‘If I even take a few days off, then my family will suffer’

A young Iraqi Kurd feels the pressure to support his parents and siblings.

An illustration the hood of a car open with someone standing over it looking, checking or fixing it with a long receipt coming out from under the hood of the car.
[Jawahir Al-Naimi and Muaz Kory/Al Jazeera]
[Jawahir Al-Naimi and Muaz Kory/Al Jazeera]

What's your money worth? A series from the front line of the cost-of-living crisis, where people who have been hit hard share their monthly expenses.

Name: Mumen Barzanji

Age: 24

Occupation: taxi driver

Lives with: father Najat (67), mother Sadria (55), brothers Ahmed (26) and Dawan (12), and sister Lavan (32). Ahmed, who works in IT infrastructure, and Mumen support their family.

Lives in: a two-storey house where Mumen has lived since birth. It is on a quiet street on the outer edges of Erbil, the capital of northern Iraq’s Kurdish region. Mumen does not have his own bedroom, and usually sleeps on a mattress under the stairs in the living room on the ground floor. Occasionally, he sleeps on the roof, where it is almost possible to see the city’s historic citadel.

Monthly household income: In April, Mumen and Ahmed’s combined income was 2,143,100 Iraqi dinars ($1,614 at the official rate, which has been used in this article, and $1,478 using the street value – about 1,450 dinars to the US dollar in May – which most people can access and use).

Mumen took home 693,100 dinars ($522), a combination of earning 471,250 dinars ($355) from the Careem taxi app he works for, which deducts roughly a fifth of his earnings for using the service, and an extra 221,850 dinars ($167) for taking passengers on longer trips to the mountains during Eid al-Fitr. As a self-employed taxi driver, Mumen’s income fluctuates. Some months he can earn 548,100 dinars ($413) for driving children to school.

Total expenses for April: 1,976,150 dinars ($1,488), which was spent on household utilities, groceries, fuel for Mumen’s taxi and a costly car repair. Najat also needed medical treatment for his back in April, which coincided with the typically more expensive Muslim month of Ramadan and Eid with the cost of those celebrations and their price hikes. The price of 1kg (2.2 pounds) of sugar, for example, went from 1,250 dinars ($0.94) to 2,000 dinars ($1.51) during Ramadan, Mumen says.

A photo of Mumen and his mother at home in Erbil, looking over April's expenses.
Mumen and his mother, Sadria, at home in Erbil, looking over the expenses from April [Alannah Travers/Al Jazeera]
Mumen and his mother, Sadria, at home in Erbil, looking over the expenses from April [Alannah Travers/Al Jazeera]

In late April, during the Eid al-Fitr holiday, 24-year-old taxi driver Mumen drove passengers into the snow-capped Zagros Mountains, about 150km (93 miles) northeast of Erbil and close to the Iranian border, collecting them after the celebrations, and squeezing in some time with his own family in between. He would have liked to have made a similar trip in northern Iraq with his own family during the holiday and experimented with his father’s vintage camera, but that was simply out of the question.

“It’s a combination of not having the extra money, of course, but also because my father is sick,” explains Mumen, dressed in his usual outfit of a light brown T-shirt and jeans, as he sits cross-legged in the small sun-dappled courtyard in front of his house. A line of washing gently flutters behind him in the afternoon breeze. “We need to save money because we don’t know what the future may hold for him and for us.”

His father, Najat, whose spinal cord is collapsing, stopped being able to walk unaided this year and needs to be carried or to lean on his two eldest sons for support to get around.

Mumen’s family spent the three-day celebrations at home in Erbil. “Our relatives visited us because it wasn’t possible for my father to leave the house,” he says. “It was nice, but I wish I could have more freedom to travel and explore without the pressure of work.” He exchanges warm smiles with his sister, Lavan, who brings out cups of tea. He stifles a yawn as he speaks. It is a Friday, his only day off.

During the day, Mumen ferries passengers to and from work and to hospital appointments across Erbil and then between the city's bars and restaurants in the evenings. He starts his day early, leaving by 7am to catch the morning commuters, has a quick break at lunch to eat and pray, and is regularly out until midnight or 1am.

