Peace through the eyes of Anbar’s youth

September 4, 2019

Former and current students of Anbar University gather below a statue of peace in central Ramadi. UNDP Iraq/Vincent Haiges/2019

“We choose peace because we want to connect people…but we also need to understand how people of different religions, cultures and experiences interpret peace.”

“I’ve tried to gather all of Iraq in one statue,” says 24-year-old Anbar University student Sruor.

At 24m3, the structure is a striking.  Four black and white cubes stacked asymmetrically, sitting in central Ramadi. “The first cube bares the names of each Iraqi governorate in kufi script,” she adds. “The second, the names of the old civilizations and the third, the symbols of Iraq’s diverse religious groups. The last cube is printed with letters in cuneiform script, alongside the iconic image of the dove of peace”. “People see the statue, but they are also invited to interpret its meaning. What does it represent?” Srour is joined with her friend and fellow student, 28-year-old Tasneem.

Both young women call Anbar home. But what more do they have in common? A commitment to build peace in their community. “We choose peace because we want to connect people…but we also need to understand how people of different religions, cultures and experiences interpret peace.”

Between 2017-2019, UNDP’s Iraq Crisis Response and Resilience Programme and local NGO, Iraqi al-Amal Association, provided training to 289 young people (including 122 young women) from across Iraq – just like Sruor and Tasneem. Trained in the active promotion of a culture of peace in their communities, students were invited to design activities that would invite the participation of community members from various backgrounds, to engage and exchange ideas. 114 projects were selected to receive small cash grants and supported throughout the planning, promotion and implementation of their initiatives.

Sruor stands by her statue of peace in central Ramadi. UNDP Iraq/Vincent Haiges/2019

Giving women a voice

A passionate photographer, Tasneem chose to host a photo exhibition in early 2018. “I wanted to connect two things – photography, a powerful medium for storytelling, and women, very few of which are photographers in Iraq,” she says, camera in hand as she points it away to find focus. “I saw a gap in my community - women were interested in photography, but they lacked skills and didn’t know how to take the first step.” With Tasneem’s efforts, eight women participated in the exhibition, “Peace Gallery” and many are still shooting today. “I wanted to challenge the gender stereotypes in my community and create a space for women to safely express their ideas. When we started encouraging people to use their talent to spread personal messages of peace, the community paid attention – all of a sudden, we were asking them to reflect on what their picture of peace would look like!” exclaims Tasneem.

Tasneem stand by an easel displaying photographs from her exhibition, “Peace Gallery”. UNDP Iraq/Vincent Haiges/2019

Painting for peace

Leaving the city centre, we meet another young woman on the grounds of the University of Anbar. 24-year-old Noor, an aspiring artist, was also a grant recipient for her community initiative, “Anbar Women’s Touch”. “My painting exhibition invited 17 young women living in Anbar to paint their peace,” she says. “The youngest exhibitor was 7 years old.”

Noor has displayed one of the paintings for us on the lawn of the University, flanked by newly renovated offices and classrooms. “I chose to host my exhibition inside the College of Pharmacy. It’s led by a woman and I wanted to give women a voice – but it also needed to be in a safe space,” explains Tasneem, as she relays Noor’s story.

Despite its current appearance, 70% of the University’s main campus was destroyed or damaged during ISIL’s occupation of Ramadi, hindering the return of students, and forcing study to continue amongst the rubble.

With the support of UNDP Iraq’s Funding Facility for Stabilization in partnership with the Government of Iraq, the University of Anbar campuses have been brought back to life. Eighteen buildings have been rehabilitated across the University, including the female dormitories, the University’s main library, several engineering laboratories and five women’s’ colleges. The rehabilitation work encouraged students to return to university after Ramadi’s liberation from ISIL by providing safe, comfortable learning environment, equipped with the necessary facilities. Today, the University bustles with more than 23,000 students across its campuses.

From this space, youth like Noor, are being empowered to use their skills to help shape the process of recovery amongst the people of Anbar – starting with their ideas of peace.

“Noor connected women interested to paint with experienced faculty members from the art college, helping them to get the support they needed to transform their ideas with paint.”

Noor stands by a number of paintings from the exhibition she organized with UNDP’s support, “Anbar Women’s Touch” UNDP Iraq/Vincent Haiges/2019

The power of books

Next, we meet Hassan, standing by a tall glass cabinet in the courtyard of the Faculty of Political Science & Law. He’s a new graduate and the youngest peace advocate we meet. “I decided to install a miniature peace library on campus. I filled the cabinet with books to help people learn about the idea of peace and it’s many interpretations.”

“I saw a need – people want to know what causes conflict, and why we need peacebuilding,” he adds. “This is a way for people to discover peace in private. You can take a book and read in the garden or at home alone,” he continues. “Over time, people have become more active in discussing ideas of peace and questioning what is going on in our community. Young people are starting to change the way they talk about conflict and what we need to do as a community to achieve peace.”

Hassan reads an excerpt from a book kept in the “Peace Library” he created on the campus grounds of Anbar University. UNDP Iraq/Vincent Haiges/2019

UNDP Iraq and Iraqi al Amal Association bring youth together from across the country to train face-to-face – mixing young women and men and people of mixed ethnic and religious backgrounds – to promote understanding based on shared experience and on shared hope. In these safe spaces, young people can develop a new understanding of those who are different to themselves. “We want to connect all men and women and give them balanced opportunities to access materials on peace and to create their own meanings and representations. We believe people should have a chance to be who they want to be, and to do what they love – that’s peace,” explains Tasneem, Sruor, Noor and Hassan.

For this group of youth, the support and training they received is continuing to encourage new thinking, “Young people are interested in reflecting. Now we’ve seen the power of inviting people to create their own meaning – through art and discussion,” adds Tasneem.

About the Peace Education Project

Activities under the Peace Education Project were made possible with the generous funding of the Government of Japan and the Government of Germany. Implemented by UNDP Iraq and Iraqi al Amal Association, the Project trains both youth and academics across all governorates of Iraq and the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, on topics of peace and conflict studies. In 2019, the project launched the first national Diploma for Peace and Conflict Studies – designed in collaboration with the Iraqi Universities Consortium for Peace Studies and the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research. The first group of students will participate in a piloting of the Diploma in late 2019.

Since 2017, Iraqi al Amal Association has successfully trained 289 youth (124 women) on topics of peacebuilding and conflict, with training graduates designing and implementing 122 community engagement initiatives; building stronger social ties in communities previously effected by conflict and crisis.

About UNDP’s rehabilitation work in Ramadi

At the request of the Government of Iraq, UNDP established the Funding Facility for Stabilization (FFS) in June 2015 to facilitate the return of displaced Iraqis after the ISIL conflict, lay the groundwork for reconstruction and recovery, and safeguard against the resurgence of violence and extremism.

Since the liberation of Ramadi in December 2015, FFS has completed more than 265 stabilization projects in the city. FFS helps local authorities quickly rehabilitate essential infrastructure and services such as water and electricity networks, healthcare facilities, school and homes.