Youth under siege, but waging peace

Iraq, January 28, 2011

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    Global Citizen Corps Iraq  </span>
    Photo: Global Citizen Corps Iraq

It’s always more challenging to teach storytelling to youth. It’s more exhilarating and more exhausting, mainly because their questions are more frequent, more unrehearsed and more uninhibited than older learners. But today’s writing and photography workshop for Global Citizen Corps members in Sulaymaniah, Iraq was the toughest question-and-answer session I’ve ever faced.

After I’d finished an hour-and-a-half presentation about nonprofit journalism, at least half a dozen hands went up. The first question was pretty innocuous: “What if somebody doesn’t want to be interviewed?” As soon as I’d answered, a dozen hands were raised — and then the hard part started.

“Why does the world hate us?” a young man asked. I stood there for what seemed like a couple of minutes before even trying to answer. And then I asked him a question back.

“Why do you think the world hates you?” I inquired.

“Because, when I try to communicate with some people my age in England or the United States and I tell them where I’m from, they call me a terrorist and won’t talk to me again,” he explained. “So I have to say I’m from somewhere else. All I want to do is practice my English and find out about other places, but it’s hard being from Iraq.”

I told him that not everyone feels that way, and felt somehow obliged to apologize. And then a young woman who was sitting nearby took her turn. “Does the world care about us?” she asked.

Again, I posed a question back to her: "What do you think?"

“No, I don’t think so,” she said.

I took a few minutes to share what I was honestly thinking at that moment: there are extraordinarily good people in the world who are able to make great things happen. There are very bad people in the world who strive to harm and destroy those things. And, in between those two extremes, there are most of us who are living our lives and trying to make a positive difference. So there are indeed millions of people who do care about Iraq. That’s why Mercy Corps and other organizations are here, helping Iraqi families rebuild and communities heal. We are here because our supporters have heard about the challenges you face and want to help however they can.

“And we want to be a part of that world, too,” another young man said. “We want to see the good work being done, and bring it back to Iraq to make a difference, but we can’t travel outside our own country.”

This is how, on a Friday afternoon in Sulaymaniah, I found out the feelings of many youth in northern Iraq. They feel trapped. They feel under siege from a world that doesn’t understand them, and doesn’t often take time to try.

But here’s the thing: these youth are making a huge difference in their own communities. They are ardent advocates for the issues that face the communities they’re from: challenges like religious intolerance, deep poverty, poor education and health. In fact, they just conducted a diabetes awareness campaign. They’re aware of critical water issues. And they’ve even helped feed displaced families.

They’re doing a world of good in their own communities. But, because of Iraq’s portrayal in the media and their relative isolation, they often feel alone in their efforts.

Just think about the challenges of this generation of young Iraqis: an 18-year-old would have been born just about a year after the First Gulf War. Endured more than a decade of severe economic strife and ethnic persecution. Struggled through the invasion of Iraq. Survived hellish sectarian violence. That kind of childhood surely has lasting effects.

But instead of letting that experience embitter or hinder them, they’ve used it to become the extraordinary kind of people I’d described earlier: those who are able to make great things happen. And I am very excited to see how they use the writing and photography workshop to bring the news of what they’re doing to wider audiences — as well as broadcast Iraq’s needs to a world that wants to help.