicarious trauma, I didn’t come to Iraq because I’m an especially good person. Instead, like so many in my field, I am drawn to the darker facets of the human experience. Zangana’s distant, pained look is one I’ve seen in therapy many times—she’s reimmersed in a moment of distress. I can’t help but feel intrigued, and ask her how she does it, day in, day out.
“I thank God for all his gifts,” she says. “Because what is happening to them might one day happen to me. I have to work for them because working for them is working for me. I am working for them and me for a better way out of this.”
She also shares the story of a disabled man who became the caretaker of three children needing food, shelter, and medical attention. He begged and cried, convinced of his family’s imminent death. “I cracked,” she said, “but I didn’t crack on the phone. I didn’t show any signs of weakness because that would not be professional.” I asked her how she remained functional after repeated exposure to all-encompassing devastation. “You finish the call, go outside, cry, wash up, and then write up your notes and submit them,” she said.
The search for displaced persons
AFTER FIVE DAYS AT THE CALL CENTER, Ohlmann and I venture out to find some displaced persons. Our first destination is Qayyarah, a town that has been liberated from ISIS, unlike many others in the Mosul province. Before ISIS was forced to retreat, they detonated explosives on the heads of Qayarrah’s oil wells, blanketing the area in smoke and torched a nearby sulfur plant in al-Mishraq, releasing toxic gas that killed nine and sickened hundreds. Dozens of survivors called Zangana and the Iraq IIC team for help. We want to see what life is like on the other side of the phone line.
The U.N. had arranged for us to ride with a nongovernmental organization to Qayyarah, but the ride fell through the night before around midnight due to “liability and security concerns,” so Ohlmann was forced to improvise. He used a private LISTSERV to book a “fixer,” someone who could provide access to restricted sites, serve as translator, bribe officials, and, most importantly, try to not get us killed. Our fixer, 24-year-old Maad Mohaamed, has an exclusive contract with an international television outfit, but says he’s willing to work with us for an inflated daily rate.
At 5a.m., we wait for Mohaamed in front of our hotel. I'm wiped out, having spent a sleepless night gripped by corporeal panic and my traditional gastric distress. The only reason I’m even upright is that I’ve taken several Vyvanse tablets, courtesy of Ohlmann. At the right dosage, the prescription stimulant inhibits fear. (The irony isn’t lost on me that I require drugs to cope with even temporary exposure to a conflict that millions have lived through for over a decade.)
Mohaamed pulls up in a huge SUV, blowing cigarette smoke out the driver's side window. The lone way to access Qayyarah, he says, is to attach ourselves to a convoy of war reporters. He adds that he’s happy to see Americans again, claiming to have worked previously with U.S. intelligence. His darting energy reminds me of incarcerated youth I counseled back home; he is constantly looking to the periphery, checking his mirrors, evaluating all possible angles from which an enemy might attack. If I'd been hired to analyze him, my report would say: He's been in tough spots before, and despite his best efforts to affect a cool exterior, Mohaamed struggles with the legacy of trauma.
We follow the war reporters to the first checkpoint. They exit white SUVs and smoke, speak Arabic with various soldiers, and fiddle with camera equipment. Mohaamed tells us to stay in the car, and gives our passports to an associate who hands them off (along with a bribe, I’m assuming) to a soldier who disappears into a ramshackle office. Mohaamed tells us to get comfortable—this could take hours.
To pass the time, he shows us old files on his camera, which I can only describe as war selfies: Mohaamed’s smirking face framed in front of dead people, captured ISIS soldiers, exploded cars, bomb craters. He has a series of videos, too, which he calls “smile and cigarette.” In them, he smokes and grins as antitank guns or sniper fire go off in the background. In one, he lifts his sunglasses to wink at the screen, then blows dramatic smoke rings. In another, surrounded by gunfire, he peels and eats a banana. “And I’m still alive,” he tells the camera. He shows us one more in which he stands outside a half-destroyed storefront, angling the camera to capture bodies in various stages of disrepair. “Everyone is hurt inside that market,” he says. He's smiling.
I add to my mental analysis: Mohaamed does everything he can to demonstrate his agency in an otherwise unstable environment. It’s classic behavior, perhaps best described by Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl. Frankl believed that in order to survive inherently dehumanizing environments, one needs to find personal meaning in their suffering. When Mohaamed tells me, “We have a very nice time when we go into battles—there isn’t much to do here, so for us, this is entertainment,” I believe him. It isn’t posturing. It’s a strategy for survival.
After two hours of waiting, we are finally approved to drive toward Mosul. An Iraqi officer gives Mohaamed our passports; he holds onto Ohlmann’s for a long, dramatic moment before handing it over. “To be American,” he says, “this is my dream.” He wants to immigrate to Austin, Texas. (He says he was promised citizenship in exchange for his work with the U.S. military.)
