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Reclaiming a place for Iraqi youth

Iraq, February 28, 2011

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Sebastian Meyer for Mercy Corps  </span>
    22-year-old Salar makes and serves tea at the Mercy Corps-supporterd, youth-run café in Kalar. Photo: Sebastian Meyer for Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Sebastian Meyer for Mercy Corps  </span>
    19-year-old Rawand works at the café to save money for college. Photo: Sebastian Meyer for Mercy Corps
  • 
  <span class="field-credit">
    Sebastian Meyer for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Hersh and Shokhan, medical students at the nearby health institute, come to the café for lunch and to study. Photo: Sebastian Meyer for Mercy Corps

For many years, there was a very bad place in the middle of Kalar, Iraq. It had no name, but all kinds of malice and misfortune spread from it, spilling into the surrounding neighborhoods.

As long as local citizens can remember, this place had been a vacant lot. Youth came here at night to use illicit drugs, mostly sniffing paint, glue or other inhalants for a quick and cheap high. Often, fights would break out here as a result of drug use. Sometimes that violence radiated from the vacant lot: youth would vandalize shops and homes, block roads and steal cars.

The city tried planting trees in an effort to beautify the place and encourage local residents to reclaim it, but that didn’t work and the problems kept intensifying. There were many ideas about how to develop the vacant lot into a place of positivity but, with the lack of resources and coordination in a part of Iraq recovering from decades of conflict, no way to bring those ideas to fruition.

One of those ideas came from a local non-governmental organization called Malai Ganjan — which, translated, means “House of Youth.” The organization’s director, a gentleman named Sarbast Ahmed Mohammed, had heard of Mercy Corps’ work in Kalar and approached us to see if we could help.

“The biggest problem here is that youth have no place to go to do constructive things. When that happens, they turn to negative activities like drugs and fighting, or worse.” Sarbast said. “So we wanted to create a place where youth could go to spend time together in a peaceful and productive way. A place where they could form their own community. A place to call their own.”

And so, with a grant and technical support from Mercy Corps, the vacant lot that had caused so much trouble became Zheena Park — Arabic for “new life.”

Instead of a stark terrain littered with garbage, Zheena Park now has a playground, walking path, outdoor chess court, classroom space and cinema. The cinema shows free movies and soccer matches, and has become a gathering place for the whole community. The classrooms often host youth art exhibitions, traditional dances and cultural events. Other times, they’re used for youth seminars on women’s rights, career counseling and making healthier lifestyle choices — like avoiding drug use.

But the heart of this youth center is a small café. The local organization behind Zheena Park imagined this eatery as not only a place where youth could come for a snack and tea, but also a place where youth could work and earn an income. A youth-run organization negotiated a contract with Malai Ganjan to provide food service for the center.

“This is an opportunity for youth to make money,” Sarbast explained. “It’s also helping teach them customer service and how to sustain a business.”

One of the café’s young stakeholders is 19-year-old Rawand, who takes food orders and helps keep the place clean and inviting. He’s making 300,000 Iraqi dinars a month – about US$254. Rawand started working here right after high school and his saving his pay in order to afford a college education.

“I wanted to make my own money and take responsibility for my own life,” Rawand said. “My goal is to go to university next year and study English.”

Rawand’s favorite thing about working in the café is that Kalar’s youth gathers here to spend time together. Before this center was built, there was nowhere in the area to do that.

Two frequent visitors to the café are 22-year-old Hersh and his girlfriend, 21-year-old Shokhan. Both of them are students at the local medical institute, but explained there wasn’t a good place to gather there.

“We didn’t feel comfortable eating or studying at our school,” Hersh said. “It was dirty, and filled with cigarette smoke. Here it’s clean, the food is great and the prices are good. Our friends come here, too.”

Shokhan also explained that the garden is a pretty place for young couples to spend time with one another.

Once, not too long ago, there was a place in Kalar filled with trouble and worry. Today, it’s full of youth who’ve come here to study, earn a living and find their place — among friends, old and new — in an quickly-changing Iraq.