Breathing freedom

Grassroots movement to build understanding

Grassroots movement to build understanding

Blending in: Mickey Waitoa in Afghanistan at the Old Kandahar citadel of Shah Hussain Hotaki that was destroyed by the Afsharid forces of Nader Shah in 1738.

Pictures supplied
Mickey Waitoa in West Mosul, Iraq.
Mickey in Arghandab River, Kandahar, Afghanistan — the heartland of the Taliban.
Mickey (right) and Iraqi colleagues inside the mosque of Maqam al-Imam Al-Husayn ibn ‘Ali, in Karbala Iraq.
Mickey (second from left) with Sunni and Shia colleagues inside Saddam Hussein’s palace in Babylon, Iraq.
The dusty desert town of Qalay-I-Naw, Badghis, Afghanistan.

A small child leaned out the window of a bus, tears of joy streaming down her young face. The four-year- old was leaving the hell that has kept her from breathing freely for the past two years.

“After two years under ISIS, I saw her smile . . . and breathe freedom,” says East Coast man Mickey Waitoa who is based in Iraq, providing unarmed safety and security for humanitarian organisations, refugees and internally-displaced people.

But there was fear in her expression too. Despite her tender years, the little girl had witnessed “evil beyond evil, evil beyond comprehension”, says Mickey who is of Ngati Porou descent, grew up at Tikitiki and has been based in Iraq for the past three years.

“She escaped thanks to the valour and courage of the Iraqi soldiers who got the busload out of a neighbourhood in the Rashidiya district in East Mosul,” he says.

Mickey has witnessed Iraq implode during the sectarian violence of the post-invasion period and then explode with the advent of ISIS. Since 2014, he has been the sole New Zealander living and working in East Mosul, one of many communities in Iraq “devastated by evil, fashioned into a festering septic hell on earth”.

“There’s no limit to the brutality of ISIS — they have even been known to gut children while still alive, in front of their parents. It’s evil beyond evil,” he says. “There are no other words I can use to describe such destruction of flesh and bone, concrete and mortar . . . but ISIS can’t destroy the soul and the spirit!” he says.

As the bus disappeared in a cloud of hot desert dust, down the road past the military and militias, Mickey sat and listened to the elders and community leaders of Bartella and Qara Qoush — majority Christian cities — tell of their struggle to live in this land.

“With trembling but dignified voices, they asked not for help to rebuild their homes, but for support to restore their community school,” he says. “They want it to shine with colour, to radiate hope, to be the beacon that leads their community back and to believe in life again.”

They said to me, “as long as someone cares then there is hope”.

Mickey began to formulate a plan to bring hope to the people and help rebuild the school by enlisting the support of “Coasties and Gizzy-ites”.

“Imagine our community supporting the refurbishment of the school to be the beacon of hope these people so desperately need — a kind of Gisborne-centric version of VSA (Volunteer Service Abroad) involving our educationalists, accountants, lawyers, engineers, first responders, journalists and managers building relationships and partnering with their counterparts in Iraq, transfering knowledge and expertise.”

Mickey put out some feelers and got a positive response to his concept.

“That gave me hope and courage to take the idea a step further.”

‘Putting money where his mouth is’

So he put his “money where his mouth is” and created a charity to offer such support.

He established “The Kiwi Corps” (formally registered as The Teach Club), a New Zealand-registered charity which has the capacity to work here and in Iraq.

“The aim of Kiwi Corps is to implement self-help humanitarian projects to support communities impacted by natural disasters and armed conflict. A collaboration of young and old, male and female, civil society and government officials, Kiwi Corps will support families to engage in and take ownership of a free after-school teaching and learning framework.

“The initial focus is on countering violent extremism such as ISIS as well as providing food, shelter, WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene), education and health. To date, we have a team from New Zealand, Iraq, the Philippines, and soon Singapore. Our concept, processes and products have been rigorously tested and sent to the various embassies for the solicitation of funds.”

Mickey also hopes to help facilitate Resurrection Nimrud, a regional economic recovery programme in Mosul.

“I have the backing of central and local government, tribal authorities and the community of Nimrud. The initiative might include the restoration of the ancient Tomb of Jonah destroyed by ISIS bombs in March 2015. My intent is to engage museums in New Zealand and abroad for support in establishing a technical training unit in archaeology to help local communities get back on their feet.