"Sometimes I get home at 11pm, earlier than normal, so I can tidy the kitchen or head to the market to buy bread for the morning."

Mumen and his older brother have been responsible for the family’s finances since their father became unable to work a few years ago. Mumen thinks that if money were less of a concern, he would like to study engineering but knows that is unlikely because he must bring in a regular income. “I have to keep earning money and saving,” he says. “If I even take a few days off, then my family will suffer.”

A photo of Sadria using her sewing machine.
Sadria sits at her sewing machine [Alannah Travers/Al Jazeera]

‘The opportunities are so small’

For as long as he can remember, Mumen has done some kind of work to support his family. As a 10-year-old, he began helping his father, who worked as a scaffolder on construction sites around Erbil. After school and during the holidays, he helped with scaffolding and building walls and the foundations of a graveyard on the outskirts of Erbil. His eyes light up when he remembers the beef sandwiches his father used to buy him as a reward.

But Najat’s work started drying up in Mumen’s early teens. In 2013, Najat bought a second-hand taxi and left construction work to drive the car full time the following year as ISIL (ISIS) edged closer to the capital of Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region, investment projects halted and the region was plunged into financial crisis.

While at school, Mumen worked as a supermarket cashier and then in a clothing store during the holidays before starting university. In 2019, he started sharing his father’s taxi work while studying for a diploma in petroleum technology at Erbil Polytechnic University, which he hoped would lead to a job as an oil technician. Najat, meanwhile, had started having difficulties with his back. His work hours dropped as his health deteriorated. His wife, Sadria, has had an irregular heartbeat since 1992, and although her health was stable at the time, the money she made from sewing work, such as mending neighbours’ clothes, could not make up for the family’s reduced income. So Mumen would do the night shift to help make ends meet while his brother Ahmed started working in IT.

“I would eat dinner at home and then leave immediately to drive the taxi around Erbil until 12am or 1am,” Mumen recalls.

A photo of Dawan walking into the family home in Erbil, wearing a red and green football shirt as his father sitting next to him looks on.
Dawan walks into the family home in Erbil wearing his new football shirt, bought by Mumen for the recent Eid celebrations. On the left, their father Najat looks on [Alannah Travers/Al Jazeera]

In mid-2020, his father had to stop driving altogether, and Mumen’s part-time job became full time as he finished his studies during the pandemic. “We didn’t actually have final exams,” he says, disappointed. “Our teachers just sent us our results online and told us we had graduated.”

After struggling to break into the oil sector, one of the few lucrative industries in the country, driving remained his only option. “My brother tried so much [to help me find a job]. My cousin tried a lot and also my uncle. But we are not connected. There is nothing,” he says, scrolling on his phone through the many application emails he has sent over the past year.

Few companies have replied to him, but Mumen still looks for jobs in his spare time and applies for at least one a week. “Sometimes I question whether I will ever find a better job, but I reassure myself that I am qualified. I speak three languages [English, Arabic and Sorani Kurdish], and I have hope.”

Last year, Mumen was contacted by a fake company. “They wanted me to send them money in return for a job. … I was so excited when I got the email, and it was a horrible feeling to realise it was a scam,” he says, looking down.

“It’s really tough for us [Iraqi youth]. We are young. We want to build a family and have a life and a job, but the opportunities are so small,” Mumen says.

About 60 percent of the Iraqi population is under the age of 25, and the country has one of the highest unemployment rates in the world. According to Iraq’s most recent Labour Force Survey from 2021, nearly 37 percent of 15- to 24-year-olds are not in education, employment or training. “The jobs are limited, and the pay is low,” Mumen says.

A photo of brothers Mumen and Ahmed sitting on the top of an outdoor staircase.
Brothers Mumen and Ahmed sit at the top of an outdoor staircase in their home [Alannah Travers/Al Jazeera]

Young customers

Mumen drives six days a week but tries to keep Fridays free to rest, pray and be at home to help his father get around. Mumen frequently travels across the city to help friends or family members out, responding as soon as they reach out to him.

