This article was orginally published on LeadersIn.com, written by Leah Kinthaert

Each year the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network collects data to assess where countries stand on progress toward the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

One would expect a wealthy country like the United States to be doing well in the ranking, but in fact: “the United States ranks 35th out of 162 countries in terms of sustainable development…. well below the Nordic countries that top this year’s index – Denmark, Sweden and Finland – and among the worst across OECD countries with a total score of 74.5%.” The UK, where this site LeadersIn is based, we are happy to say ranks 13th. I point out these statistics to show assumptions, assumptions that wealthy countries should indeed be winning when it comes to sustainability.

To hear that communities such as those in war torn countries –  where people are at bare minimum trying to avoid being bombed, persecuted by their government or starve to death – are tirelessly working towards sustainability is both surprising and inspiring. At Greenbuild 2019, “Green Building and Sustainability in Troubled Societies” we heard from sustainability leaders working with Palestinians in Israel and Kurds in Iraq; their messages galvanized attendees with their hope and determination in the face of struggle.

Sustainability in Iraq Doesn’t Exist

Bahar Armaghani, Director, Sustainability and the Built Environment, UF Green Building Learning Collaborative and Lecturer at University of Florida began the discussion quoting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” Armaghani gave some history on the Kurdish region in Iraq. The problems for the Kurdish people “started with Saddam Hussein and have gone from bad to worse. This region has oil, natural gas, sulphur, phosphate. There are 35 million Kurds, it is the largest ethnicity in the world without a country, with 12 million in Turkey, 6 million in Iran, about 5 to 6 million in Iraq, and less than 2 million in Syria.”

Armaghani continued: “Sustainability in Iraq doesn’t exist, they have so many other issues, it’s on the back burner. Sustainability in the Kurdistan region is more advanced than rest of country. In the 80s Saddam Hussein killed 5,000 Kurds and injured 10,000 in a chemical attack, he then killed 180,000 Kurds.”

“In this region 70% live in urban areas. They are migrating from villages to cities, and it’s a major environmental issue, planning, transport, air quality. They have land and water in Kurdistan but they are unable to stay in their homes because of violence.”

“There’s always a new day” said Armaghani. “When Saddam Hussein was overthrown in 2003 you saw the resilience of the people, especially in the Kurdistan region, they got autonomy.”

That Little Seed We Planted

Armaghani explained how she ended up working in Iraq: “They said noone wants to go to that region (Iraq  – to train on LEED), I said ‘I’ll go!’ We mixed sustainability with job creation economic development, establishing the Jordan green building council. I did the same project with the Republic of Georgia, building codes. We provide incentives, education and awareness. I also work with the Iraqi young leaders exchange program (IYLEP). The students I taught have gone on to become leaders in their community.”

“But then in 2014 Isis happened” recalled Armaghani. “That little seed we planted, I said to myself, this may be the end. ISIS destroyed the city of Mosul, burning 8,000 rare books and manuscripts. They were in defeated 2017. The people were incredibly resilient, in Spring 2018, with the re-introduction of LEED and green buildings. They held an international conference. It was the most rewarding thing to see people from this devastated city eager to learn about sustainability to rebuild their city.” Armaghani talked about all of the organizations she worked with and partnered with in Kurdistan including the University of Salahaddin, University of Kurdistan Hewler, Nawroz University, Duhok Polytechnic and the University of Duhok. She helped establish and is the Director of the director of the Sister City program Gainesville/Duhok.

Armaghani gave some details about her work with these universities, and their outcomes: “I work with the Center for Resilience and Sustainability at the University of Nawroz. We find solid data and integrate with solutions and policies. I established a sustainability exploration program with the University of Florida where students can learn about sustainability hands on. Plus it creates a linkage between students.”  Armaghani ended her talk with a quote from Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has.”

A Bridge of Peace

Jennifer Sheffield, Head of LEED Consulting at GBWAWA based in Givatayim, Tel Aviv, Israel was the second and final speaker. Sheffield focused on her work with advising Sakhnin Municipality, an Arab city in Israel, on responsible development and the UN SDGs. Sheffield described her sustainability journey and gave the audience some background on who lives in Sakhnin and the surrounding communities.

Sheffield: “I am a Mexican American, working on green building (in the Middle East). I wanted to do a masters in conflict resolution, at the time didn’t know how it had anything to do with LEED but I convinced my boss. My role is to interpret the role of identity, culture, stakeholder input and community engagement in development activities.”

“20% of citizens of Israel are of Palestinian descent, it’s a separate group” Sheffield explained. “They are full, complete citizens of Israel, but they are almost completely segregated.” Sheffield gave us some history of the Sakhnin area to put her current work in context. “On Land Day 1976 the Israeli state government appropriated lands from Palestinian famers. During the protest 6 Israeli Arabs died. On October 2000, the Camp David talks were not successful. This led to the deaths of 12 local citizens.”

In the midst of all this, an organization called TAEQ was started in the 1990s “to serve as a bridge of peace between people to people and between people and the environment. It consisted of 6 Arab towns in Israel, it was a regional environmental unit.” Their motto is “To live in the land in peace, one must first live in peace with the land.”

They decided to build a community center. Before they did that Sheffield related how they asked the question: “How might identity and culture affect the design of the environmental center in this region of divided societies? They spoke to the community, leaders, elders, youth and local artists in the 2000s. The end result honored their ancestors and their culture. They used all local materials and the building featured Mulgufs wind towers and Mashrabiya window coverings. Ancient designs that are actually energy efficient.”

Sustainability is More Than Green Building

“TAEQ wanted to take it a step further and reach outside of Sakhnin to Misgav which is an Israeli region” said Sheffield. But these two are still angry with each other. Sheffield continued: “The dispute is a microcosm of a larger conflict. They entered into a 2-year mediation process. When another war in Gaza broke out, they still met in secret to build a relationship and trust that would allow them to discuss possible scenarios. Sakhnin has 30K people 2.4K acres while Misgav has 21K people and 47K acres.”

In 2016 they came to a memorandum of understanding to work on sustainability initiatives that ranged from biking and walking trails to educational programs. They acknowledge too that sustainability is more than just green building, but includes social justice women’s empowerment, peace, justice and strong institutions.”

At the end of their talks the audience was able to ask questions. Connections were made on the spot in the room that afternoon, when a woman with family in the Caribbean said she wanted to bring sustainability to her home country but didn’t know how to start. Jennifer Sheffield offered her business card to the woman, with this statement: “How to start? Go there, meet people, find champions. then from there build your base. People see your face. Once you establish some champions on the ground will get you moving. Here’s my card, I will help you.”

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