My first 100 days in Baghdad under COVID-19 lockdown


Maha Kattaa, Country Coordinator for Iraq

From my very first meeting in Baghdad I knew things would not be simple. The high-level UN official I met greeted me with only a faint smile. Looking at my headscarf, she said, “You will face many challenges in Iraq because of your appearance. You look like the local staff, and I worry that you will be led to another room to sit with the assistants during official meetings.”

What she didn’t know was that my experience has been just the opposite, that looking like the locals can help me integrate and learn more about people’s worries and aspirations. The many battles I have fought, based solely on my roots, appearance and nationality, have only increased my personal and professional strength and resilience.

So, I gave her a broad smile in return and replied with confidence: “For me this is a strength, not a weakness.”

I recently completed my first 100 days as the ILO’s first Country Coordinator for Iraq. I’m also the ILO’s Resilience and Crisis Response Specialist. This work – my latest battle – requires me to lead a multi-million dollar programme portfolio, promoting decent work for vulnerable communities, Internally Displaced Persons and Syrian refugees, in a country that hosts hundreds of thousands of Syrians – including myself.

I live and work inside the United Nations compound, in the fortified Green Zone. I am regularly woken by the blare of sirens as mortar shells fall on the Zone – something I have yet to get used to. So far I have left the compound only twice, to meet the Minister of Labour and Social Affairs. The current security situation, coupled with the COVID-19 crisis, means I do all my work remotely.

My assignment began just months after the signing of Iraq’s first Decent Work Country Programme (DWCP). I was very excited; Iraq has great potential for promoting job creation, decent work and an inclusive labour market. After years of conflict, unrest and displacement, there is now an urgent need for programmes that support the transition from humanitarian to development work – something that the ILO has excelled at in other parts of the region.

But, the situation I found was vastly different to my expectations, and I realized the challenges were going to be much bigger than I had envisioned.

On my first visit to the “office”, I was surprised to find it consisted of just a table and a chair, in an open space shared with dozens of other UN agency staff. I ended that first day feeling frustrated and confused; how could I work in such an environment, where movement outside the complex was restricted, logistical support lacking, and where all eyes were on me, a woman tossed into this new world, seemingly lacking qualifications for success?

On my second morning in Iraq, I woke up early and began contemplating my options. I could either give up and leave, or find ways to adapt and succeed. I decided on a three-pillared approach:

• Create an alternative environment that could embrace me and the ILO’s mission
• Make the most of virtual communications
• Turn challenges into opportunities for success

The outbreak of COVID-19 meant I could no longer go to my office cubicle. At home, I set up a table in my small living room and hung a map of Iraq on the wall behind me. With this humble little set-up I began to think of how I could turn this time of turmoil, uncertainty and seclusion into a success story.

And, despite the unusual arrangements, a lot has been achieved. I have completed four assessments of the impact of the pandemic on workers and businesses in Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq, as well a report on the impact on Syrian refugees. I have designed and prepared USD 40 million-worth of projects to promote decent work and employment in Jordan, Lebanon and Yemen (as well as Iraq). I am also able to take part – remotely – in more seminars and TV interviews, highlighting the ILO’s work and the impact of COVID-19 on regional labour markets.

We have also signed two memorandums of understanding with the Jordanian Ministry of Labour, and more than six agreements with other government and national agencies in Jordan and Iraq.

As I look back on my first day, and my meeting with the UN official who doubted me, I am proud to have proved her wrong. I have achieved what 100 days ago seemed impossible. The ILO’s mission in Iraq is now a reality, and, with our mandate to promote decent work and social justice, I feel we are on the right path to help the most vulnerable people here.

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