Just as we’re getting on the road, Mohaamed shows us one more picture. It’s of his friend, a photojournalist who’d recently been killed by mortar, a kind of rocket-propelled grenade. “Where did he die?” I ask. “Near where we are going,” he says. Then he uses his phone to play music through the car stereo, singing along with Frank Sinatra’s “My Way”: “And now the end is near / And so I face the final curtain.” The whole exchange gives me the feeling that we're participants in some kind of cosmic joke.
There are several more checkpoints before we reach Qayyarah. We nod at various men and boys in uniforms: Iraqi Army, Kurdistan’s Peshmerga fighters—whose name translates to “those who face death”—local police, and groups I’m told are Shia militia. We pass destroyed bridges, vandalized graveyards ( ISIS has a habit of uprooting tombstones), bombed-out cars, and hundreds of families walking nowhere in particular. Children weave in and out of traffic, plucking blue and purple plastic flowers from the mouths of traffic cones.
Like Mohaamed, the kids have found a way to adapt to their environment. Frankl would say this behavior is healthy; for me, it reinforces how radically different their experience is from children I’ve counseled in the West, where even those with profoundly grim home lives typically have access to some sort of external infrastructure. School or a friend’s house is often a welcome respite. Here, the roads, the buildings—even the sky itself—are signifiers of ongoing conflict.
The oil fire burns just a few feet from the area where Qayyarah’s remaining residents have set up camp. The smoke billows in all directions, graying out both sky and road, as if trying to replace the noxious omnipresence of the former ISIS occupiers. When I get out of the car, I step in oil seeping from the ground. It melts the bottom of my sneakers.
We discover that although Iraq IIC connected IDPs nearby with medical assistance and called in local government agencies to monitor the air quality, they have nothing to do with putting out the fire. Ohlmann interviews the leader of a small group of workers hired by the Iraqi government to contain this huge ruinous furnace. The man’s singular protection against it is the red scarf he uses to cover his mouth. While Ohlmann finalizes his shots, I ask Mohaamed how much money he thinks is burned up in those flames every day. He glances at my shoes—I assume calculating the damage their newly molten soles will do to his SUV’s interior. “It’s more than money,” he says.
By the time Ohlmann gets back in the car, he’s somber, clearly taken by one man’s steadfast (if futile) effort to prevent the further destruction of a near-ruined landscape. Beyond serving as his backup cameraman or on-site therapist, I know he brought me along because I’m usually a reliable provider of levity under morbid circumstances. But I’ve been too frightened to be funny—a personal first. Mohaamed offers to take us to the front lines of Mosul where a firefight has broken out. I ask Ohlmann to politely decline his invitation.
Instead, we spend the rest of our time at an IDP camp just outside the city, where blue tarps serve as homes. Children appear with tablets to take our picture and we’re invited inside for tea. It quickly becomes clear that most of the IPDs here fled middle class existences. We talk to a teacher who shows us photos of his former spacious home, both before and after its desecration. Ohlmann talks to the man’s three children, trying to get them to open up about their previous life in Mosul and what their days are like in the camp.
When I worked with American children who were trauma survivors, I often asked them to tell me what they were grateful for. It sounds counterintuitive, but young victims of incest and chronic domestic violence frequently answered in ways that showed unfathomable strength. Gratitude, psychological research shows, can reduce anxiety and increase resilience. So I get the idea that if these Iraqi children could say out loud that they are thankful for their family, or that they enjoy playing with other kids in the camp, they’ll feel a little better about their circumstances. I prod Mohaamed—who’s translating for us—to ask them to tell us what makes them happy.
He stares at me blankly. “They are not American babies,” he says, then leaves the tent.
For the IDPs at this camp and elsewhere, I believe Iraq IIC has been invaluable. The success rate varies, but in October of 2016 alone—the month before Ohlmann and I arrived—documentation reveals that they closed 99.8 percent of incoming cases: Operators made 1,021 outgoing calls to follow up on outstanding “priority cash needs” for food, shelter, and health care, and nearly all requests were satisfied.
Before I left Iraq IIC, I asked Zangana how she was able to close so many cases. “It’s my job and I’m helping people. Many call and thank me, and I really appreciate them calling back,” she said. “They call to say all their problems are now resolved and it’s all thanks to you and the call center.”
She smiled when she said this, and I mentioned that she looked happy. “You should see me after those calls,” she said. “I scream—yes, yes, yes. It is the best when I can tell the callers I’m proud of you and what you have done, and if you need us we are just a phone call away.” Then she raised her arms in reenacted exuberance.
Main image: Mohaamed ascends a dune to face oil fires in the distance. Photo by Aaron Ohlmann.