Iraq is an incredibly beautiful country with a rich and complex history. The country is filled with kind people who inhabit some of the least explored terrains on earth and is home to fascinating ancient sites such as Mesopotamia. Much of the country’s stunning natural beauty -- mountain ranges, deserts, palm-fringed oases -- remains a well-kept secret, seldom seen by foreigners.
Iraq sometimes gets overlooked in the volunteer world due to its tenuous security situation. Ravaged by war for more than a decade, Iraq has been rebuilding itself and its doors have slowly been opening up to the rest of the world. Unfortunately, the political situation in Iraq is still very complicated, due to the aftermath of the U.S. invasion in 2003. Struggle is still a part of everyday life, but the country has recently been more peaceful since the retaking of Mosul.
As a volunteer in Iraq, you’ll have the opportunity to help in a wide variety of areas, such as human rights, construction, education, gender equality, humanitarian aid, and community development.
At Go Overseas, we strive to provide the most comprehensive program listings available, with reviews to help you choose the right volunteer abroad program for you. Unfortunately, at this time we do not have programs we feel comfortable suggesting if you want to volunteer in Syria. You can read the rest of this guide to volunteering in Syria, which includes some global organizations recommendations to start researching volunteer alternatives, use the search page to look for programs, or consider volunteering in a neighboring country to support volunteer efforts in the region around Syria. Good countries to consider as alternatives to volunteering in Syria include Jordan, Turkey, Greece, and Lebanon.
Due to the aftermath of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, there are opportunities for a variety of different volunteer programs throughout the country. Depending on your interests and skills, you could work in areas like teaching English, providing child care and basic support services for families, collecting and distributing food and supplies in refugee camps, or helping provide medical care. Major work is in the general areas of humanitarian aid and community development is needed.
Community Development and Construction
Widespread poverty and war have created considerable barriers preventing youth from succeeding in many parts of Iraq. As a volunteer in a community development or construction program, you’ll be working closely with communities to build youth centers, creating sports and music programs, and maybe working together to plant local gardens.
You may also be involved with hands-on physical labor in order to build youth and education centers from the ground up since much of the country’s infrastructure was damaged or completely ruined during the war. Hundreds of thousands of citizens have been displaced by conflict, but as a volunteer, you can empower communities to rebuild what has been devastated by the war.
It’s estimated that over 10 million people in Iraq require humanitarian assistance. Humanitarian aid provides material and logistical assistance to those in need, often in response to man-made conflicts. Refugees who have been driven out of their homes make up a large portion of people in need in Iraq, which has created many volunteer positions in refugee camps.
There are numerous NGOs that are promoting human rights and working to improve the conditions of refugees. The International Rescue Committee (IRC) provides humanitarian aid and support to Iraqi citizens and Syrian refugees in Iraq who have been affected by the ongoing political conflicts. As a volunteer, you may help provide many of life’s necessities, including shelter, food, water, and safety to those in need. If you’re interested in this type of work, you could consider applying to volunteer with IRC, the Peace Corps, or the Medical Corps.
Iraq ranks 121 out of 188 on The Human Development Index, which looks at life expectancy, education, and per capita income. Teaching English, as well as any other subject, is one of the most important areas for volunteering in Iraq. Learning English means a better future for Iraqi youth, and it opens up the doors to new and exciting opportunities, like working in the tourism sector.
Gender inequality is another ongoing issue in Iraq. Being a teacher, you can help bring an end to inequality by teaching communities about the importance of education for all children. By working closely with communities, you will also help to empower women, as young girls are vulnerable and at risk for abuse and early marriage. Many children drop out of school at a young age to help provide income for their family, while access to education across Iraq remains an ongoing struggle as educational infrastructure has been damaged due to the economic conflicts.
Where to Volunteer in Iraq
Volunteer opportunities are scattered throughout Iraq. Many volunteer programs in Iraq are located in Baghdad, while others are located in isolated rural communities far away from large urban centers, as well as in large cities such as Mosul and Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan. If you do volunteer in a rural area, be sure the program you’re volunteering with is equipped with the necessary medical and safety supplies. The U.S. government highly recommends to completely avoid any region where terrorism is an increased threat.
Housing & Accommodation
Housing in Iraq can vary widely depending on where you’re volunteering, what type of work you’re doing, and with whom you’re volunteering. Accommodation can range from very basic dorm-type rooms to more comfortable quarters in larger cities. To make sure you’re not in for a surprise upon arriving, be sure to thoroughly discuss housing and accommodation with your program prior to arriving. Most volunteers are provided with room and board but should remember that amenities will often be practical and modest.
Language Requirements & Tips
Generally, there are no language requirements to volunteer in Iraq, especially considering the dire need for volunteers in a number of areas. However, if you do speak Arabic or Kurdish, your skills will be invaluable in helping communicate with locals, and you will be able to volunteer in more specific areas of interest to you.
Talking with program organizers before leaving will ensure you have all the necessary belongings to volunteer. If you’re volunteering in a rural area, you may need to bring hygiene and medical supplies with you from home that won't likely be available for purchase in Iraq.
Cultural norms will definitely be different than what you’re used to at home. You will be expected to adhere to local customs and to dress respectfully, perhaps in local attire. It’s hot in Iraq -- bring a hat and don’t skimp on the sunblock! Don’t forget to bring a pair of comfortable, high-quality shoes.
U.S. citizens need a visa to travel and volunteer in Iraq. Your program may help with obtaining visas for your time overseas. However, visa rules and regulations are subject to change at any time. Be sure to have copies of travel and identity documentation including passport, license, vaccinations, and insurance.
It’s recommended to bring and have cash with you in case there is no access to an ATM. Be discreet about money and carry small bills, which are good for tipping. Locals are often happy to see you and will be genuinely hospitable.
Costs of living can be high, particularly if you have to pay for accommodation, but your program likely covers that. Food is very affordable, so if food isn’t included in your program, eating out won’t break the bank. If you plan on using your cell phone, you’ll need to buy a local SIM card. WIFI is common, particularly in urban areas.
Prior to leaving for Iraq, check with your local travel clinic to see if you need any vaccines, and make sure you’re up to date on routine vaccines, such as measles-mumps-rubella, tetanus, and influenza. There is a possibility you will need a yellow fever vaccination, depending on countries you've previously visited.
Healthcare is widely available in larger urban areas, but not as much in rural areas. Food and water are commonly accessible. Tap water in Iraq may be unfit to drink, but bottled water is ubiquitous. Traveler's diarrhea is a possibility for anyone traveling to Iraq. To limit your chances of getting sick, be sure your food is thoroughly cooked and don’t eat any foods that aren’t fresh. Having comprehensive insurance is absolutely necessary. Check with your program to see if they cover insurance.
The U.S. Department of State warns American citizens against all travel to Iraq due to security incidents, acts of terrorism, violent crime, kidnapping, and political and religious violence that is prevalent across the country. The north-east provinces in Kurdistan are considered safer for foreigners, but the security situation is widely unpredictable in the rest of the country. It is advisable to volunteer with a credible program rather than traveling independently.
Regardless, there is still a great need for volunteers in many sectors throughout Iraq. And, in fact, travel to Iraq can be a fun and rewarding learning experience. You will undeniably meet wonderful people, but it’s important to always abide by local customs and laws and to remain cautious. Dress modestly, particularly in rural areas, and behave discreetly while respecting cultural traditions to avoid offending locals.