My Iraq experience and the power of overcoming the misconception

Just over a month ago I was approached by Zhala Sabir, of Top Mountain to teach Graphic Design. An all expenses paid 10 days of creative communications education, one catch... Top Mountain is based out in Erbil, Iraq. A flurry of googling continued with the foreign office advising completely against travelling there, under ANY circumstances, see screenshot below.

Then came the social media posts asking my contacts whether I should go? 98% of people said absolutely not, including my parents. A friend whose opinion I massively respect said:

Go, you’ll not get an opportunity like this again.

Zhala was sympathetic to my parent's concerns and assured me that it was completely safe. Added to which she’d ensure I was escorted everywhere at all times. My parents reassured, contracts were signed, and the graphic design syllabus writing began.

Let the next chapter begin

Upon landing, I met Zhala and Miran, husband and wife founders of Top Mountain alongside their third director, Michael Rothe.

Top Mountain is in its fourth year, a donor-funded initiative who have a clear mission of promoting international development and stability throughout Iraq. Top Mountain encourages, engages, trains, develops, supports and educates, local (ish) Erbil residents, with the hope that they go on to freelance, start companies and overall grow the private sector.

The public sector employs a terrifying percentage of people, somewhere between 70-90%*. I say ‘terrifying’, as this means that when the Iraqi Government - Gol - are unable to pay, a huge number of people are left effectively working for free. In fact, my translator had only just received her March pay, her first payment for nine months. NINE MONTHS! And it won’t be backdated. The private sector has to grow, and Top Mountain have the skills and training to make that happen.

The first day

Right, a bit of truth here: the first day of training I was totally and utterly overwhelmed. To the point of paralysis. Although I trusted in my planning and training, I just felt completely out of my depth.

I had a group of 10 students, ranging from 20 to 38 years of age. They all looked at me for education, inspiration and training, ekkkkkk sweaty palm moment.

By the end of the first day, it was clear that they had various degrees of experience, alongside varying ability to speak English! On reflection, it became rapidly evident that my students were all extremely talented, passionate, educated and driven. I changed my training, I pivoted on day 2 and reworked the plan. I knew that I had to train them to deliver client work, to a brief. Not just be experts on InDesign, Illustrator and Photoshop (although - insert blush emoji - they now are!) but really take their future clients on a journey, to understand and deliver on the brief. To be confident to present work, explain rationales and ensure all work produced is to the HIGHEST quality. No skimping. If it’s for print; CMYK, 300 dpi with bleed, please!

I wanted to form a creative studio environment: we choose to name ourselves ‘Dream Creators’.

Every morning we had a Stand-Up.

Every time I taught, it was laptops closed and eyes on me. And did they learn? They learned more than I can ever imagine.

Here’s the perception bit:

The foreign office website simply must be updated. It’s incorrect. In my limited experience, Erbil is safe. Or, certainly safer than published. It’s important to point out that I didn’t travel alone and was always in public amongst company, so you could argue that I was protected. However, I didn’t once feel out of my comfort zone.

My students have overcome more adversity than those reading this will ever have.

A 24-year-old man spends most of his spare time getting as close to the opposition as possible, delivering aid to those in refugee camps and those who have been displaced. You can hear gunshots behind him in the videos that he showed me.

One 20-year-old’s father was seriously hurt when a suicide bomber detonated at his cousin’s funeral, killing 300. She’s lived through three wars in her short lifetime.

One man is a displaced refugee from Syria. He fled his family and clothes. He has no papers, therefore is effectively stuck in Erbil. He wants to return to Syria but to apply, let alone obtain visas/papers cost $12,000.

One man apologised for being 10 mins late due to his home flooding. They had torrential rain for over a week and his home is on low ground. There is no such thing as insurance. He’s simply lost everything in the flood water, but he simply ‘shrugged’ it off.

One girl suffered from PTS following what she’s seen and experienced. The support for mental health is non-existent, it falls to the family, and what if you don’t have a family? You continue to suffer. Tough.

Here’s the love bit:

Even with everything they’ve been through, they are the most generous people I’ve ever met. Each day they would all plan my lunch hour and how I’d spend my evenings. One night we went bowling, another to play billiards, they cooked for me, including the delicious Dolma. I met their families (who also gave me gifts!!) and I was escorted everywhere. I felt safe, secure and welcomed. I felt relaxed and happy. I felt loved. Every day they would thank me for my teaching and I received several gifts when I left.

I cried and my heart ached on the way to the airport. I’m writing this post on the first leg of my long journey home. In my case is a gift from one of my favourite students who told me not to open the ‘thank you gift’ until I get home. I’ll report back on its contents.

We must embrace these wonderful people; I met software engineers who are blowing technology out of the water.

I met entrepreneurs, brave, strong and hard working people.

We must support their private sector, allowing it to grow and boosting the economy so that they have more choices.

If you want to meet any of them, to discuss projects, please do reach out to either me or direct to Top Mountain.

Above all, we must remind ourselves of how lucky we are. We live in one of the richest, safest countries. We are protected. Our health is supported and free. We have insurance against all types of disasters. We have opportunities to travel freely (Brexit aside) and most importantly, we’re respected and valued. We are lucky and we should always, always remember that.


The gift from my lovely student was a selection of thoughtful elements such as a phone battery charger (mine was always running out, which they found hilarious), beautiful bracelets and a Sponge Bob Square Pants photo holder.

I still hear from the students on a daily basis, they are making great progress and their client bases are growing which is fantastic. Every week I send them emails of inspiration; from fantastic agencies to inspiring blog posts, to portfolio advice. I really can’t wait to go back and still miss them all terribly.

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