While waiting for a customer, he will pull out a copy of the Quran that he keeps in a pocket above the driver’s seat. “I pray a lot when I drive. I ask God to send me passengers. It works a lot,” he says, then laughs.

Last year, Mumen picked up additional work driving five boisterous six-year-olds and a nine-year-old girl from his neighbourhood to their school. “It was great to drive them to school. They were so funny,” he smiles. “They would sing for me and play silly games and ask me all sorts of questions.”

Often, Mumen would let them watch YouTube videos of Mr Bean and Shaun the Sheep on his dashboard screen, but mostly they just wanted to bounce around to fast-paced Kurdish folk music and chat to him about which cars are the fastest, and get him to identify the models and years of vehicles on the road.

Some months, Mumen might earn enough to save about 150,000 dinars ($113), but there is usually little left after he contributes to his family’s living costs.

“We need to pay for electricity, using water, buying food and paying for a doctor for my parents,” he explains. The brothers also give their siblings and parents a stipend for small purchases like their youngest brother’s food at school or tea outside and cover their mobile phone and internet costs.

Inflation graphic for Iraq
[Muaz Kory/Al Jazeera]

‘Sometimes I feel so trapped’

In the past few years, the Barzanji family has felt the pinch as living costs have increased. “In 2021, things were easier. I could spend extra money on trips and meeting friends, which I struggle to do now,” says Mumen, estimating that he can only afford to meet his friends in cafes once a month.

The rising cost of expenses such as increasingly frequent repairs to his taxi eat into the money he makes. Still, he feels he has no choice but to keep driving. “Sometimes I feel so trapped, but I try not to think about it,” Mumen says.

“I drive as much as I can. This is the only thing I can do.”

From the courtyard where he sits, an open door leads to the tidy, sunlit kitchen and then the main living area of the family’s home. Mumen says he just wants his family to be safe and cared for. “It takes a lot from us, and we work long hours, but it is good to see them happy,” he reflects, looking inside where his mother and sister sit on a silver sofa in the living room drinking tea and chatting happily to Najat, who is propped up on cushions.

“Lavan is also like a mother to me. I can tell her anything without judgement. She’s my best friend, and we tease each other a lot,” he says. “I jump out at her when she’s busy washing up or doing chores, and she will do the same when I’m in my head and busy with my car.”

While studying, Mumen began tracking his expenses in a notebook, later keeping a record of the household’s expenditures as he took on more responsibility.

“Everything is on Ahmed and me, but we feel proud when we see that our family doesn’t need anyone to help them and they are not missing anything,” he says.

Over the month of April, as part of a collaborative project, Mumen Barzanji tracked the household’s expenses with reporter Alannah Travers.

Here are the costs that tested his finances the most.

Expenses over one month

A photo of Mumen looking over his household's April expenses outside with his car in the background.
Mumen looks over the household expenses for April including water charges and an electricity bill while sitting in the courtyard of his home, his car just outside [Alannah Travers/Al Jazeera]
Mumen looks over the household expenses for April including water charges and an electricity bill while sitting in the courtyard of his home, his car just outside [Alannah Travers/Al Jazeera]

Father’s medical treatment and examination

Najat needed an expensive medical examination and plasma therapy in April as his condition deteriorated. This cost 400,000 dinars ($301) on top of his regular visits to the doctor.

“Ahmed paid 60 percent, and I paid 40 percent,” says Mumen, who explains that his older brother won’t let his younger sibling contribute equally since he usually earns less.

Gently lifting his father from the floor inside, Mumen carries Najat into the courtyard and onto a tall chair strapped with cushions designed to keep his back straight, so he can look out onto the street.

Najat requires assistance to go to the bathroom and spends most of the day propped up on cushions on the floor in the living room, which also contributes to his searing knee pain. "If he wants to be outside, he will sit on the chair,” Mumen explains, nodding at his father.

