In Diyala, the Bani Saad Youth and Sports Forum offers safe spaces that allow young people to play, express themselves, and hone their talents.
Reigniting young Iraqis’ passion for sports and the arts
June 26, 2023
In the heart of Muqdadiya town in eastern Iraq lies the Bani Saad Youth and Sports Forum. Established in 1986, this youth centre in Diyala has evolved over the years, shaping countless lives through its various programmes.
It has nurtured athletes, some of which had played and won national championships. It is also a hub for artistic and cultural activities, fostering creativity and providing opportunities for personal growth.
At the helm of this transformative institution is Ahmed Hassan Omari, its director who has been tirelessly leading the centre since 2014. Spending 10 hours at the centre every day, Ahmed has dedicated himself to transforming the lives of young people in his community. From organising poetry nights to coaching football teams to planning new projects, Ahmed does his job passionately.
“I see myself in them. When I was in my teenage years, I could not pursue my love for sports and the arts because my family could not afford it. I don’t want the younger generations in my community to experience what I did. A lot of them have so much potential but need support and guidance. So, I help them reach their full potential so they can make their dreams a reality,” he says.
Every month at least 800 people as young as 10 years old visit Bani Saad Youth and Sports Forum. They play football, volleyball, basketball, table tennis, billiards, and chess. Painters, sculptors, poets, and photographers converge at the centre to discuss art and collaborate on projects. Some come to play music and act on stage. Others take part in skills training and learn sewing, knitting, and handicraft.
“I consider all of them my sons and daughters. We welcome everyone and encourage them to sign up for our activities. Our team works hard to conceptualize new ideas and find better ways to serve the people of Diyala,” Ahmed shares.
A symbol of hope and resilience
The Bani Saad Youth and Sports Forum has always been a symbol of hope and resilience in Diyala. After surviving a bombing in 2007, it badly needed rehabilitation. However, due to lack of funding, its reconstruction only commenced in 2011 and completion was hindered by the ISIL conflict in 2014.
Ahmed, who had just taken over the centre that year, closed the facility and suspended all activities. Despite security threats, Ahmed and his team always checked on the centre.
“We had to protect the centre at all costs. It was all that we had,” he says.
Ahmed and his team chose to remain in Diyala and look after the youth centre, determined not to let fear get to them. Months after the conflict ended, Ahmed and his team slowly brought back some of the centre’s activities, even with limited resources, equipment, and participants.
In 2021, UNDP’s Funding Facility for Stabilization worked with Ahmed, his team, and the Diyala governorate to rebuild and upgrade the Bani Saad Youth and Sports Forum. In November 2022, the youth centre reopened boasting its new specialized rooms, bigger theatre hall and basketball and football courts, a fountain, and gardens, all solar-powered.
“Young people are the future of Iraq. I want Bani Saad to be a haven where young people in Diyala can find inspiration to pursue their goals and dreams,” Ahmed says.
With the expansion of the youth centre, Ahmed and his team are now able to accommodate more than 1,000 visitors per day. It also enabled them to offer new activities like sewing to attract more people.
“Even in the face of challenges, we want this centre to help people realize their dreams and embrace their passions. I believe Bani Saad will play a vital role in the future of our community, and not just for the youth. We will continue to work hard to provide those in need with the necessary tools to uplift their lives,” Ahmed adds.
Rebuilding lives stitch by stitch
Shayma Ahmed, 48, and Nour Khalid Ahmed, 28, spend at least three hours a day at the Bani Saad Youth and Sports Forum, stitching beautiful garments, learning new techniques, and connecting with fellow seamstresses.
Facing the challenges of living in post-ISIL, Shayma and Nour found a renewed sense of purpose through their shared passion for sewing, which they discovered while participating in Bani Saad’s skills training.
“This centre holds a special place in my heart. I always feel at home here being surrounded by supportive friends who celebrate my growth,” Nour says.
Like Nour, Shayma found solace in Bani Saad. Every hour they spent at the centre, they discovered more and more their potential and their talents flourished. Now both trainers, they hold sessions thrice a week and impart their knowledge and expertise to others.
“We not only gain invaluable technical skills but also get the chance to build friendships within the community. It feels good to empower others and witness our trainees' progress,” Shayma says.
Shayma and Nour share similar aspirations. They wish to fulfill their dreams of establishing their own businesses, leveraging their sewing skills.
The Bani Saad Youth and Sports Forum in Diyala was rehabilitated by UNDP’s Funding Facility for Stabilization with support from the Government of Germany. Built using sustainable and eco-friendly approaches, this centre is solar-powered and has systems in place to further reduce energy and water consumption, lower carbon emissions, and manage waste properly. Bani Saad serves more than 50,000 people.
As of June 2023, UNDP’s Funding Facility for Stabilization has completed over 3,600 projects, improving the lives of more than 8.3 million people in the five governorates liberated from ISIL.