THE BLOG

Diplomacy From Below Building Anglo-Kurdish Links

11/06/2014 15:17 BST | Updated 10/08/2014 10:59 BST

Several hundred people including the Mayor of Gateshead and the Sheriff of Newcastle, assembled in their finery at a charity ball with a Kurdish twist in Newcastle last weekend.

They were there to support and raise money for the Newcastle Gateshead Medical Volunteers (NGMV), a voluntary organisation of orthopaedic surgeons, doctors, anaesthetists, nursing staff and physiotherapists. Its aim is to provide free orthopaedic operations and healthcare education to people in the Kurdistan Region.

It was founded by a Kurdish orthopaedic surgeon, Deiary Kader and has taken dozens of health professionals to the Kurdistan Region to carry out much needed knee and hip operations. Many people have been waiting, in some cases, for years for operations because of a lack of such capacity in the health system in the Kurdistan Region.

The war in Iraq resulted in the displacement of vast numbers of doctors and health care professionals leaving a huge void in suitably qualified and experienced surgeons. The charity focuses on projects that help rebuild the shattered lives of many thousands of displaced people.

Since 2010, the charity has organised 10 trips to Erbil and Slemani with more than 70 of its UK members travelling to Iraq. They have performed 240 intermediate and major orthopaedic procedures and have seen and treated 1400 patients.

The charity's health care professionals have played a crucial role in raising healthcare standards at the hospitals where they have worked in Kurdistan.

The charity has also organised formal and informal education for local medical and paramedical staff and have persuaded high profile educationalists, surgeons and doctors to teach in Kurdistan.

Deiary Kader and his colleagues are filling gaps in the health service and literally putting Kurds on their own two feet, sometimes after years of being stuck in a wheelchair.

I told the audience how such initiatives do much to build diplomacy from below and at a people-to-people level. Deiary Kader has given evidence to the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee about the work of the NGMV in the hope that it can encourage others, in different fields, to follow his example.

Another pioneer in building Anglo-Kurdish links from below is the King Edward VI School in Bury St Edmunds whose Headteacher and Assistant Headteacher, Geoff Barton and Rob Walden have also given evidence to the Committee.

They and several 17 year-old students have visited Kurdistan with the aim of helping improve teaching methods and styles and overcoming the low importance placed on Physical Exercise (PE) and Sport in the curriculum plus too little such activity outside school hours.

They hope that their visits and the dialogue it creates can increase student responsibility and leadership, activity levels, community links and parental partnership as well as broadening and deepening the understanding of subject and pedagogical knowledge.

I have seen the enthusiasm of the teachers and their pupils in England and also at a school in Slemani - horizons have been broadened on both sides by the connections.

The British school leaders have outlined what they call "an amazing development" - the embrace of Middle Eastern culture, diversity and religion: "the notion that Christians live alongside Muslims for example, was an alien concept - and with our relative mono-religious/mono-cultural school, students (and some parents) went from fascination and fear, to what has now become a normal part of our culture - the embrace of our Kurdish friends." This year, the school celebrated Newroz with a bonfire and Kurdish food/egg decorating, and secured media coverage.

The Committee has also been given evidence about the Anglo-Kurdish success story in Higher Education by Professor Dlawer Ala'Aldeen, President of the Middle East Research Institute and former KRG Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research.

The Professor told the Committee that there is a growing business opportunity in the Kurdistan Region, whose people have a special affinity towards UK, and the British Government is in a strong position to capitalise on this. He says that Britain has won the lion's share of the KRG's $400 million four year scholarship programme for sending talented young professionals to study for Masters and PhDs in international centres of excellence across the world. Over 80% of the nearly 3000 awarded students have chosen to study in the UK. I know that American diplomats are taken aback by this.

He makes the point, however, there are very many other competitors, including USA, Australian and Canadian institutions, who are trying to capitalise on this growing market and cater for Kurdish needs. British institutions should not rest on their laurels but engage more fully and directly.

But these three stories show clearly the potential for a variety of British institutions stepping up to the plate. Kurdistan needs many more such friends and links given Baghdad's needless negativity.