Iraqi women are on the job

Training: A determined trio is on a 10-day visit to learn all they can to help tackle their country's employment woes.

October 22, 2003|By Heather Dewar | Heather Dewar,SUN STAFF

Three Iraqi women facing a daunting task came from Baghdad to East Baltimore for practical advice.

The three, all newly minted government officials, got the lessons they sought yesterday. In return, they gave their Baltimore hosts a couple of impromptu lessons about the realities of war and the stubbornness of hope.

Fatin Ouda Al-Saeda had studied Shakespeare and The Canterbury Tales at the University of Baghdad. Evelyn Michael Rasho learned computer programming in Japan in the 1980s. Sawsan Mahdi Al-Dawad was a chemical engineer working in a military institute, so valuable to Saddam Hussein's regime that she could not get a passport.

A U.S. Army colonel plucked them out of relatively obscure jobs and assigned them an essential mission: to find work for about 770,000 demobilized soldiers and displaced workers who are, or soon will be, on the streets in their looted and occupied country.

It's a nearly impossible job - and the women are determined to accomplish it.

Over the next three months, Al-Dawad expects to set up a nationwide network of job centers. Rasho will create the computer networks from scratch. And Al-Saeda has perhaps the toughest assignment: to find employers with jobs to offer.

"Finally, now, I am given a chance to do something useful for other people," said Al-Saeda, 33. A member of the country's Shiite minority, she worked for years in low-ranking Labor Ministry jobs.

"All the high positions were for other people, not for us," she said. "This is very important for me, to have a chance."

Al-Saeda and her companions are visiting for 10 days of training from the U.S. Department of Labor. Yesterday, they saw Baltimore's Eastside One-stop Career Center, where more than a dozen city and state officials gave them a crash course in how to set up job-placement centers.

When the Baltimoreans showed the Iraqis how to use an online job-search engine, a sample search turned up 457 job listings for managers in a state chosen at random. The visitors could barely believe there was that much work available.

"There are openings?" an incredulous Rasho asked, with Al-Dawad translating.

"This is the future for Iraq!" Al-Saeda exclaimed.

Al-Dawad, the engineer who was never permitted to travel, was elated. "This is something amazing," she said. "Seeing so many new things, learning new things, bringing it back to help my country - wonderful."

The trip was arranged by Lt. Col. James Otwell, who singled out the women for their duties.

Otwell, an Army reservist for 11 years, understands what it's like to be offered unexpected opportunities. In civilian life, he is a Buffalo, N.Y., firefighter. But he has spent four of the past five years on deployments in Bosnia, Africa, Kuwait and Iraq, often as the Army's liaison to Cabinet ministers. In Baghdad, Otwell is working with an Iraqi sheik to reorganize three government ministries, he said.

When Otwell's unit of civil affairs experts arrived at the Iraqi Labor Ministry, it had been looted to the walls, he said. "We found a floppy disk on the floor. That was it," he said.

He set up shop at the El Ameen Institute of Military Industry, where Al-Dawad was the manager of planning. The Americans took over the building just as the students were about to sit for all-important final exams; she was determined that exams would be held as planned.

"She kept - I don't want to say pestering me, for things that she needed," Otwell said. "She got it done. She had great leadership skills."

When Otwell asked her to take charge of employment and job training in a country where unemployment is running at 60 percent, she didn't hesitate.

"It doesn't matter," she said. "I'm working here or I'm working there, but it's all for Iraq."

Al-Dawad and Al-Saeda chose Rasho, 51, to complete their team. The trio are a contrast to the old leadership, Otwell said.

The Labor Ministry was considered low-ranking because it dealt with prisoners and delinquents, so some of the least-skilled bureaucrats were posted there, Otwell said. Key jobs were held by men in their 40s and 50s who refused to do anything without a written order.

"I need people that are going to think on their own, and that's why these three ladies are here," he told the Baltimoreans.

When the visitors described working conditions in Baghdad, it was the Baltimoreans' turn to be amazed.

About 1,000 people a day come to the ministry looking for jobs, the Iraqis said. After being searched for weapons or bombs, they are taken to a stripped-down former schoolroom. There a ministry worker uses a wooden pointer and a poster-sized questionnaire to walk them through a registration form. In another room stocked with most of the ministry's 22 new computers, workers type the information into a brand-new database.

"Most of the jobs so far are short-term, to get people some money and get them off the streets," Otwell said. Priority goes to 500,000 demobilized soldiers. Next in line are 270,000 workers due to be laid off Jan. 1.

"They're getting paid, but they're not working" because their state-owned companies have been decimated, he said.

This is Otwell's first visit stateside in eight months. In a back hallway at the employment center, he had a reunion with his sons, Jim Jr., 15, and Patrick, 14. It was low-key, as befitted an Army officer - a quick hug and a fatherly ruffling of the boys' heads.

Meanwhile, Al-Saeda was describing her vision of Iraq as a tourist mecca, drawing visitors to its mountain scenery and its ancient archaeological sites. "You could say it was a paradise, but not discovered," she said.

The country's economy won't recover this year or next, but it will recover, Al-Dawad predicted.

"I think we're going to make it," she said. "We have three wars in 25 years. All over the world, I'm sure no one can stand what we stand. We are strong."

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