“I am also in dialogue with Iraq’s Department of Antiquities and the Ministry of Cultural Heritage, working with the best of the best in terms of Iraqi archeologists — one from the British museum and two professors who taught at Mosul University. The deputy director of antiquities for Nineveh is onboard as well as the governor of Nineveh. The project is not just about archeology, but that’s the catalyst and the symbolic focal point.

“ISIS may think they destroy history by blowing up sites like this but they can’t break the soul and the spirit of the people. The region needs sustainable employment, education and a means to get their dignity back. The archaeological project is the springboard for this to happen. We hope to teach men and women to be field assistants and, using the information they uncover at the archaeological site, children at the school will learn about history in real time. Then the school students will format this on to video and audio-visual digital magazines for free distribution in Iraq and other schools worldwide.”

So far, Mickey has funded the project himself to get it up and running.

“But I’m not a do-gooder,” he says. “And I have no hidden agenda — I just care. There’s no big ego here. Where I grew up at Tikitiki, it’s a natural thing for us to help others. It’s in our DNA — if we set our minds and hearts to do something, we can do it. It’s called being a Kiwi, a Coastie, a Gizzy-ite.

“There is no financial profit, nor will there be. I am a Kiwi, and you don’t profiteer from the suffering of others. But there is profit of a different type — it’s called kindness and gratitude.”

Staying alive in Iraq

So how does an unarmed Coastie manage to live and work and stay alive in Iraq?

“When I’m there, I grow a beard and blend in. I look like a local,” he says. “My job is to gain access for aid agencies, and then do security risk assessments to mitigate risk.”

The technical definition of his work is “the act of controlling vulnerability through general strategies and specific measures that influence the probability and impact of a threat occurring — capacity, procedures, protocols, restrictions, mechanisms, transparency, neutrality and acceptance which supports programme outreach, continuity and duty of care of staff and recipients” . . . which translated into simple terms means it’s his job to minimise the risk of people getting hurt or killed.

Previous missions include two years in Africa (Sudan — Darfur, South Sudan, Juba and Jonglei state; and Democratic Republic of the Congo — Goma, North and South Kivu), Kenya, Rwanda, Afghanistan, Jordan, Turkey, Syria, Yemen, East Timor and Cambodia. If it sounds like dangerous work, that’s because it is.

Mickey interacts with civil and military administration, battlespace commanders, US Navy Seal and Green Beret commanders, Iraqi soldiers, tribal hierarchy, chiefs and local governors.

“I have a safety framework in place. The local people trust me. It’s about respect, total honesty and building rapport. I’ve established close relationships with tribal leaders and key people in the community. My contacts take me into an area and I look at all the demographics to assess risk.”

He won trust and their respect when he stood up for the Iraqis against big organisations — which he cannot name.

“It’s about keeping my word.”

Meeting Mickey

I met Mickey in person when he returned to Gisborne earlier this year. He’s an unassuming, modest man with a passionate desire and ambitious vision to make a difference. I asked him how a lad from Tikitiki ended up working in one of the most dangerous places in the world today.

“It’s the culmination of different experiences, skill sets, and qualifications gathered throughout my life which now provide the foundations that underpin the activities I’m involved with. In my early years, I worked for the New Zealand Forestry Service before the government department was privatised. That’s where I developed the practical understanding of geography and topography that I utilise now during operational programme planning.

“And as a member of the New Zealand Defence Force Reserves, I learned new skills and enhanced existing skills. However, the skill set that has supported my current engagement in conflict zones to a greater degree than other competencies stems from my time as a volunteer firefighter. As a volee, I learned what I describe as real and quick-time contextualised analytics — see, analyse and respond.

“To this day, I’m grateful to the whanau who dedicated their time to training and mentoring volunteer firefighters. Also, during my time as a civil servant, I gained functional management competencies that now support the safety component of humanitarian emergency and development programmes I implement.”

Now in his 50s, Mickey holds a senior safety position that covers Iraq and Kurdistan, Yemen, Jordon, Syria, Lebanon and Palestine.

On home turf

Mickey relished his time on peaceful home turf.

“It’s so refreshing to be back in Gisborne — breathing freely. I go out walking early in the morning and climb up Kaiti Hill. I see people chilling out, eating, drinking coffee, walking and surfing, paddling waka ama on the river, boys jumping off the bridge, a native pigeon feeding in a cabbage tree. Everyone says ‘good morning’. I see vibrant, colourful scenes. We’re in good heart here in Gizzy and the East Coast. To me, the place resonates community and whanau.”

Mickey hopes his Kiwi Corps concept will capture the hearts and imaginations of “Coasties and Gizzy-ites”.

