Watching a Nation Rebuild, Close Up

BC alumnus spends unforgettable summer working in Iraq

By Sean Smith
Chronicle Editor

It was one of those change-of-life epiphanies you barely have time to contemplate, says Lydia Khalil '02. In May of last year, she had been busy preparing for her graduation, saying goodbye to college friends and the campus she had known for four years.

Twelve months later, she was thousands of miles away in a hot, dusty place that had become one of the world's most controversial, and dangerous, flashpoints.


Lydia Khalil '02 (rear, far right) during a visit to a neighborhood event in Baghdad. She has been serving on the staff of the Coalition Provisional Authority under presidential envoy Paul Bremer.
Welcome to Iraq.

For the next few months, Khalil, a graduate of BC's International Studies Program, journeyed throughout the country by jeep or helicopter helping to find, and interview, potential candidates for Iraq's transitional Governing Council while serving on the policy staff for the Coalition Provisional Authority under presidential envoy Paul Bremer.

Her summer in Iraq also saw her celebrate the quintessential American holiday in a most unlikely setting, and bear witness to both dramatic confrontations and congenial neighborhood events, as a broken and battered country sought to build a new beginning.

Khalil reflected on her sojourn in Iraq recently while visiting BC during a brief return trip to the United States.

"The days are very long - more like weeks, actually - and the work is hard," said Khalil, who is enrolled in the Georgetown University Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service.

"But there was such an intensity and excitement there, a feeling that you were doing something completely new. And I have felt very fortunate to be part of it. I graduated college a year ago, and now I am watching history being made."

Khalil had already earned herself a one-of-a-kind learning opportunity by landing an internship in the White House, where she worked with the Homeland Security Council. But when she heard the Pentagon was seeking to form a team that would examine issues of governance in Iraq, she jumped at the chance. So, only a few days after coalition forces entered Baghdad, Khalil was on her way with the CPA, seeking to help the Iraqis begin forming a government from the ashes of the Saddam Hussein regime.

She arrived to find a city of deserted streets and closed stores and offices, and hot, dirty living conditions. There was little time for her to sift through her impressions, however, because the CPA had a most ambitious mission to undertake.

"We made a commitment to have the Governing Council's membership draw broadly from Iraq's religious and ethnic groups," said Khalil. "That meant talking to prominent people in the different regions of Iraq, to find out who would best serve as a representative on the council. You also had to keep up to date on the social and political developments, and how they would affect the potential candidates."

Given the lack of electricity and other difficulties, Khalil notes, these tasks often had to be accomplished through less-than-conventional means. "Sometimes, the only thing you could do was drive around and literally ask people on the street if they knew where so-and-so lived," she said.

One trip took her and her CPA colleagues north to Kirkuk in search of a Turkmen representative for the council, traveling by means of a Blackhawk helicopter. The trip included a stop for a July 4 American Independence Day party hosted by a group of Kurds at a hotel that seemed "like it was on a Colorado mountainside," recalled Khalil.

Even as her group pursued their long-term mission, she said, they were reminded of the importance of paying attention to more immediate needs, no matter how slight. One day, a US Army officer stopped by the CPA headquarters with an invitation she could not refuse.

"He had been working with the local women to set up a craft fair, and so he asked if we would come," she said. "We were happy to do that. You don't want to be behind a wall typing out memos all the time. You have to be out and about in the neighborhoods so the people can see you for who you are, and that you're interested in their lives."

Khalil's work also frequently took her to Baghdad University, including one occasion when a CPA colleague came to discuss redevelopment efforts with faculty and students. When a group of protestors suddenly arrived and attempted to disrupt the event, she said, her colleague defused the situation by shaking hands with the leader and inviting him and his associates to participate.

Unfortunately, Khalil adds, the coverage of the meeting by some of the media in attendance, many of them representing the Arabic press, left a lot to be desired.

"They kept asking the protestors leading questions, trying to foment their anger," she explained. "They were more interested in the fact that the group had barged into the meeting, rather than the fact they were invited to, and did, participate."

Khalil is equally critical of the US media coverage of Iraq. "Yes, there have been deaths and other incidents that are legitimate causes for concern. But the facts need to be presented in the larger context of development. There is a huge difference between what I saw in May and now: The streets are crowded again, women are going out in public and ministry buildings are reopening.

"It may be that the CPA needs to do more publicity for itself, so the public gets a more complete picture."

While Khalil was happy to visit with family and friends back home during the late summer, her enjoyment was tempered by news of the bombing of the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad. The explosion killed UN envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello, with whom Khalil had become well acquainted.

"It was a real loss for everyone, not just the UN but the people of Iraq," she said. "I felt terrible not to have been there. The perception may be that the US and UN were not working well together in Iraq, but from our perspective, on the ground we did fine."

Born of Coptic Christian parents in Egypt - "That's where my interest in the Middle East comes from" - Khalil and her family immigrated to the US in 1984. She credits BC's International Studies Program and Political Science faculty members Prof. Donald Hafner and Assoc. Prof. David Deese for providing her with a solid educational foundation.

"The program is fantastic," said Khalil, who expects to finish her duties in Iraq this November. "There is structure, but also plenty of flexibility to enable you to pursue whatever your interests may be. I really feel that BC helped prepare me very well, not only for my graduate studies but my other experiences."

Hafner said, "Lydia presents a perfect example of what we're trying to accomplish in International Studies. We've made the program more interdisciplinary, so as to give our students multiple skills and sensitive antennae with which to explore and understand the international arena. Lydia has a keen eye for the situation in Iraq and the Middle East, and a strong vision of progress, and we are very pleased to have played a role in her development."

 

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