One youth leader turns play into progress


June 10, 2016

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  • Zahra leads a group of her peers twice a week in sessions that include lessons in life skills and movement activities. All photos: Corinna Robbins/Mercy Corps

With bright eyes and a thousand-watt smile, Zahra, 18, looks around the circle, calls out a command, and bends to touch her toes. The 25 teenage girls surrounding Zahra follow her lead, giggling quietly while they stretch. Zahra leads the girls through the series of warm-ups. In her poppy red hijab she looks positively in bloom.

In the Western imagination, Arab girls are sometimes seen as veiled and cloistered, with little hope of self-determination. It’s true that many girls are bound by conservative traditions and safety fears in Zahra’s home — Baghdad, Iraq. But in these teenagers, who have lived practically their whole lives in conflict, Mercy Corps sees the possibility of change.

Empowering teens through movement

In order to encourage young Iraqis to get down to the serious business of creating a better future, we adopted a novel approach: help them play. The program at Zahra’s school pairs life skills with movement and sport, and is now in 30 Baghdad schools, 15 for boys and 15 for girls.

Mercy Corps trains young Iraqis to mentor groups of their peers. For most of the girls in Zahra’s group, exercise has never been encouraged, and she hopes the joy of play will reinforce the larger lessons she shares with them.

Zahra’s teacher identified her as a potential youth leader and invited her to join Mercy Corps’ training. “I’m so proud to be part of the project,” Zahra says. “I’m trying to encourage [the girls] to do better, to be better. When I encourage them, they really challenge themselves, and they challenge me. I’m really proud of them.”

Twice a week, Zahra works with the girls on skills like communication, leadership, teamwork, relationships, social responsibility, goal setting and resilience. They spend half of each session playing games and sports that help illustrate the skills Zahra teaches.

Today’s lesson is on teamwork. Zahra leads the girls in a discussion about the value of teamwork and they quickly move into a series of games to reinforce the concept. She convinces the girls to break into groups of four or five, sit on the floor back to back, and link arms.

Then, without breaking the chain of their arms, they must work together to stand. The girls laugh at the awkward contortions required as they push and pull, writhing, to come upright. But awkward as it might be, together they rise. There would be no way to do this alone.

Inspiring new youth leaders

Fatima, 16, just stepped into her role as a youth leader two weeks ago. She works with Zahra to lead the day’s activities — only her fourth session so far. Though not quite as outspoken as Zahra, Fatima was drawn to the opportunity to lead girls. “We are in a society that sometimes prohibits or forbids even girls playing with each other, even in school,” Fatima says.

As the girls warm up they start to seem less self-conscious. Fatima herself seems most comfortable when she is in motion, and indeed, she dreams of being a coach when she grows up. “All communities, all nations — sport is so important,” she says. “It improves health. It energizes our way of thinking.”

Baghdad is not an easy place to grow up. Zahra says fear is a common feature of life for many of the girls in her group. “They feared their fathers, their mothers, sisters, brothers. They can't do this, they can't do that,” Zahra says. “I tell them, you’re a woman. You can do what you want. Without you the society is nothing. You have to be strong, you have to be fierce.”

In the center of the group, Zahra radiates enthusiasm for the girls around her, as though she hopes her energy and passion will be infectious.

Initially, the program met some resistance from the community and many girls withdrew. Enough girls joined and once parents and community members saw how the girls grew and learned, the resistance faded. Now, interest is growing and it’s a race to keep up with demand.

Of all the life skills Zahra seeks to ingrain in her young mentees, she says her favorite is goal setting. She wants the girls in her community to know they have options in life and that they can succeed with determination.

“We have a saying in Arab society, ‘Be the moon.’ You have to rise so people can raise their head and look at you. They are forced to look at you because you are so beautiful and so shining. I am telling them that a person with no goal is not a person. You have to set that goal and try to make it true.”

"I just want to help others"

Zahra switches easily between Arabic and fluent English. She says she fell in love with English as a child, watching her favorite American movie, Home Alone. Now that she has graduated from high school, she has her own goals: she’ll soon start university where she’ll study to be an English teacher. It appeals to this teenager who already sees herself as a humanitarian.

“I just want to help others,” Zahra said. “I want to spread love and peace everywhere I go. Because we're really tired of hate, really tired of war. And anger. All that. I don't want to live in a society that I can't look at my sister and tell her that I love her. I can't live in a society like that.”

It’s understandable that even idealistic adolescents like Zahra could be fatigued, having lived against the backdrop of Iraq’s economic and political crisis and war for their whole lives.

Mercy Corps’ aims to connect these teens to a hopeful vision of the future and the skills they need to make a positive impact in their community. It’s clear that Zahra already has that vision, and leaders like her are beginning to build lasting change, one step at a time.

How you can help

  • Donate today. Every single contribution helps more young people like Zahra improve their lives and create positive change in their communities.