For My Sister

“Person by person, child by child, we will help this country become safe once again”

My name is Suroor Abdulkareem Hilal – a mine risk educator (MRE) and football coach at Spirit of Soccer in Iraq. I spend my days educating children about the danger of landmines that serve as a violent reminder of our not so-distant past — and I do it through the means of football.

What inspired this life of mine, what prompted my calling to help others? Well, that story is a painful one and we do not have to travel back far to find it.

It was March 17 2017 and three days had passed since I had fled to the west side of the city of Mosul, which had been liberated from the shackles of violent extremism, putting an end to years of destruction, torture and death.

But I am from the other side and that side remained under siege — and my family were caught in the middle of it.

I knew I needed to get to them and rescue them.

It was a hard-fought and arduous journey back, passing checkpoints and insisting I be allowed return.

When I got home my worst fear had come true. My home had been shelled, my family injured and my sister was dead.

I helped my family escape from their entrapment and brought them to medics to receive military aid. Here I saw so many injured and learned that war does not discriminate in who it affects.

I pleaded with the soldiers to get my family to safety and they agreed, but they would not take my sister.

They wanted her to be buried in a garden until the war was over and then have her brought to a cemetery but I could not agree to that. I could not leave my sister behind.

I begged the soldiers to take her with us, and offered my services in helping them save other people trapped throughout the city and assist the medical team however I could.

They showed me kindness on this day and put her in the ambulance with us back to the west side of the city.

They probably never expected to see me again and thought I said these things just to take my sister with us but I am a woman of my word and, three days later, still in great pain, I returned to help.

Rescuing people from a battlefield is dangerous work but I soon realised I was motivated by more than just a desire to help people. It became a way in which I could enact revenge for my sisters’ death: I would rescue and help as many people as I could.

When tending to the wounded, it became apparent to me that a lot of people were not appropriately trained in first aid, and I witnessed many deaths because of it. Watching children die from preventable death scarred me and I started to teach people for free.

For five months I travelled, accompanying the combating forces while the battles continued around us. Rescuing the people that we could, helping the wounded and tending to the dead bodies.

It was a joyous day when the city was finally liberated from the terrors of ISIS and for most, it spelled an end to the scenes of a battlefield, but my work had just begun.

Shortly after the liberation we travelled to the Old Mosul Neighborhood to record pictures of the atrocities that occurred. I don’t think anyone who travelled that day could have mentally prepared for the corpses scattered almost everywhere.

Countless corpses.

As I walked along, surrounded by the horrors of war, I realised that these people’s bodies would need to be removed, both for respect and because my city could become exposed to a plague due to the bodies left here to rot.

The day I went to the governmental office to request assistance in removing the dead bodies from the streets was a bad day.

Almost no help was forthcoming and we had to begin as a team of five. The process was slow, and we battled against the smell of rotting flesh and the explosives that remained all around us.

But we never paid much attention to any of these. Only cleaning our city.

Gradually our team grew and grew and, after five months, we removed more than 1000 bodies, and returned people to their families.

While the bodies are taken care of, danger still remains. Landmines persist all around us. Each day, numerous children are taken from us from the explosive deathtraps that remain hidden to the untrained eye.

In 2018 I joined Spirit of Soccer, to receive mine risk education, and eventually became a football coach and an educator on their staff.

Through football, I am able to teach the youth of Mosul how to identify landmines and other explosives, and what to do when confronted with those circumstances.

It is work that fills me with great pride. Knowing I can empower these young people towards safety and, by extension, those residing in our communities inspires me each day.

In Iraq, gender discrimination is a huge issue, and society’s refusal to give females a role in sport, removes the potential in which women in the community can help overcome their potential psychological crises and emptiness.

To be in a public position, where people can see me do my work and position as a football-based educator can help to reduce the stigma around it, and allow other women the opportunities to tackle the psychological trauma of war and loss themselves.

No total changes have occurred yet, but there have been positive effects in our communities thus far and, person by person, child by child, we will help this country become safe once again.