Making a living in Iraq


About six million Iraqis live under the poverty line, according to a United Nations report.

Dear Minnesota Friends,

“To make a decent living in Iraq is hard,” says Abu Alaa, an old friend of mine.

Most Iraqi families still depend heavily on the DPR (Daily Personal Ration) of food they get through the Oil for Food Program, which has been operating since the 1990s. The ration, which includes sugar, flour, rice, tea, shortening, chick peas, lentils, soap and detergent, is supposed to supply the minimum daily caloric requirements, but what is actually delivered has been reduced to about half of what it was during Saddam’s regime. According to one official I spoke to, during the time of the sanctions, Saddam’s regime was able to keep the warehouses full, but now the government has difficulty obtaining those products from abroad, and distributing them.

About six million Iraqis live under the poverty line, according to a United Nations report. The Iraqi government has started something similar to the welfare system in the United States called the “Social Care Center” but people complain about its performance and accuse it of being corrupt. Poor people seeking financial, medical and marriage assistance line up by the hundreds in front of the offices of religious charities such as those of Ayatollah Sistani, and the (Iranian) Imam Khomeini Foundation

On the streets of Najaf, I see school-aged children selling cigarettes, bananas, pushing vending carts and working cheaply in the marketplace to support their families. Many vendors display their goods on sidewalks selling many different things – candy, toys, shoes, cooked chickpeas. Others are out on the streets selling their personal belongings and household goods – like an American garage sale.

I have seen many new businesses open and quickly close. I see many women and kids begging for money in the marketplaces and at the bus stations, and knocking on doors to beg for help. Some vendors get inside the buses and try to force passengers to buy their small items such as towels, candies and nuts. When they fail to sell anything they start to rant and complain, “ If I were a beggar you would feel sorry for me and give me some money. It’s not fair.”

Many also pester the Iranian pilgrims who come across the border to visit the holy shrine in Najaf. Najaf is an important religious city for Shia Muslims, and more than four million people visit its holy shrine annually. So, the main bazaar is always full of merchandise and very busy with customers. The huge cemetery in Najaf is also important for the locals as a source of income. Shia communities all over Iraq bring their dead for burial in Najaf, where they seek the divine intercession of Imam Ali, the cousin of Prophet Muhammad.

During the two Islamic months of Ashura and Safar, Najaf turns into a huge charity community where food and tea are not problems. In celebration of the holy days, big outdoor kitchens are set up on street corners, where free food is served – one popular traditional dish is rice and mashed lamb meat with chick peas, tomato paste and spices. I see women and kids almost of all ages are lining up with their empty pots to get food for their families. “Some of our poor relatives stock up tin cans in their freezers for months to come during this season” my wife Suad told me.

Many Iraqi farmers have left their agricultural fields and joined the new Iraqi army and the policing system. But an army or police job is not easy to get. Bribes must be paid.

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. This is the third in a series of three articles. Read the first article, Freezing in Iraq, and the second, Food and water in Iraq

Too many college graduates are sitting at home because they can’t find jobs. And those who do find jobs don’t earn very much. A newly hired elementary school teacher gets only $100 per month. He or she can’t get married or rent a house and start a family. My friends Abu and Um Alla are supporting their son Muhammad, a newly appointed geography teacher, because his salary is not enough. Together, Abu and Um Alla make $1000 a month. They have been teaching for 30 years.

“More than a year ago,” Alla said, “I applied to get back my old job as a schoolteacher, which I had before I emigrated to the US in 1976. The law says that I am entitled to reclaim my job, and there is supposed to be money to fund our salaries, but I haven’t been given my job back. People say that the money was stolen by government employees.”

Three years ago, I sold an old house that inherited from my parents, and then I invested some of my savings in a business, but I lost it all. My former business partner claims that the business lost money, but he has no records to support his claim. Since then, my wife Suad, my son Redha , who is five, and baby Omar, who is six months old, and I have been surviving on my savings, and donations I receive as honorariums when I’m in on speaking tours in the U.S. I work every day for Muslim Peacemaker Team Iraq, the organization that I founded, but they do not have any money to pay me a salary.

Salaam, Shalom, Peace,

Sami Rasouli