Thanks to the wonderful and talented Kate Saturday we have GEMSI’s first story of initiative and service illustrated as a beautiful comic! Check out this amazing comic and remember to submit your story by posting a video to this Facebook event!

Murtadha Fills In

If you’re interested in reading Murtadha’s full story, you can find it below:


As my 3-week visit to Baghdad was coming to an end, I felt an urge to do something that was going to leave positive impact on my immediate community. The idea of “Random Acts of Kindness” really appealed to me, and so I started thinking of how I can contribute during my last week in Iraq. It didn’t have to be anything big or grandiose, but I wanted something that was going to have moderately lasting effects. In all certainty, there are so many problems that can be addressed in most Iraqi neighborhoods, so I just needed to find one of them that was reasonably doable within the constraints I had. So I started paying more attention to the day-to-day life my family was living, and tried to pick one of the challenges and struggles they face everyday. And one hot Baghdadi morning, it became pretty clear to me what I wanted to do.

Everyone in my family is a student, so every morning my mom and two brothers hop in the car to drive to school. She drops off my youngest brother at his school, and my mom and younger brother will drive to their college together since the campuses they attend are only few minutes away from each other. And this was their routine for most mornings on weekdays. On one of these mornings, I decided to join the family to see what my mom and brother’s colleges were like, so I got up around 6AM to get ready along with everyone else and be on the road by 7AM so as to beat the morning traffic. But we were stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic less than a minute after we drove away from our house, and we hadn’t even gotten on the main busy roads of Baghdad; we were still on the internal roads of our neighborhood that didn’t used to be so jammed from what I could recall. So I asked my mom why the traffic was moving so slow, and she explained that in a few miles, we will be driving through a huge pothole in the road, and so everyone needs to slow down for it. And indeed, it took about 10 minutes until we got there, and all cars were slowing down almost to a complete stop as they went over the pothole. But once they passed it, traffic was much smoother after that point. And this is when I realized that one thing to give to my community is less traffic jams on this road.

I told my mom that I am going to fill that pothole before I leave Baghdad. Her initial response was not too supportive because of the risks and dangers involved in doing so, but I convinced her that I need to do it. She urged me to take my brother with me, but I explained that filling that pothole would require getting up in the middle of the night, and he had school the next morning, so I didn’t want him to lose sleep over it. So I made the case for doing it alone.

I managed to find a place where I could get the asphalt to use for filling the hole. Conveniently, there were some street renovations happening few miles away, and they were replacing the road pavements with tiles; so there were blocks of asphalt being dug out and temporarily left on the sides of the streets. I started getting ready in the evening by driving to these renovation sites and loading the car with as many blocks of asphalt as I could fit in the trunk. I needed some kerosene to use for melting the asphalt, and my family happened to have none around the house. We asked around, and eventually my brother managed to borrow a 5-litre container filled with kerosene from his friend.

So I was going to get up at 2AM that night and drive to that pothole, which was about a mile away from our house, and execute my random act of kindness. My mom kept telling me to be careful and watch out for cops or any law-enforcement forces that might be patrolling the area at night. Her concerns were absolutely valid, since some of these forces tend to shoot-on-sight during the night. In addition to that, the work I was going to be doing was especially suspicious since a lot of the times terrorists would go out in the middle of the night to plant roadside bombs and IDEs, so I could very well be suspected as someone burying explosives into the road and setting them to go off for the morning traffic. So it was pretty scary for my mom and brother that I was going to leave in the middle of the night and do something so risky, but to me it felt like I didn’t really have a choice and not doing seemed very unacceptable; I knew that leaving Baghdad without finishing it off would leave me feeling regretful.