“Kiwi Corps provides a framework for individuals, groups and communities to engage at a grass-roots level with different cultures, races and religions beyond New Zealand on archaeological, educational, developmental and humanitarian projects.”

He’s a man with a big vision.

“Looking ahead, I hope to extend the concept across the Asia-Pacific region to help build understanding and thwart the development of violent insurgency. Watch this space,” he said with a huge grin.

A small child leaned out the window of a bus, tears of joy streaming down her young face. The four-year- old was leaving the hell that has kept her from breathing freely for the past two years.

“After two years under ISIS, I saw her smile . . . and breathe freedom,” says East Coast man Mickey Waitoa who is based in Iraq, providing unarmed safety and security for humanitarian organisations, refugees and internally-displaced people.

But there was fear in her expression too. Despite her tender years, the little girl had witnessed “evil beyond evil, evil beyond comprehension”, says Mickey who is of Ngati Porou descent, grew up at Tikitiki and has been based in Iraq for the past three years.

“She escaped thanks to the valour and courage of the Iraqi soldiers who got the busload out of a neighbourhood in the Rashidiya district in East Mosul,” he says.

Mickey has witnessed Iraq implode during the sectarian violence of the post-invasion period and then explode with the advent of ISIS. Since 2014, he has been the sole New Zealander living and working in East Mosul, one of many communities in Iraq “devastated by evil, fashioned into a festering septic hell on earth”.

“There’s no limit to the brutality of ISIS — they have even been known to gut children while still alive, in front of their parents. It’s evil beyond evil,” he says. “There are no other words I can use to describe such destruction of flesh and bone, concrete and mortar . . . but ISIS can’t destroy the soul and the spirit!” he says.

As the bus disappeared in a cloud of hot desert dust, down the road past the military and militias, Mickey sat and listened to the elders and community leaders of Bartella and Qara Qoush — majority Christian cities — tell of their struggle to live in this land.

“With trembling but dignified voices, they asked not for help to rebuild their homes, but for support to restore their community school,” he says. “They want it to shine with colour, to radiate hope, to be the beacon that leads their community back and to believe in life again.”

They said to me, “as long as someone cares then there is hope”.

Mickey began to formulate a plan to bring hope to the people and help rebuild the school by enlisting the support of “Coasties and Gizzy-ites”.

“Imagine our community supporting the refurbishment of the school to be the beacon of hope these people so desperately need — a kind of Gisborne-centric version of VSA (Volunteer Service Abroad) involving our educationalists, accountants, lawyers, engineers, first responders, journalists and managers building relationships and partnering with their counterparts in Iraq, transfering knowledge and expertise.”

Mickey put out some feelers and got a positive response to his concept.

“That gave me hope and courage to take the idea a step further.”

‘Putting money where his mouth is’

So he put his “money where his mouth is” and created a charity to offer such support.

He established “The Kiwi Corps” (formally registered as The Teach Club), a New Zealand-registered charity which has the capacity to work here and in Iraq.

“The aim of Kiwi Corps is to implement self-help humanitarian projects to support communities impacted by natural disasters and armed conflict. A collaboration of young and old, male and female, civil society and government officials, Kiwi Corps will support families to engage in and take ownership of a free after-school teaching and learning framework.

“The initial focus is on countering violent extremism such as ISIS as well as providing food, shelter, WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene), education and health. To date, we have a team from New Zealand, Iraq, the Philippines, and soon Singapore. Our concept, processes and products have been rigorously tested and sent to the various embassies for the solicitation of funds.”

Mickey also hopes to help facilitate Resurrection Nimrud, a regional economic recovery programme in Mosul.

“I have the backing of central and local government, tribal authorities and the community of Nimrud. The initiative might include the restoration of the ancient Tomb of Jonah destroyed by ISIS bombs in March 2015. My intent is to engage museums in New Zealand and abroad for support in establishing a technical training unit in archaeology to help local communities get back on their feet.

“I am also in dialogue with Iraq’s Department of Antiquities and the Ministry of Cultural Heritage, working with the best of the best in terms of Iraqi archeologists — one from the British museum and two professors who taught at Mosul University. The deputy director of antiquities for Nineveh is onboard as well as the governor of Nineveh. The project is not just about archeology, but that’s the catalyst and the symbolic focal point.

