Volunteering with IRCS: Personal Transcendence and Societal Responsibility

Iraqi Red Crescent volunteers deliver aid to families in Sinjar, where thousands of people have fled to escape the violence in Iraq.

Iraqi Red Crescent volunteers deliver aid to families in Sinjar, where thousands of people have fled to escape the violence in Iraq.

“You give but little when you give of your possessions. It is when you give of yourself that you truly give.” – Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet.

Randa El Ozeir: Choosing to volunteer with the Iraqi Red Crescent Society (IRCS) is not to be taken lightly given the unrest and divisions the country has been grappled with for decades. “I still vividly remember an incident I went through in 2010,” recalled Ibrahim Ali Ibrahim, a seasoned volunteer with the IRCS. “I was still a fresh volunteer when I narrowly escaped being killed. I was carrying some detainees’ letters to their parents through the Red Cross at the time, travelling from Baghdad to Babel on a bus along with other civilian passengers. We came across a checkpoint for Al-Qaida in Latifiya area. One of the armed men, who was Iraqi, got on our bus and started a scrutinizing inspection, which sent a chill up my spine. What if he snatched my bag and interpreted my job with the Red Cross from his own angle, thinking that they are the crusaders?! He asked me for my ID, I told him that I was a student, which was true. Gunshots were echoing outside, and all I was thinking of “what if he ordered me to get off?” There would have been no turning back; only an unfortunate fate.”

Whenever Ibrahim recalls this incident, he relives its frightening scenes vividly. “If it weren’t for a female passenger who appealed to the armed man in a motherly tone, I would have faced a horrible fate. After 30 minutes of absolute silence, I opened my mouth to thank my rescuer”. It is a totally different story when we come to a life-threatening moment. “When you know that the person facing you does not care about anything, when you know you cannot be protected by anyone, you feel that you’re nearing your end. The cars ahead of us were emptied from their male passengers who got shot. I would have joined those unlucky men!”

Ibrahim stayed on path and the reward came “when I handed the letter in from a detainee whose mother thought he was killed by the Americans. When I delivered the good news, the father came running full-force, and the mother kissed me four times. At that moment, I beamed with heroic pride”.

But volunteering with the IRCS does not always have a happy ending, thorny periods are bound to happen. After Ibrahim saved a five-year-old girl who got hit by a car in 2017 when he was a paramedic with IRCS between Karbala and Babel during Ashura, she passed away at the hospital few days later. “The girl fell a few meters farther from the accident’s location due to the collision’s impact and was unconscious. Her head was wounded. I saw the real sorrow and the tragedy in her mother’s and brother’s eyes. The blood was a sign of a possible bleeding in the head. There was pulse but no breath. I frantically started the first-aid procedure, then the girl threw up blood and resumed breathing and crying.”

Ibrahim has earned lately a certificate to train paramedics. He has a background in analytic chemistry and teaches chemistry while still working on his Ph.D. “The fear I encounter doesn’t put me in the regret zone at all. Up to now, my work with the IRCS has been my breathing space. It brings me closer to the real and true life, the life of vulnerable and poor people. It makes me realize that I am not only a professor at the university who lives a normal life full of consumerism and leisure.”

The beginning could be confusing as much as compensating. Safa Alaa Kamal, who joined the IRCS in 2016 and fully concentrates today, as an administrator and a volunteer, on women and children, said, “during my very first filed visit, which happens to be in a refugee camp in the north of Iraq, I felt overwhelmed with conflicting pull-push emotions. On one hand, I was unnerved to fail in helping adequately the displaced people who opened up to me and revealed their own struggles. On the other hand, I was proud of doing my role in alleviating their burden by letting them share their feelings in a safe space. They boosted my self-confidence as a likable volunteer.”

Kamal’s drive to volunteering comes from a religious stance and from a societal sense of responsibility. “Volunteers are a crucial component of the society’s development. I believe that God creates every human being to fulfill a unique purpose, and I understood this since the day I learned that each one of us, including the identical twins, has their matchless eye iris print. I am planning on staying an IRCS’ volunteer for the benefit of my community. I want to leave for my children more advanced and cognizant surroundings.”

Prior to COVID-19, Kamal used to contribute in awareness sessions for women, but due to social distancing and the curfew, she moved to arranging and doing home visits throughout Baghdad’s districts to deliver crucial info about preventing the virus. “Women are not created only to procreate and bring up children. They contribute in building an educated, healthy, and conscious society. I enjoy being a volunteer and living in a state of satisfaction, as this fills me with positive energy to invest in caring for my family and balancing between the two.”

All through her years of volunteering, Kamal has never faced any gender discrimination, “at the contrary, being a woman made me more understanding of what families are going through. From my observation, the female volunteers are more in tune with others, and our communities want people who totally get their needs and recognize their sufferings. And our IRCS’ uniform with its emblem acts like an official permit to access all places. The IRCS is esteemed from everybody and is highly regarded for its good deeds and its humanitarian role.”

“There’s always disappointment and joy,” concluded Ibrahim, “I think the joy balances out everything else and keeps me going. I can see what is going on behind the scenes. My work with the IRCS helps me to transcend and alleviate the innate human tendency to self-interest and selfishness. Others around me do not always look at it from this angle and they wonder why I spend my time in a place with no money when I can teach instead. The answer is crystal clear for me: volunteering takes from my time to give me an inner spirituality that no one can perceive except the person who does it.”