Youth Speak has brought together young women and men from all different walks of life. In this project of Cordaid in Iraq, they cross ethnic and religious divides and put the challenges of young people on the agenda. Even now the programme has officially ended, these young leaders continue to have a positive impact on society.
The Youth Speak Project was a four-year intervention (from 2018 to 2021) to empower youth in Iraq. The country has one of the youngest populations in the world and most of them grew up in a violent era, knowing only war and instability. “But after 19 years of conflict, it is high time to acknowledge that young people can be powerful contributors to peace and stability,” says Sarmad Mubarak, manager of the security and justice programme at Cordaid in Iraq.
Diversity = opportunity
Youth Speak united 24 young men and women from three different governorates: Kirkuk, Erbil, and Ninawa (Mosul). The project aimed to be as inclusive as possible, with participants from diverse backgrounds in terms of religion (Muslim, Christian, and Yazidi) and ethnicity (Sunni, Turkmen, and Kaka'i). The group also consisted of internally displaced persons, refugees, returnees, and members of host communities. Some had jobs, some were unemployed. This diversity created lots of opportunities to connect and interact.
Mubarak: "One of the important objectives was to train these youths in the art of story gathering, as well as providing the tools to do that. From there, they designed their action plans to create the impact they aspired."
After the training sessions, the participants went back to their communities and started mapping challenges young people face, and strategies on how to address them effectively. The identified problems included women's underrated role in the community, gender-based violence, the harmful impact of certain social media influencers, reproductive health and rights, suicide, climate injustice and drug abuse.
Drug abuse in Kirkuk
For the Kirkuk team, this was one of their main issues. Until recently, drug-related problems were taboo in Kirkuk, but according to the data they gathered from the Directorate of Health and the Iraqi Media Network, one out of five people living in Kirkuk have a drug problem.
The Kirkuk Youth Speak team wanted to break the silence on drug use. They organised awareness sessions in public places, set up social media platforms and organised meetings in schools. In some high schools, it truly became apparent how big the issue is. "There were schools where 15-year olds, even girls, would be getting drugs from outside the school to sell them to the other students," says Zhiar, one of the participants from Kirkuk.
The school heads would often not report the problems to protect the school's reputation and out of fear that problems may escalate, which is understandable in areas where power is divided along tribal lines and guns rule the streets.
Addressing a sensitive issue
Youth Speak participants connected the heads of multiple schools with the General Administration of Narcotics and Psychotropic Substances Control, to discuss the matter. This initiative opened many doors and provided an example for other schools of how to impactfully and safely address sensitive issues.
Kirkuk still has tribal areas where armed men are involved in the drug business. In the awareness-raising activities, the Youth Speak team also connected with drug dealers. For reasons of privacy and security, when coordinating and collaborating with the Iraqi Media Network to share the messages across its channels, names of sources were never disclosed.
A new start in life
In the city of Kirkuk, there is only one rehabilitation centre for drug addicts. However, not many residents know of its existence since the services have never been promoted or covered by local media.
"We started by acknowledging that someone who is addicted to drugs is a victim, not a criminal," says Firyad Fuad, another Youth Speak participant from Kirkuk. "Our team brought the centre to the attention of the media and showed its importance to various governmental departments. Prisons are not the solution. When an addict is being treated as a criminal and put in jail, he will be in contact with drug dealers and might pick up even worse habits. We need the rehabilitation centres to help addicted youths to make a new start in life."
The impact continues
Even though the project ended in December 2021, the participants continue to make a difference in their communities. The Kirkuk team has been approached by multiple governmental departments, requesting and supporting them to keep up their good work.
Some of them are now training other young people across Iraq. Others have started working in humanitarian and non-governmental sectors, reaching out to people in need and contributing to a more equitable society. As Danyal Habeed, Cordaid's communication officer in Iraq, says: "The project has empowered young leaders to create positive change in their communities. They are moving this country forward."