Iraq: Expectations meet reality

Lebanese logistician Mustafa was only meant to be in Iraq for six months. He blogs about what happened next...

I didn’t know much about working for an international organisation, yet I decided to experience it. And, as time passed, it became a passion for me.

I heard about Médecins Sans Frontières / Doctors Without Borders (MSF) by coincidence, and in the beginning I thought it only consisted of doctors and nurses. It felt weird to apply for a position as a supply coordinator.

Initially I worked in the Lebanon office until I decided to go to Iraq in 2018.

We know a lot about Iraq from the news, and I knew more about the health situation in the country from the briefing documents provided to me before my assignment. I also had discussions with other staff who had been to Iraq, in order to have a better understanding of the work ahead.

I felt positively nervous about working abroad. It was a personal decision I made in order to gain new experiences and change my lifestyle.

However, on my first day in Iraq, my colleagues were already waiting for me and welcomed me warmly. It was something I hadn’t expected.

Iraq: the context

Between 2003 and 2014 Iraq experienced years of war and conflict, forcing an estimated 5.7 million children and adults to flee their homes.

While almost 4.2 million people have returned, the Institute of Migration estimates that 1.8 million people are still displaced.

During the more recent military offensive on the city of Mosul in 2016 – 2017, nine out of 13 public hospitals were damaged. The process of rehabilitating these healthcare facilities has been very slow. And, until a few months ago, fewer than 1,500 beds were available for a total number of 1.8 million people – which is less than half the minimum global standard for humanitarian healthcare.

I didn’t know much about working for an international organisation, yet I decided to experience it. And, as time passed, it became a passion for me.

As part of a response to this, MSF now runs a mother and child and emergency hospital in the west of the city, and a surgical and post-operative care facility in the east. In July 2018, MSF also started providing mental health services in the city.



In Iraq, I worked in two projects run by MSF in Mosul and Al Sadr city. I was responsible for making sure they had the medicines and medical supplies they needed to treat patients and run effectively.

War has exhausted Iraqis, and the country is still dealing with the consequences of more than a decade of foreign interventions and the "war on terror". It has been a difficult and painful experience that has made access to healthcare a daily challenge. The health system itself hasn’t fully recovered.

Despite all this, Iraq is now going through a transitional period of reconstruction.

2020 plans

One of the challenges facing Iraqi people is a big gap between the health services they need, and what's actually available. Just one example is mental health. People affected by the violence, the war-wounded or those who lost their relatives in the conflict, all have mental health needs with few services available to help.

In Mosul, MSF currently runs a mental health project. And after assessing what people need most, we will soon start new maternity services, along with other plans for later in 2019.

The knowledge one gains by working in a foreign country with people from different cultures and nationalities is an experience in itself.

We are also setting a “road map” in case of any emergency that Iraq might encounter. We are planning how we would respond and what alternative solutions would be needed to keep our projects open for people in need of care.

All this is the reason I have extended my assignment until 2020. Back in 2018, I was only supposed to travel to Iraq for six months. However, I am convinced that during the phase of launching a new project, it is better not to change the person in charge as this could potentially take us many steps backwards.

Expectations meet reality

Working in a foreign country with people from different cultures and nationalities is an experience in itself. The difference is noticeable on many levels, and I've gained so much knowledge from being here.

It’s true that Iraq is an Arab country: we speak the same language and we share some traditions, but every country has its own specificities and culture.

I learned a lot about Iraqis, especially about the respect they have for their parents and the big role they play in their children’s lives. I've got used to meeting lots of new people all the time.

Being in Iraq has helped me to realise that whatever your expectations, they will always be different from the reality of what you see and experience on assignment in a new country. Working in an MSF project definitely requires sacrifice and flexibility at the same time.

Next stop: Latin America

I feel like this experience has changed my character. I have become more understanding and calmer when making decisions, whether at work or in my personal life.

I learned how to live with people of different characters. I learned how to communicate in a transparent way and how to usefully express my feelings. I also learned more about myself than I knew before.

After Iraq, I am taking a short break, however, I would then like to work for MSF in a new region, far from the Middle East.

I would particularly like to go to a Spanish-speaking country such as Venezuela or Mexico, where the context, health needs and projects are different to here in the Middle East.