Charmaine Jamieson arrived in the Kurdish border town of Zakho in April without a plan. "I just came with open hands," she said. She has returned with a message for the American people. "The Kurds want us to stay. They need us. They are our friends,” she said.
Ms. Jamieson began her special relationship with the Kurds in 1991, when thousands of Kurdish refugees poured into Nashville after the first Gulf War. The city's 7,000 Kurds now make up the largest Kurdish community in the United States. She began by adopting one Kurdish family. "Helping the Kurds became my calling" said Jamieson.
Saeed Chalky, who works with Jamieson in Nashville, has a life's narrative that is very common among Kurdish refugees. Chalky lost 17 close relatives to Saddam Hussein in 1988. "There is not a Kurdish family in the world that has not lost a loved one to Saddam" says Jamieson.
The task Charmaine Jamieson has undertaken can be almost overwhelming. She is currently employed as the public relations coordinator of Kurdish Human Rights Watch. One of her major projects is finding medical care in the US for children who cannot receive necessary treatments in Iraq that could easily be found in an average American hospital.
A large album on her desk has photographs of children who need to be brought to the states, including heart patients, children suffering with debilitating skin diseases and victims of landmines. "KHRW had around 400 files before I left in April", says Jamieson, "and I came home with several more. We have around 70 files in our Nashville office."
"I don't feel that people fully understand what Saddam did to the Kurds," said Jamieson. The final fate of 182,000 of Saddam's Kurdish victims is still unknown. Jamieson visited Rizgardi, a site where she was told one hundred thousand Kurds were killed- the victims of Saddam's arabization project in 1988.
"Everyone has heard of Halabja," said Jamieson, "but Rizgardi has never been visited, much less, documented by western journalists. They need to come and tell this story. They told me that I was the first American to come and visit this village, one of many destroyed by Anfal. I was saddened by this."
The Kurds have made progress in re-building their society since the "no-fly zones" were established in 1991, but they started from nothing. For decades, Saddam's soldiers would routinely level Kurdish villages.
"They would rebuild their homes, and then the army would return and do it again." said Jamieson. Chalky's home was demolished five times between 1979 and the day he became a refugee in the early 1990s. "My experience is not unusual," said Chalky, "every Kurdish family had their houses destroyed".
"One of the striking things about walking around Kurdish cities is the number of people who have been maimed," said Jamieson. "So many people are on crutches, missing arms, or eyes. It is an indication of the horror the people have been through. I don't know how they were able to survive." And there will continue to be casualties of Saddam's atrocities. He spent 35 years laying the mines and it may take another 35 years to remove all of them. Landmines kill or injure an average of one person per day.
With Saddam gone, there is hope. Liberation has brought change, but life is still hard. Kurdish Iraq lacks basic infrastructure and healthcare. Schools are only meeting for four hours a day. "The Minister of Education is begging for educators from the US to come and participate in workshops to train their teachers," said Jamieson. Even with all the obstacles, Jamieson sees opportunity. "One of the things that excited me the most were the sheep- they were everywhere. Saddam had killed all the herds in 1988 in an attempt to destroy the livelihood of the Kurds."
Jamieson was treated like a celebrity as she traveled from Zakho to Suleymania. Happy Kurdish Children greeted her with "Haji Bush Haji Bush, Thank you America for making a monkey out of Saddam." People from all walks of Kurdish society welcomed her. They encouraged her to go and tell America the Kurd's story- the atrocities, the thankfulness, and the hope.
Her reputation as an angel of mercy, well known among Iraq's Kurds, opened doors. "Who would ever think that a farm girl from Ashland City, Tennessee, with a country accent, would be meeting with high ranking officials in the Kurdish Government, talking about a permanent military air base, phone services, and roads," she marveled.
The message she received was clear and consistent. The Kurds need not only American protection, but also American talent. "They need everything," said Jamieson, from experts to establish an efficient postal service, to computer technicians, to teachers to help rebuild the educational system. Nurses, doctors and medical equipment are in critically short supply.
Charmaine Jamieson has a vision for the Kurds in Iraq. "I don't think contracts will be enough," she said. "We need programs for American professionals. Individuals who are motivated by a sense of compassion and responsibility and who are willing to help rebuild Kurdish society need to get involved. What the American people need to understand is that the Kurds have been our friends. The peshmerga are protecting Northern Iraq for us. They deserve our loyalty and our help.
"My shoulders are so small, and the needs are so great," she said through tears. As the Kurds know, Charmaine Jamieson's small shoulders are supported by a lion's heart, and a boundless will to help her adopted people. With so much at stake in building a free and democratic Iraq, it is time for more Americans to join her in carrying the weight.
Charmaine Jamieson can be contacted at email@example.com.