Returning Home: Northern Iraq’s Beauticians and Barbers Get Back to Work

The most popular haircut is the Ronaldo – after Cristiano – with Barcelona FC’s Lionel Messi and Neymar da Silva Santos Júnior coming in close behind.

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Dec 21 2016, 12:45am

A multi-part editorial series exploring Untold Stories of Hope from Iraq, presented by Oxfam.

Paid Partner Content – this content was paid for by Oxfam and was created in collaboration with VICE creative services, independently from the VICE editorial staff.

As the oldest in his family, Saed Ahmed was responsible for fixing problems. When furniture broke, he'd repair it. When his mother needed medical treatment, he'd raise money for it. And when his brother was taken hostage by ISIS in mid-2014, he knew what he had to do.

His barbershop, 'The Golden Scissors', was the first to open again in February 2016 after the Islamist militant group were forced out. Its restoration has been made possible in part by a grant from Oxfam, who are giving payments of $2,000 to small business owners, to help them get back on their feet.

Sitting inside the shop - compact and minimalist, with mirrors held up by cork board and loose pieces of stone still lying on the floor – Ahmed, 38, tells his story.

All photos by Sam Tarling

In Jalawla, a northern Iraqi town home to around 80,000 before ISIS attacked, he's been cutting hair since the age of 13.

Ahmed's brother Muhammad was in the Iraqi army. On August 5, 2014, when ISIS arrived in the area, Ahmed, his wife and five children, and his 15-year-old brother attempted to flee, but they were halted at a checkpoint. The two brothers were held hostage, the teenager tortured with electricity for information that might lead to the capture of their military sibling.

The barber eventually left ISIS territory, but then did the unthinkable and returned with his mother to plead with an ISIS leader for Muhammad's life. His eyes darted backwards and forwards as he forced out the details of what happened, occasionally pausing to sob.

In the end, their mission was fruitless.

Like many other families, their homecoming after almost two years of displacement is bittersweet. Their search for Muhammad resumed. While they discovered a decomposed body still wearing his brother's clothes in a local hospital morgue, Ahmed's mother still refuses to believe it belongs to him. "She said mentally she'd be waiting for him."

Now, boys queue up outside the barbershop, where Ahmed's creations stand in contrast to the basic cuts and full beards of the ISIS fighters. The most popular haircut is the Ronaldo – after Cristiano, the Real Madrid football player. Barcelona FC's Lionel Messi and Neymar da Silva Santos Júnior come in close behind. A young and pouting Justin Bieber features on 'The Golden Scissors' banner.

Ahmed is an artist. Using a blade and comb, he deftly creates whatever the customer wants - often something they've seen on Facebook. "One asked me to remove half the hair and brush the rest over… Another asked for the letter 'M' to be shaved into his head," he says, grinning.

Then there's the facial hair. "There are many, many types of beard. A small line on the sides, remove the sides, each wants it custom done."

The cost of a haircut is $5, but you won't see prices on the wall. "It can make people feel bad about how little they have," Ahmed says. Anyway, "it's free for orphans and those who don't have money."

He reopened on 22 February 2016, the first barber in the area to do so. His first customer was the local mukhtar – or village head - who wanted his hair dyed black.

While normality is returning slowly to Jalawla, Ahmed fears it will be a long time before the scars truly heal. "The main impact is inside: people not being emotionally and mentally stable."

Oxfam is providing small loans to traders whose shops have been affected by the crisis  – be that "robbed, burned or completely destroyed," explains Dalia Ahmed, who works for Oxfam in Jalawla.

"Even with the small amount we give to each shop, after a week or two weeks you can see a huge difference, not only in the shop but the person as well, how they are eager to develop themselves," she continues. "The support that we give them is not just the money, it's also trust.  It's makes them feel proud of themselves. It makes them love their work again."

Dalia particularly credits Jalawla's marketplace and the town's culture of entrepreneurship for bringing life back post-ISIS. Though hugely damaged, the market is beginning to thrive and bustle again.

"Supporting business is a benefit for the individual, the household, and the whole community," she says.

A short drive away from 'The Golden Scissors' is beautician Emam Mahdi Saleh. "They call me the master of the massage," she says. Wearing skinny jeans, slip on shoes, and carefully applied make-up, the 36-year-old's pride in her appearance is evident.

Saleh has also benefited from an Oxfam loan. She shows us inside her salon, a tiled room filled with straighteners, hairdryers, and shelves of creams and gels including products like 'avocado body lotion,' and 'whiten and blemish exfoliating face scrub'.

The first payment from Oxfam went towards buying a mirror and rebuilding the roof, she says.
Her products are sourced carefully, some coming the 270km from Iraqi Kurdistan capital Erbil, but her own herbal skin creams sell best. They're good for acne or wrinkles, she says, and are made using butter, honey, and other natural ingredients.

Her family left their home on October 6, 2014. "We heard they were raping women and I was worried for my daughter," she recalls. They went by foot, leaving at 5am, and trekked without water to Khanaqin, 36km away.

There they settled into unsteady new lives. She had irregular work helping out in salons when they were busy, and began doing massages for former clients who had also ended up there.

Saleh's husband's work as a teacher meant – after ISIS were ousted - he returned to Jalawla before the family did. She asked him to inspect the damage to her salon. "He refused to take a picture. He said 'when you come you will see for yourself.'"

Finally, the family came back on July 27, 2016. "Crying, crying," was Saleh's reaction when she saw the state of her salon. "It was a shock."

Electrical wires had been pulled from the walls, lights and fittings smashed, all her products were missing. It took her four months to start up again – the first customer visited on November 27, this year.

Her fees have gone down since her return. She charges $8 for a facial, $10 for laser hair removal or acne removal, and $70 for bridal make-up and preparation. "My prices are cheaper because people don't have money," she said.

One boon has been the rush of weddings. "Some were engaged away and decided they'd get married when they could come back home."

Saleh has around 15 customers a day and – rarely for Iraq – earns more than her husband, a moustachioed, silent man who supports her steadily. 

Still, she's something of a revolutionary. Under ISIS, make-up would have been banned. Even in pre-ISIS Jalawla, she says, she used to face some hostility from the more conservative in the town but "after being IDPs (internally displaced people), people are more open."

There's something else she's noticed. "After two years as IDPs the women have very tired faces. They need botox." Saleh laughs.

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