The doctors told the family that Najat’s condition is connected to his scaffolding work, and he was advised to undergo surgery to correct his spine. Fearful of the operation going wrong, he refused an operation, undergoing only physiotherapy sessions and plasma therapy, which cost far less than surgery.

Such therapy is no longer effective. “A doctor told him that there was no hope for his back, and he shouldn't expect to recover. He told us that surgery will make little difference at this point,” Mumen says slowly. He is still processing what this will mean for the future and worries constantly about his father and whether they will be able to afford the necessary costs for his care as his condition worsens. "It hurts me a lot when I see him like this, and I can't do anything for him. It's always in my mind, in my eyes. I feel bad every day,” he sighs.

Last year: 207,350 dinars ($156) per month*
April: 400,000 dinars ($301)

A photo of Mumen standing in front of his taxi by the entrance to Sami Abdulrahman Park.
Mumen stands in front of his taxi by the entrance to Sami Abdulrahman Park in Erbil [Alannah Travers/Al Jazeera]

Car repairs

In April, Mumen shelled out 225,000 dinars ($169) to fix his car’s electronic control unit, a hefty but necessary expense to allow him to keep transporting customers and earning money.

He incurs new costs every month as his 14-year-old car constantly needs repairs. He is desperate to avoid buying a better car, which he cannot afford.

“There are so many more cars, taxi models, that could easily be 30 million dinars ($22,587). I can’t imagine being able to afford that,” he says, glancing at the parked car, the family’s only vehicle.

Mumen has been saving for four years to buy a new car but is no closer to his target. So he has little choice but to keep driving his 2009 model, hoping that it holds out until he has other options.

On top of his taxi needing more repairs, car parts have gotten more expensive in the past year. “The cost of keeping my car going is so much more expensive than last year,” he says. “Everything is just adding up, even when I try to fix it myself.”

In April, Mumen also spent about 68,000 dinars ($51) on parts like a new fuel pump and sparkplugs, which he will replace and install himself. He also changes the engine oil and filter every 18 days.

Mumen is exhausted with the costs but continues to care for his car, checking it every day and making sure to avoid potholes - and dangerous drivers. “Actually, another of my challenges is keeping cool on busy days and avoiding any accidents, which I definitely could not afford.”

Last year: 246,500 dinars ($186) per month*
April: 333,000 dinars ($251)

An illustration of prices rising in the past year in Iraq.
[Jawahir Al-Naimi and Muaz Kory/Al Jazeera]


The brothers give Sadria the equivalent of $300 at the beginning of each month to buy groceries from a small store around the corner.

"Everything is more expensive per kilogramme than last year by at least 250 ($0.19) to 500 dinars ($0.38)," says Sadria, who is nestled next to Mumen on a floral bed cover on one of the family’s two beds in an upstairs room. Her heart condition flares up and gets worse, Mumen says, with her heightened worry for Najat’s health. She is resting after returning the previous day from the hospital, where she was admitted for three days for her condition.

The most notable increase is in the price of meat, she says, eager to contribute to the conversation despite her son wanting her to rest. “Kebab meat per kilogramme was 9,000 dinars [$6.80] last year, and this year, it is 14,000 dinars [$10.54] per kilogramme,” Sadria explains.

The family now avoids eating turkey and duck because they have gotten too expensive and mainly cooks chicken, which has also risen in price from 2,500 dinars ($1.89) per kilogramme last year to between 3,500 ($2.64) and 5,000 dinars ($3.80) now.

Prices have also risen for bulgar wheat, bread, and fresh fruits and vegetables. “Fruit especially is so much more expensive,” adds Sadria, her dark hair swept behind a light brown headscarf. “Nearly twice the price than last year!”

Sadria still prefers to buy flour and rice in bulk, but apart from these purchases, she buys in small quantities and will “make separate trips to save the extra money”.

Sadria and Lavan do the bulk of the cooking and have started omitting some ingredients from recipes to save money.

“I love the lentil soup the best,” Mumen chimes in, resting his head on his mother’s shoulder and expressing his appreciation for her least expensive staple meal, making Sadria smile.

