In Kurdistan, not all that glitters is gold

March 1, 2011

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Walking around the streets of Sulaimanyah, Iraq — one of Kurdistan’s main cities — you’ll see lots of construction, lots of students going to school in their beautiful outfits, nice markets and many other signs of peaceful life. You will easily think that this is a city whose people are very happy with what they've got and are satisfied with the level of service provided for them. But within just a few days' time, my image of all this has changed.

After the demonstrations that shook and took over Egypt, protests began to spread throughout the Arab world, reminding them of what they are suffering from and telling them that taking to the streets and speaking out are the ways to make a change. I was hearing the news and seeing it on TV as well, and saw it starting in Baghdad — but never thought to see it the streets of Sulaimanyah.

Without a previous notice, hundreds of people filled the main streets of the city asking for improvements of services, provision of jobs and, of course, the everlasting demand which is electricity. When having talks with my friends and work colleagues, we were all reaching the same conclusion that as much as we are seeing people with monthly salaries, big houses and relatively good lives, there are also hundreds if not thousands of poor people around here. They're somehow living with absolutely no income, no jobs, trying to pass the day in any way possible. So many families are not able to send their children to school since they can’t simply afford it.

The protests were beginning to reveal something that we didn't see in our everyday lives: behind the glitter and gold of new buildings and fancy clothes, it is quite clear that Kurdistan is living in the same impoverished circumstances of all other cities in Iraq. Only the relatively high level of security is different here.

As the protest continued to the following days — with more and more people joining in to claim their demands — streets were blocked, adding fuel to this rage was when security forces started shooting the protesters to break down their gatherings and, worst of all, shooting a young boy in the head. His body dropped down dead on the street, immediately making people even more and more angry at the government.

Even now, protesters are refusing to leave the streets until their demands — many of which are basic needs — are fulfilled, starting from the prosecution of those who killed the young boy.

From my house, I heard continuous shooting in the streets and, with all this, Sulaimanyah started to feel the same as Baghdad and other cities. Like other families, we were advised to buy extra supplies and keep them stocked in our homes in case the situation escalated. Heading back home from the Mercy Corps office on February 24 — the day before all of Iraq erupted in the "Day of Rage" protests — I saw dozens of security forces spread out in the streets in case anything might happen.

But amongst all this, I saw something that I really liked and respected: some of the security men out there were holding their weapons with roses placed in their muzzles as an indication that they are here to protect and not to harm. But even so, I cannot say there were no casualties: up to now, four young men have been killed and more than 100 people injured.

It is true that Kurdistan is quite different in nature and circumstance than central and southern Iraq — in essence, two governments are running this place — but this wide movement of protests proved that Iraq is one united country and its people are all asking for the same goal: a better place in which to live.

Mercy Corps has been working in Iraq for eight years now, playing a big role in empowering youth. Our Global Citizen Corps (GCC) program works directly with youth and brings youth together from different provinces, different religions and different ethnicities into one goal: expressing themselves and gaining opportunities to reach out with other youth outside their region, all the way to Egypt, Gaza and the United States as well. GCC youth celebrate Global Action Days — international occasion days that celebrate peace, as well as Christian and Muslim holidays. Youth are also connected to their peers in other countries through regularly-scheduled video conferences that help them exchange their thoughts, experiences and concepts of what is happening in their country as well as the world around them.

GCC inspires and equips an expanding international network of youth leaders to take informed actions that build secure, productive and just communities here in Iraq and around the world.

Another way we're empowering youth and building their skills is the Supporting Advocacy for Marginalized Groups (SEAM) program, which provides opportunities for both women and youth in four northern Iraqi provinces. SEAM supports youth and women through trainings that includes advocacy, conflict mitigation, information technology and program management. We're also helping women- and youth-led local organizations reach more people in need by giving them cash grants to implement cross-dialogue and cross-ethnic projects in some of Iraq's most challenging places.

The protests in Sulaimanyah were a wake-up call to all of us. But, through a wide variety of thoughtful programs, Mercy Corps is reaching out to the youth of Iraq and helping them to be active leaders of their future.