The cars, with the red logo, always draw attention. And every Friday, the cars and their drivers gather in different spot around Basra. There members of the group, known as the Basra Taxi Union, gather. At weekly meetings, they discuss their work, meet new members and decide what sort of free-of-charge services they can best provide the city.
The group does things like organize a free emergency breakdown service, repair potholed streets out of their own pocket and distribute garbage bags to drivers so they don’t litter the streets.
We stay away from religious, sectarian or political titles. That’s one of the conditions of joining the group.
The Union was established around three years ago and the primary aim was to revive the spirit of cooperation between the young people of the province, explains Hussein al-Idani, a 28-year-old local, who acts as president of the Basra Taxi Union. “We have thousands of members now,” he boasts. “During our discussions we talk about how we can help others.”
The group often receives emergency calls from drivers whose cars break down and members of the Union drive to help them out. One of the emergency calls was 40 kilometres outside Basra, al-Idani says, but seven members of the Taxi Union went to rescue the stranded family.
The Union has also done things like distribute leaflets around town emphasizing the importance of education, ethics and helping others. “We’ve also started to distribute small garbage bags to taxi drivers so that they can ask their passengers to put waste there, instead of throwing it on the street,” al-Idani continues.
The Basra Taxi Union also organizes recreational trips for the members and their families, to nearby parks or tourist sites.
Members of the Basra Taxi Union have become like family, adds Mustafa Bares, another of the supervisors of the group. That has helped him grow as a person, he says, because he’s met so many different kinds of people, all with their own stories.
There are all kinds of members, Bares explains. “Car drivers, truck drivers, private vehicle owners as well as motorcycle riders,” he told NIQASH. “There are those who specialize in repairing cars but there are also engineers and doctors who want to help.”
The Basra Taxi Union also has female drivers. “They have participated in marches the Union organized, such as when the city of Mosul was liberated and they have our logo on their cars,” al-Idani says. “One of the group’s goals is also to urge male drivers not to abuse women drivers and not to harass them in the streets.”
It’s not always sweetness and light though. Supervising such a big group is difficult but Bares says the administrators of the group won’t tolerate any abuse or bad behaviour.
And not everyone always appreciates their efforts. Once when members of the group were trying to repair potholes on a street in Basra, a driver stopped and began to abuse them. “He thought our work was causing a traffic jam,” Bares explains. “But we were able to calm him down. I guess even if you’re doing something that is helpful, not everybody will like you for it.”
Volunteering like this can be very useful in Basra, and not just for the people who benefit from the work volunteers do, says Ali Yusuf, one of the Basra Taxi Union volunteers.
“We see there are no employment opportunities and we also see that drug use is increasing among young people,” he notes. “Volunteering helps other people and helps people stay away from dangerous activities. That’s our aim: Getting people involved.”
Yusuf believes there are more than 45 volunteer groups and campaigns in central Basra alone. There are more outside the central city too and some have not announced themselves on social media, so they’re more difficult to find.
Despite the number of volunteering opportunities very few of the efforts make it out onto the street, Yusuf suggests. He believes this is because of a lack of state support and financial support. Only groups affiliated with ministries, like the Ministry of Youth and Sport, or with religious and political parties, get a more official status or state funds.
Ali Bakr al-Musawi, 28, says all of the above reasons are exactly why he’s happy to be part of the Basra Taxi Union. Al-Musawi is a self-taught mechanic and he’s helped a lot of the stranded drivers. He says he’s found value in helping others and that “the group has helped me appreciate the value of working together with others, regardless of who they are,” he says. “I believe it also makes you feel more attached to your home, and your neighbourhood, and your country – regardless of the living conditions.”
At the moment in Basra, it is hard to keep the Basra Taxi Union’s spirits up, al-Musawi concedes. But they are doing their best to keep it together. “We stay away from religious, sectarian or political titles,” he explains. “That’s one of the conditions of joining the group. We believe sectarianism and partisanship has harmed Iraq and we try and stay away from those sorts of topics, in our volunteer work. We’d like to see all Iraqis united.”