“ISIS may think they destroy history by blowing up sites like this but they can’t break the soul and the spirit of the people. The region needs sustainable employment, education and a means to get their dignity back. The archaeological project is the springboard for this to happen. We hope to teach men and women to be field assistants and, using the information they uncover at the archaeological site, children at the school will learn about history in real time. Then the school students will format this on to video and audio-visual digital magazines for free distribution in Iraq and other schools worldwide.”

So far, Mickey has funded the project himself to get it up and running.

“But I’m not a do-gooder,” he says. “And I have no hidden agenda — I just care. There’s no big ego here. Where I grew up at Tikitiki, it’s a natural thing for us to help others. It’s in our DNA — if we set our minds and hearts to do something, we can do it. It’s called being a Kiwi, a Coastie, a Gizzy-ite.

“There is no financial profit, nor will there be. I am a Kiwi, and you don’t profiteer from the suffering of others. But there is profit of a different type — it’s called kindness and gratitude.”

Staying alive in Iraq

So how does an unarmed Coastie manage to live and work and stay alive in Iraq?

“When I’m there, I grow a beard and blend in. I look like a local,” he says. “My job is to gain access for aid agencies, and then do security risk assessments to mitigate risk.”

The technical definition of his work is “the act of controlling vulnerability through general strategies and specific measures that influence the probability and impact of a threat occurring — capacity, procedures, protocols, restrictions, mechanisms, transparency, neutrality and acceptance which supports programme outreach, continuity and duty of care of staff and recipients” . . . which translated into simple terms means it’s his job to minimise the risk of people getting hurt or killed.

Previous missions include two years in Africa (Sudan — Darfur, South Sudan, Juba and Jonglei state; and Democratic Republic of the Congo — Goma, North and South Kivu), Kenya, Rwanda, Afghanistan, Jordan, Turkey, Syria, Yemen, East Timor and Cambodia. If it sounds like dangerous work, that’s because it is.

Mickey interacts with civil and military administration, battlespace commanders, US Navy Seal and Green Beret commanders, Iraqi soldiers, tribal hierarchy, chiefs and local governors.

“I have a safety framework in place. The local people trust me. It’s about respect, total honesty and building rapport. I’ve established close relationships with tribal leaders and key people in the community. My contacts take me into an area and I look at all the demographics to assess risk.”

He won trust and their respect when he stood up for the Iraqis against big organisations — which he cannot name.

“It’s about keeping my word.”

Meeting Mickey

I met Mickey in person when he returned to Gisborne earlier this year. He’s an unassuming, modest man with a passionate desire and ambitious vision to make a difference. I asked him how a lad from Tikitiki ended up working in one of the most dangerous places in the world today.

“It’s the culmination of different experiences, skill sets, and qualifications gathered throughout my life which now provide the foundations that underpin the activities I’m involved with. In my early years, I worked for the New Zealand Forestry Service before the government department was privatised. That’s where I developed the practical understanding of geography and topography that I utilise now during operational programme planning.

“And as a member of the New Zealand Defence Force Reserves, I learned new skills and enhanced existing skills. However, the skill set that has supported my current engagement in conflict zones to a greater degree than other competencies stems from my time as a volunteer firefighter. As a volee, I learned what I describe as real and quick-time contextualised analytics — see, analyse and respond.

“To this day, I’m grateful to the whanau who dedicated their time to training and mentoring volunteer firefighters. Also, during my time as a civil servant, I gained functional management competencies that now support the safety component of humanitarian emergency and development programmes I implement.”

Now in his 50s, Mickey holds a senior safety position that covers Iraq and Kurdistan, Yemen, Jordon, Syria, Lebanon and Palestine.

On home turf

Mickey relished his time on peaceful home turf.

“It’s so refreshing to be back in Gisborne — breathing freely. I go out walking early in the morning and climb up Kaiti Hill. I see people chilling out, eating, drinking coffee, walking and surfing, paddling waka ama on the river, boys jumping off the bridge, a native pigeon feeding in a cabbage tree. Everyone says ‘good morning’. I see vibrant, colourful scenes. We’re in good heart here in Gizzy and the East Coast. To me, the place resonates community and whanau.”

Mickey hopes his Kiwi Corps concept will capture the hearts and imaginations of “Coasties and Gizzy-ites”.

“Kiwi Corps provides a framework for individuals, groups and communities to engage at a grass-roots level with different cultures, races and religions beyond New Zealand on archaeological, educational, developmental and humanitarian projects.”

He’s a man with a big vision.

“Looking ahead, I hope to extend the concept across the Asia-Pacific region to help build understanding and thwart the development of violent insurgency. Watch this space,” he said with a huge grin.

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