The household also saw a significant increase in food costs in April compared with the same month last year due to Ramadan iftars and Eid celebrations.

Over three days, Sadria cooked three chickens and served them with kebab and rice, beans, salads and sweets. “We made kleicha [traditional Eid pastries] with vegetable oil, which is also increasing in cost,” Mumen says.

Last year: From 188,500 to 217,500 dinars ($142 to $164) per month*
April: 416,150 dinars ($313)

A photo of Mumen and Ahmed watching Dawan play on their playstation.
Mumen and Ahmed watch Dawan, 12, play on the brothers' playstation [Alannah Travers/Al Jazeera]


The household spent 70,000 dinars ($53) on electricity in April, a combined cost of government-provided electricity, for which they are charged every two months, and using a private generator.

"National electricity used to be a lot less expensive,” Mumen says.

Instead of paying about 20,000 dinars ($15) every two months and having unlimited amps, they now pay from 35,000 ($26) to 40,000 dinars ($30) and have a limit of 25 amps, meaning they can only run a certain number of appliances at any one time.

Last year, the family spent about 25,000 dinars ($19) on running the generator. In April, however, they spent 50,000 dinars ($38) because of more frequent power cuts due to government electricity shortages and a hike in fuel prices. But they have little choice but to pay up.

Many Iraqis depend on private generators because electricity provided by the government is unreliable. During the summer when demand is high, generator prices rise even more.

Switching off a light in the room where his mother is lying down, Mumen explains how conscious his family is about keeping electricity use low. “The less electricity we use, the more money we have,” he says, determined to save, even if it means limiting time on the shared PlayStation upstairs. "Our favourite game is Red Dead Redemption 2," he grins. "I don't have enough time to play. I try to play on Fridays.”

Last year: 33,750 dinars ($25) per month*
April: 70,000 dinars ($53)

*Last year’s prices sourced from Mumen

A photo of a grocery shop.
The local grocery store around the corner from the family's house [Alannah Travers/Al Jazeera]

Five quick questions for Mumen

1. What’s the hardest financial decision you had to make this month?

“I’ve been thinking about trying to leave Kurdistan for a long time, but this month I decided that I have to stay to support my family. Our life is already really hard, and to have a chance of emigrating to Europe would cost me at least $15,000 with no chance of success,” Mumen says. He believes that if he were abroad, he could better support his family. “But if I was to fail, it would cost me my car, my life savings - everything I have ever had,” he says.

2. Which is the most worthwhile expense from this month?

“It’s a tie! The medical checkup for my father, which he really needed, and helping my mother to afford enough food for our Eid meals and also to dress Dawan in new clothes for the celebration,” says Mumen smiling. “He was very happy. I bought him a football shirt, new jeans and shoes for 67,000 Iraqi dinars [$50].” He says the Portugal shirt for his brother - emblazoned on the back with his name - brought joy to the avid football fan. “Making Dawan happy is one of my main focuses,” he adds. “He often sees other children with lots of things, and I don’t ever want him to feel poor or left out.”

3. When finances get tough - what advice do you have and what gets you through the difficult times?

“Work hard, then work more and save,” says Mumen, who tries to plan for unexpected expenses, knowing that he has relied on his savings already this year. “I also try to remember that happiness comes with small things - like reading a book or reading interesting things on the internet - and that life is about much more than money.”

4. What is your biggest money worry?

While he worries about his family’s health, Mumen’s car is his biggest financial concern at the moment. In the long term, he worries about being able to afford to get married and, one day, support a family of his own on top of the current household. “I won’t be able to afford both of them,” he says frankly.

“There’s no way I would be able to afford my own rent in Erbil, so I would need to take a room in the family house, maybe upstairs,” he suggests as housing shortages and the increasing cost of property in Erbil and other Iraqi cities price millions out of home ownership.

5. What’s the saving hack you are proudest of?

Lavan manages Mumen's money. "I know that when I need to access my money again, she will grill me and make sure that I definitely need it."

Read more stories from the series: What's your money worth?

Source: Al Jazeera