Freezing in Iraq


Sami Rasouli, a former Minneapolis businessman, returned to his native Iraq in 2005. He is the founder and executive director of Muslim Peacemaker Team, a non-profit, non-sectarian organization that teaches non-violence and human rights, and brings Iraqis from all backgrounds together to work for the good of the country.

Dear Minnesota friends,

We are experiencing a very harsh winter in Najaf – the coldest in many years. A few days ago, my sister Salima called and said, “Sami, please, if you have some extra kerosene, we need it because we are freezing from cold.” She ran out of kerosene because her family is big, about 15 people, and they had three kerosene heaters going at home. Salima has kids working in Dubai, so their financial situation isn’t as desperate as many Iraqi families, who live below the poverty line. But kerosene is expensive and hard to get.

Last winter was cold, too. When my wife Suad and I got married, a friend of ours arranged for us to spend two nights at the Durr Najaf Hotel for our honeymoon. By Iraqi standards, it’s a five-star hotel, but compared to a hotel in Minnesota, the standards aren’t very high. It happened that the former prime minister Ibrahim Jafari was staying in the hotel at the same time, so we had electricity and hot water for our honeymoon, but after he left, the electricity for the hotel was cut off.. Now we have a five-month old baby, Omar, and we try to keep our house warm with kerosene heaters, but Omar’s hands and feet are always cold.

It’s very hard to keep the houses warm. The design of the houses is open, so they aren’t energy efficient. People didn’t have any contact with the outside world during the time of the sanctions, so houses aren’t very well designed. Homes and offices in Iraq don’t have central heating. The schools don’t have heat, either, so they are very cold. Most of the windows in the public schools are broken, so the kids are cold, and students are suffering – especially those who are from poor families can’t offered to buy sufficient warm clothing. I visited a public school last week in Najaf, and talked to the teachers.

Most of these students, and lots of other people, are sick, they keep coughing, and suffering from asthma, due to fumes from the kerosene heaters, and the smoke from open fires on the street, where the local business owners, policemen and local militia burn scrap wood and garbage, and stand around the fire to keep warm.

“During Saddam’s regime cheap kerosene was available everywhere in Iraq, and we had no problem to heat our homes” teacher Abu Hussein, 49, told me. “Nowadays we get our supplies of kerosene from Al-Mukhtar (the community selected administrator). A jerry can (20 liters) of kerosene used to cost us 70 Iraqi dinars – equivalent to .58 US cents. Now kerosene is not available and it’s very expensive if I try to buy it from the black market, it’s $.82 per liter.”

“Each Iraqi citizen is supposed to be able to buy 220 liters of kerosene from the government,” said school teacher Ahmad, 26. “But we barely get 160 liters instead and when we argue about it Al-Mukhtar (the government administrator) claims that he delivers the same quantities he receives. But we don’t buy it because we are certain that he and his truck driver are stealing the rest.”

And that’s the news from Najaf,

Salaam, Shalom, Peace

Sami Rasouli