Not too long ago, Rachel Sider, 23, was an undergraduate at Middlebury College in Vermont, going to class and hanging out on the picturesque campus—and about as far away from a war zone as one can get. Today, she lives in Erbil, Iraq, where she’s a humanitarian worker for the international NGO Oxfam (non-goverment organization), for which she analyzes the successes (and failures) of the humanitarian response in the country and finds solutions to help Iraqis move forward. That’s no small task, especially with the increased influence of ISIS, and the day-to-day dangers that persist in a country that’s been ravaged by conflict. We caught up with Sider just before she made her first trip back to the U.S. in six months. Here’s what she had to say about her life in Iraq—and why it’s not exactly the way it looks on TV.
Let’s start at the beginning. How did you become interested in living and working in the Middle East?
It goes back to when I was in college and I was studying abroad in Jordan. It was a really interesting time in Jordan’s development — it was right before the Syrian revolution happened, and it was starting to turn into the Syrian war, where people poured over the border into Jordan…I fell into a group of Syrian artists who had nowhere else to go. These were some young people who were highly talented and impressive, who were not going to be able to go back to their country…The entire time I was back in the United States, I was struggling with the feeling of being completely helpless. I had developed these strong friendships with these people, but could not really help them and could not control what was going on. I wanted to do that, but on a bigger scale.
"I had developed these strong friendships with these people, but could not really help them and could not control what was going on. I wanted to do that, but on a bigger scale."
"I went to Washington, DC after graduation, because that’s what a lot of unemployed grads do. I started working for an organization there…Then I fell into the work with Oxfam when I was working on a short-term assignment in Iraq, and met a few people who were looking to recruit someone because they were looking to start the Oxfam Iraq program."
How did your family react when you told them you were moving to Iraq?
"My extended family was initially pretty shocked and concerned. “Why Iraq? Is it really safe?” But my parents were used to me travelling, and they knew my heart was in the Middle East when I was going through my career search. Given how things developed so quickly last summer with ISIS taking over, they had kind of seen it coming and I had too. They have been really supportive. "
They must see images in the media, though. What do you say to them, to let them know you are safe?
"It helps that I’m 100 percent transparent with them. I tell them what are the risks to my safety, what are the security precautions we’re taking. I’ll tell them when a car bomb goes off just to remind them where I was when it happened, and that [in those attacks] they are not typically going after foreigners. Providing more information makes them more comfortable and aware."
Are there any security precautions you take as an American woman living in Iraq?
"As a woman, I can’t take taxis by myself. I am not allowed to walk around at night by myself. And we are always tracking our movement. When I go for a walk in the neighborhood in the afternoon, I tell someone where I’m going. I am not allowed to run in the neighborhood anymore—it attracts too much attention. During Ramadan, there was a much higher risk of indiscriminate terrorist attacks, so we weren’t allowed to go to any of the malls and some of the grocery stores were off limits."
"When I go for a walk in the neighborhood in the afternoon, I tell someone where I’m going. I am not allowed to run in the neighborhood anymore—it attracts too much attention."
What about any considerations with how you dress?
"I dress conservatively to respect the culture, but I don’t have to cover my head. Mostly, I make sure my legs are covered, my arms are covered, and there’s no cleavage showing."
How have the Iraqis you’ve encountered so far responded to you?
"People are really grateful and appreciative of the work that we are doing. We are working in communities where nobody else has provided assistance. They don’t look at us like, “You’re an American, you’re British,” or whatever. They look at us like we’re there to provide assistance, and that means so much to us."
The U.S. obviously has a sorted history in Iraq. Do people there separate the work you are doing from what the U.S. military has done?
"The work that humanitarian workers do in Iraq is so far removed from the military and security side. It’s two different worlds. Going in, I felt like [humanitarian workers], we were cleaning up their mess, or dealing with the ramifications of what was going on."
In your work, you analyze the humanitarian response in Iraq. Have you personally seen the affects ISIS is having on Iraqis?
"I think I see more of the ISIS side than some people, because my job is to analyze what’s going on in the country…We work in these villages where people say ISIS was here, ISIS took over, they displaced us, or they occupied our town and they blew up the local government building and then the Kurdish forces pushed them out. We come in after they are gone, so you see traces of them, but you don’t see them. "
ISIS is known for its propaganda machine, videos of beheadings and other violent attacks being part of that. Do those media images correspond with what you are seeing?
"The images that come to mind are not beheadings, but the destruction that they have caused and the way they have torn apart the country and these people’s lives. That’s what strikes me. There’s not really an image for it except for the people I’ve met and their faces — but that’s not sexy for the media, that’s not what you will see on CNN."
Is any of your work specifically focused on Iraqi women?
"We work with women whose husbands have lost their jobs because of the conflict, and want to provide for their families — but if you think about what they are able to do in terms of social norms, it’s handing them a sewing machine. That’s something we are trying to figure out. I’m able to have this career, and I’m able to be very public and communicate with whomever I want, and that is something that has been established by my community as socially acceptable. That doesn’t exist for them. It’s making me really grateful and appreciative of the privilege I have, because it’s huge. It also motivates me to want to find a solution for them."
Let’s talk more about your personal experience on the job. What is it like being a woman just out of college, working and living internationally, and with a huge amount of responsibility?
"I have to act a lot older than I am, or at least speak with confidence. That’s what I’ve found. Especially in this field, I’ve had a few experiences where I was put down for my age or lack of experience, and it demonstrated to me that I cannot let that be an area of vulnerability…I’m self conscious on a daily basis. In this field, if you are under 30, you are considered illegitimate."
"I have to act a lot older than I am, or at least speak with confidence. That’s what I’ve found."
Sounds like you’ve had to grow a thicker skin.
"Definitely. People can often be intimidating, especially people who work for the UN [whom she interacts with regularly]. They have a kind of swagger and they carry that with them. You walk into a room with them, and they like to reiterate their expertise and remind you why they are in this position of power. Instead of letting that sink in, I just deflect it and take it as a challenge. It motivates me to demonstrate that I can contend with that or I’m willing to be on the same level."
How does it feel to be so far removed from the lives your friends are living back home?
"It’s strange because it’s really a totally different world. I feel like I’ve had to skip my youth and jump into this really intense, demanding, atypical job when I could be spending my weekends shopping with my girlfriends, catching up, Tinder-ing. But those things don’t exist in my world. I’m so far removed that it’s become foreign to me; it doesn’t really have an affect anymore. The challenge is going back. I’m actually really nervous. It reminds me of everything I’m missing out on."
You’re on your way home now for a couple of weeks — your first time back in the States in six months. What are you looking forward to the most?
"When I go home, what I want is a bowl of granola with Greek yogurt and some blueberries because you can’t get any of those things there…That’s probably my inner Vermonter coming out! And being in a quiet, air-conditioned place, just sitting in a place that has electricity that doesn’t cut out all the time. When I left Iraq today, the temperature was 117 degrees.
**This interview has been edited for length.