May Majid: Unbroken Spirit
Rebuilding Iraq, Inside and Out
“We all have something inside us that will never be the same again,” says May Majid of living through the Iraq War.
This theme would weave its way through our conversation: remnants of things broken and lost, and the exhausting effort of constantly trying to piece it all back together, inside and out. “Almost every family lost someone,” says May, “It’s not something you can move on from.”
You can only try to find your way back to whole.
May, an International Medical Corps Monitoring and Evaluation Manager, was in high school during the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, but she says it was in the aftermath that things really started to break down. Through a wave of sectarian violence that pulled the country apart from the inside out, the conflict began to invade people’s lives in much more intimate and everyday ways. That’s when the dead bodies started showing up on the road May took to school—bodies that no one bothered to cover or remove. “This is something you never forget,” she says. Soon, the litany of explosions, kidnaps and assassinations became so commonplace that a fog of numbness set in. “Our threshold of endurance went up,” says May flatly, and I sense the deep chasm between surviving and thriving.
Born and raised in Baghdad to a schoolteacher mother, May studied nuclear engineering in college and planned to become a professor. She calls that unfulfilled dream “the best thing that never happened to me.” Instead, an International Medical Corps employee recruited her in 2011 and her life changed.
May recalls, vividly, taking part in International Medical Corps’ emergency response to the 2014 ISIS Crisis. She says the crisis, which “took more than three years of life in Iraq,” happened so quickly that no one saw it coming. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis fled en masse, leaving their homes with nothing but their loved ones in tow—if they were lucky.
International Medical Corps mobilised mobile medical units to reach those seeking relief in displacement camps and compounds. May recounts the blistering heat, the persistent chaos and the magnitude of unmet needs. “We were going there, seeing people suffering so much, people who have lost everything,” says May. “More than scared, I felt helpless.” She describes tents “you couldn’t stand in or close” and aggression born of sheer desperation.
“It makes me sad because I know that these people are us. They are us if we’ve gone through this.” The simultaneous simplicity and wisdom of her statement startles me. The frantic struggle for survival calls forth the very best and worst in humans, and none of us are above it.
Through the mobile medical units, International Medical Corps was able to reach “many people who had nothing” with lifesaving services, especially those with chronic illnesses. But I can hear how troubled May still is, years later, by all she witnessed during the crisis. In contrast, she lights up when discussing our work today: the three women’s centres and two multiservice centres that International Medical Corps operates in south-central Iraq (along with a mobile medical unit and three primary health care centres).
“These have the most effect on people,” she says. For people living in such harsh circumstances – crowded, hot tents barely tall enough to stand up in—the well-stocked and air-conditioned centres provide a much-needed escape and support system. One of the multicentre centres in Fallujah is named Al-Farah, which means happiness—“and it is a happy place for the women,” May enthuses.
“This is our specialty and we do it well,” says May. “Of course we always want to do more, but we are changing so much.” The multiservice centres—staffed with doctors and nurses, as well as case managers and outreach services for gender-based violence and mental health— serve as a safe space for those traumatised by pervasive violence and provide primary health care services. In addition, the centres offer vocational training and recreational activities, and create a critical sense of community for a population struggling with displacement and instability. “At the centres you see the beneficiaries smiling and happy—and it makes me happy.” May says the positive energy she gets every time she visits the centres sticks with her for a long time and keeps her going: “This is why we do it.”
Over the past seven years, May has participated in every training that International Medical Corps offers and says she has acquired so much knowledge—much more than she would have as a professor. Her life today is much different but also better than she expected. “I didn’t choose this—I was chosen for it,” she says of her work with International Medical Corps. “But I feel I was born for it, and I have grown into it.”
And what of her home country, it too precariously balancing destruction and growth? In the years since the ISIS crisis, there has been very minor rehabilitation: some buildings rebuilt, cities retaken, mines cleared. “It’s easier to rebuild things,” says May. “It’s harder for people to rebuild themselves.” She points to the super low turnout at the last election as evidence that people have lost hope in change. Nonetheless, she exhibits the relentless optimism and perseverance necessary for humanitarian work “we have to keep speaking up and asking for more”—and is eager to support International Medical Corps’ transition from emergency response programming to the kind of longer-term development work that will “help Iraqis rise again.”
She acknowledges the time and effort such recovery takes. “I think we will need a lot of generations,” muses May. “Sometimes it feels like we are beyond repair… But hopefully the next generation…” She trails off, and her statement hangs like a question neither of us can answer. Still, she remains wholeheartedly committed for the long road ahead, whatever it brings—and so do we.
“We can’t go back, but I hope we can move forward,” May concludes, hope creeping back into her voice. I remind her: because of people like her, we already are.