At 2AM that night, it was showtime. I got up, and loaded the car with the tools I needed for my project: a shovel, a lighter, the 5 liters of kerosene, a flashlight, a couple bottles of water to cool down the asphalt and some music. I drove to the place where the pothole was, and parked the car on the side. There was a group of about five teenage boys hanging out on the other side of the street, and as soon as I got of the car, they made their way towards me. Then the questioning began. I can’t remember exactly what the first question was, but I think it was something along the lines of “How can I help you?”; I tried to look busy and kept unloading the blocks of asphalt from the trunk as I answered the questions. Some of their questions were things like: “What are you doing?”, “Why are you here so late?”, “Where do you live?”, “What’s your name?”, “Who is your brother?”, “Why are you doing this?” (x10), “What do you do for a living? Are you a cab driver?”. I answered the first few questions while still working on setting up the asphalt and spraying the kerosene, but the questions kept coming, so I stopped what I was doing and walked closer to them and said “I understand you guys are worried and concerned that I might be doing something harmful to your neighborhood, but I live only few minutes away from here, and this is my neighborhood as much as it is yours, so please, don’t worry and let me finish what I came here to do.” But that didn’t stop them from asking “Why are you doing this?” so many times. And then people would come and go once I set the asphalt on fire and the whole thing became more noticeable from the distance. Everyone who came became must have also asked me the reason I was doing this. It was as if people didn’t ever consider the possibility of fixing this problem themselves. And at some point, a small discussion started about whose responsibility it was to do these things, and whether to rely on our government to provide us with the basic infrastructure. My response to them was that we can sit and wait for our government to fix these things for us, but we might have to wait for years for a small problem like this to be fixed, and meanwhile endure the struggles imposed on us by the problem. Or, we can get up at 2AM and fix the problem ourselves, and wake up the next morning and see that so many people are now experiencing the positive results of our efforts.

The boys standing there started to sound more convinced, and it looked like they were starting to understand my reasoning and motivation for doing this. At some point, I started running out of asphalt since the pothole turned out bigger than I had anticipated, so I told one of them that I am going to drive back to that renovation site and get more asphalt blocks. I gave him the shovel and told him he was in charge of this while I was gone. I came back few minutes later, and noticed that the kerosene was also running out. One of the boys standing there said that he can get us some from his house, so he went in and came back with a 1-litre bottle of kerosene. So we kept working on this, I was starting to get tired, so we took turns leveling the asphalt and breaking the blocks into smaller pieces. Eventually, we used up all the asphalt and kerosene, but there was still a part of the pothole that wasn’t filled. I started feeling disappointed because I really wanted to finish the whole thing in one go, but there wasn’t really much I could do at that point. It was already past 3AM, and the longer I stayed out, the more risky it was, so I decided to head home. When I got home, I noticed that my mom hadn’t been actually been asleep, but it didn’t occur to me what could have been keeping her up, and I just thought perhaps I woke her up as I got in.

At 6AM, the rest of my family got up for their morning routine. And that’s when I overheard my mom and brother talk about last night. My brother was telling my mom how he had a nightmare that I had been shot by the police and he had been driving around the neighborhood searching for my body throughout the night, and so when he woke up he ran downstairs to come check on me and didn’t feel relieved until he actually saw me sleeping in my bed. Then my mom explained how she couldn’t actually get any sleep that night until she saw me come home safe.

When my mom and brother came back from school, I asked them about their drive and how much better it was, and they explained that the pothole still needs some more work, but it was certainly better. I felt happy and thought of going again that night to finish it off, but something had come up that got in the way.

But it was the next morning that had brought the most interesting part of this story. When we get out of the house, we saw that on that road were the big pothole used to be, there were also several other potholes, though none of them were as big. But that morning (2 days after I did the 2AM project), we saw that all these other potholes on the road had been filled. So somebody, or perhaps more than one person, had taken it upon themselves to go ahead and do the rest of these potholes on that main road in our neighborhood.

My initial goal with that whole project was to fill a pothole on the road to reduce traffic jams, but the message and the lesson that people received were far more important than the immediate physical results of the action. And for me, the lesson was that so much of the time, we are unable to anticipate the ripple effects of our actions, and in most situations we are capable of making more impact by taking actions that might first appear trivial or insignificant.



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