On a median of a busy road in Najaf, Iraq, a group of Iraqis and Americans presses tree seedlings into holes. Cars whiz by, scarves billow and peace feels near at hand.
Kathy McKay was one of the four American women planting trees that day in November 2012. Najaf has a Sister City relationship with Minneapolis, and the delegation – which also included three men – was there to further forge bonds between the cities. It was the first civilian group to visit Najaf since 2003.
That McKay was among the delegation is no surprise. She is executive director of the Iraqi and American Reconciliation Project (IARP), a Minneapolis nonprofit whose aim is to promote understanding and relationships between the people of Iraq and the United States. IARP has been influential in building the Sister City relationship (the Minneapolis City Council passed a resolution establishing the connection in 2009) and has spearheaded several projects to promote cultural exchanges and support of Iraqis.
In forming IARP, according to McKay, a group of peace-movement advocates said: “Let’s figure out how we can get to know one another better, how we can connect with Iraqis, how we can broaden our image of Iraqis beyond suicide bombers and facilitate Iraqis seeing Americans more broadly than they might just as a military presence in their country.”
In practice, that has meant welcoming delegations of Iraqis to Minnesota, buying water filters for Iraqi schools, exchanging letters among churches and schools, and visiting Najaf to experience life there.
The November trip was not just about planting trees, but McKay found the tree project to be rewarding.
“The thing that attracts me to it is it’s something hopeful that’s going on in Iraq,” McKay says. “We don’t hear anything about anything to be hopeful about. But this is a story that conveys creativity and enthusiasm and optimism from a group of young people in Iraq.”
Trees are an important asset for desert communities like Najaf. They provide protection from sandstorms and help fight air pollution, McKay says. Najaf lost many trees in the last decade, especially the date palms, which need regular spraying against pests. A U.S. military restriction on Iraqi flights during the Iraq War meant spraying had to stop.
Volunteers for the Najaf-based Plant a Tree Team started replacing trees in the city in November 2011, beginning with schools. The group has planted about 20,000 trees since then, often enlisting the help of students. The American group helped plant 75 trees.
McKay was struck by the similarities between these young professionals and their American counterparts, especially when they pulled out their iPads and posted photos of the delegation on Facebook. But this is just the sort of thing the IARP is trying to prove: “I like the feeling that we’re not all that different,” McKay says.
“You don’t have to be afraid of people you know.”
She met with several women who held posts of relative power, including the principal of a large girls’ school. Much like women in the United States, these women are trying to combat domestic violence, promote literacy among girls and find their voice in the public sphere. McKay notes that there is great concern that girls aren’t staying in school.
“In early Saddam’s time, women in Iraq were the most highly educated of any of the Middle Eastern countries,” she says, but that has changed.
Many of the Iraqis McKay spoke with were open to more collaboration and communication with Americans. They want to learn how things are done here in the West, whether it’s preserving ancient artifacts or helping victims of prostitution. And that is one of the aims of the Sister City relationship. McKay hopes to bring the “Tree Guys,” as she calls them, to Minneapolis to meet with members of its award-winning parks department, for example.
“All of these things kind of shed a different light on Iraqis, which is what I’m interested in doing,” she says. “Expanding beyond the [Iraqis] that make it on our news sites.”
McKay thinks of her volunteer work with IARP as a way to move forward from the conflict that crippled parts of Iraq.
“I was distressed about particularly the outcome of our involvement in Iraq,” she says. “This seemed like something small that I could do to contribute in a positive way.”
And planting the trees?
That was a labor of love, too: McKay’s family farm in Wisconsin is planted with red pines. “I’ve always had an awareness of trees bringing health into the environment,” she says.
It seems possible that trees bring reconciliation, too.