Camilo Romero ’12 speaks matter-of-factly about his final day in the autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq, when his scheduled meeting with a local attorney in Erbil, the regional capital, was canceled due to a nearby suicide bombing that killed at least four people and wounded more than two dozen. Among those injured in the explosion, attributed to the Islamic State (aka ISIS or ISIL), was the local lawyer’s cousin.

“It wasn’t until that explosion that we realized we never quite know who’s exposed,” says Romero, adding, “We were fortunate in the two weeks we were there to have very smooth relations and not get caught up in any of the violence.”

Romero was on a grassroots humanitarian mission with Medya Shikhagaie, a Kurd who had fled Iran with her family when she was young and had grown up in Sweden. Now an immunology researcher in the Netherlands, Shikhagaie met Romero a decade ago when they were both studying at the University of California, Berkeley. Long familiar with Romero’s passionate international pursuit of social justice, she invited him to accompany her to Iraqi Kurdistan to distribute clothing, medical supplies, and food to refugees. They financed their mission through the crowdfunding website GoFundMe, raising more than $5,000 in a single month.

After flying into Erbil on November 7, Romero and Shikhagaie loaded their supplies into a Peugeot with Iranian plates (not the most inconspicuous vehicle, Romero acknowledges) and began a 600-mile circuit of northern Iraq, visiting Taqtaq, Duhok, Zakho, Dayrabun, Amedi, and Barzan before returning to Kurdistan’s capital. The two stayed clear of ISIS-controlled territory.

With the help of local hosts who advised them on where to distribute supplies, Romero and Shikhagaie gave out clothing, shoes, and blankets to more than 600 people, and bags of food to about 120 families. The crowds that greeted them represented a mélange of ethnicities, nationalities, and religious backgrounds. Many had fled Syria after the onset of its civil war; many more had arrived from Syria, Turkey, and elsewhere to escape encroaching ISIS forces. Romero even noted older generations of refugees, such as Iranians who had opposed Ayatollah Khomeini. International aid organizations as well as both the Kurdish and foreign governments had already established a presence in the region; Romero and Shikhagaie focused on abandoned buildings populated by those who had fallen through the cracks.

“There’s no question that the food and clothing were well received, but the interviews we did with families were often the first time they were able to express to someone who isn’t in their family what has happened to them,” says Romero. “They weren’t damning anyone or pointing fingers. Most of the time it was simply, ‘This is what’s happening to us, and we’re doing the best we can.’”

Despite their attempts to maintain low profiles, Romero and Shikhagaie found themselves in both a major Kurdish newspaper and local television news. The media’s interest in their mission was shared by the government minister recently appointed to address the refugee crisis; Romero and Shikhagaie visited with the official and discussed future collaboration.

Romero also wanted to meet with a local judge. While he could not arrange that, he did speak with a local attorney (not the one whose cousin was wounded), who described the dire need for non-commercial lawyers in Iraq. The conversation prompted Romero to consider organizing a delegation of legal academics to travel to Iraq in the next year, aiming to establish a dialogue about the rule of law and how to kick-start the teaching of non-commercial law. The ultimate objective, he says, is to build an infrastructure for meaningful civil and criminal legal representation. Shikhagaie would also like to return with medical personnel to provide health care to refugees.

The Iraqi mission may seem like a departure for Romero, given his background. Romero, whose family fled to the US before he was born to escape unrest in Colombia, has previously focused on addressing alleged abuses of union organizers in Coca-Cola facilities in Colombia, and the problems of gang violence in Los Angeles. He’s currently living in Colombia’s Chocó department, working with Coordinador Nacional Agrario (CNA), a national farmworkers’ association, and sponsored by the National Lawyers Guild to advocate for workers on issues including alternative agriculture, wrongful fumigation, and mining contracts. But the work in Iraq, he says, reminds him of his Colombian efforts in terms of human suffering.

“I hope to bring some more attention to what’s happening there,” Romero says of Iraq. “I feel very lucky to have been educated about it.” He remains undaunted by a suicide bomb or the kidnapping of a general by guerrillas near Romero’s own Chocó quarters: “I rarely feel scared or in danger. I’m going to places where we humans forget to be humans to each other.”

Posted December 17, 2014