In her work with German NGO CADUS, Adelaide’s Priya Pavri is working to rebuild the cultural tapestry of recently liberated Iraqi city Mosul alongside its physical reconstruction.
“One of the first things you see when you drive through Mosul, especially from the east side to the west side, where most of the destruction took place, is Mosul University,” says Priya Pavri. “It once was an impressive campus, which held some of the oldest and largest libraries and collections of literature in the Middle East. Now only metal structures and ashes remain.”
Pavri is currently at home in Adelaide to spend time with family and friends before going back to work with CADUS, a German emergency response NGO that works primarily in conflict areas. For the past eight months, Pavri has been the country manager of Iraq.
In April 2017, when Pavri moved to Iraq, Mosul was under siege of ISIS. She tells The Adelaide Review that at the time the city had strained medical services and CADUS was one of only three NGOs that worked at the front line to provide emergency trauma care.
After the liberation of Mosul, CADUS helped to run paramedic and first responder training for young women returning to the city in the hope of rebuilding civilian capacity. A group of young university students offered to help at the workshops as translators and Pavri discovered they were also doing grassroots work to rebuild the cultural architecture of the city.
“Most of the city was destroyed by the end of 2016 when Coalition Forces started attacking ISIS inside,” she says. “Reconstruction on the university is beginning to happen: clearing out the rubble, booby traps and rogue improvised explosive devices or IEDs.”
Pavri began working with students from the university, including Nabeel, an artist.
“Nabeel is from Mosul and his story is unique in many ways but not dissimilar to many other people who survived the ISIS occupation. He lost family and was incarcerated for being someone who voiced an opinion.”
Nabeel with one of the book bags he helped design (photo: Priya Pavri)
Together, Nabeel and Pavri created designs for two book bags: one of the Mosul Arch and the other of the university. Both designs were places of cultural significance destroyed through the ISIS occupation. The group began to sell the bags in countries where CADUS volunteers and employees are based: Germany, Brussels and Belgium. The bags are now available for purchase through the online platform, Black Mosquito, a German distributor of social-minded merchandise.
“The purpose of selling the bags is to raise money for a grassroots project that will help the student’s rebuild some of the lost cultural architecture,” she says. “It is a drop in the ocean in terms of the funding they will need so the project is twofold: one is to raise some money, and secondly to empower young people to do projects and put their work out there.”
Mosul University was devastated by bombing throughout the ISIS ocupation (photo: Priya Pavri)
In Pavri’s view, it is crucial to rebuild the cultural tapestry of Mosul as part of its reconstruction. Supporting the city’s inhabitants to partake in and enjoy cultural activity is central to that goal.
“One of the things ISIS did was demoralise a population by the way they targeted schools, universities and libraries and centres of community, culture and art. At the moment this project is just the bags, but there is more scope. For CADUS and me personally we helped to create a platform and build capacity but ultimately we hope to empower the group in having ownership over where this goes.”
Mosul resident and university student Nuha also worked on the book bag project (photo: Priya Pavri)
Furthermore, the loss of Mosul’s incredible cultural heritage is not just a loss for the locals, but for the world in general, Pavri says. Destroying that patrimony prevents outsiders from being able to engage more deeply with the city as a place of history and culture.
“I think when we take away places of cultural significance of a city, old tombs, libraries; it’s not just stealing something from the people who live there but from all of us,” she says. “It takes away our ability to learn and engage with the culture. What ISIS did in Mosul was not only devastating to the people who lived there but for the rest of us. I will never be able to walk into the grand Mosul University Library, go through the archives or pick up a book of old poetry from an Iraqi writer and engage with that in the same way I could walk into a library in Adelaide or Berlin. What Nabeel and this group are doing is prioritising rebuilding culture.
“Often in emergency response we think of necessities: housing, health, safety and education and of course these things are really important but sometimes it’s the things that enrich our souls that are equally as important. Literature, art, community and culture are the heartbeat of a society and we also need to also focus on rebuilding that.”