IN AN IRAQI MALL ON VALENTINE’S DAY, shoppers were treated to a unique sight. Twenty-eight young people wearing traditional dress from the many cultures in the country congregated to sing, dance, and hand out flowers and balloons with messages of love and inclusivity.
The event, one of 42 created and implemented by Iraqi youth across Iraq, was to promote peaceful coexistence and cultural acceptance among Iraqi communities struggling through a divisive political climate.
The project brings together Eastern Mennonite University’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding and the Iraqi al-Amal Association in a United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)-funded project. The multi-phase plan focuses on the key stakeholders of youth and academics to build a culture of peace in the country.
Five EMU faculty and alumni are involved: Dr. Alma Abdul-hadi Jadallah, president and managing director of Kommon Denominator, and CJP adjunct faculty; Aala Ali MA ’14, UNDP development officer; Cynthia Nassif MA ’14 of Lebanon and Najla El Mangoush MA ’15 of Libya, both doctoral students at George Mason University; and Ahmed Tarik MA ’16 of Iraq.
Nassif, Mangoush and Tarik helped Jadallah design workshops on conflict resolution in Arabic for both youth and academics. Jadallah provided the first training for youth in October 2016, followed by two others for youth and three for academics from Iraqi universities. While the academic trainings will lead to a peacebuilding curriculum that will be shared by universities across Iraq, the youth trainings culminated in a series of community peacebuilding project proposals.
Mangoush appreciated the opportunity to work together with CJP alumni, “practicing our beliefs and skills as peacebuilders from different Arabic countries to assist peace in Iraq.” An important aspect of the project, she adds, is “acknowledging the need to promote peace from a local perspective and through religious tolerance.”
More than 563 youth from Najaf, Nineveh and Baghdad applied to participate. Seventy-two were selected, with criteria including age, potential, experience, connections, responsibility, diversity and vision.
After the trainings, participants created project proposals that employed sports, arts, social media, listening and dialogue to address a variety of topics: women’s rights, children’s education, displaced persons and host community engagement, and interfaith dialogue and conflict resolution workshops, according to Nassif.
Muntather Hassan, youth program coordinator for the Iraqi al-Amal Association, attended each training, worked with youth on their proposals, and watched selected projects come to fruition.
Besides the Valentine’s Day project, other funded projects include a Facebook page started by five artists to showcase peace-themed artworks (50 artists have contributed) and visitation programs in Erbil, where Muslim activists visited internally displaced Christian children, and in Baghdad, where both Christian and Muslim activists visited Muslim children.
Though Iraq is full of problems, Hassan says young people see a chance to make a difference and to address issues “the older generation can’t see.” They are encouraged, he said, by the desire to live a normal life without fear, “ordinary needs that give them motivation.”
“A journey like this comes once a life,” wrote one participant. Another shared that he felt “loved, respected, supported and listened to.” Yet another learned “not all Muslims are ISIS.”
“Mohammed came back from Erbil as a different person, a better one,” said one participant’s parents.