Between 2013 and 2017, when the situation deteriorated in northern Iraqi areas under the control of the ISIS, about 5.8 million Iraqis had to flee their homes. The war had devastating consequences, breaking down trust between communities and between the state and its citizens. The war also saw human rights violations including widespread acts of violence and the social exclusion of religious and ethnic groups.
Following the cessation of hostilities, large numbers of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) have returned to their places of origin. By the end of December 2019, however, over 1.5 million IDPs had not returned. Among the reasons for that are the lack of housing, basic services, and opportunities to earn a living. They also cited security, social cohesion, and situations of psycho-social distress they experienced.
Trauma, displacement, and joblessness are compounded by the fact that Iraq's population of about 38.5 million (2018) is one of the youngest in the world: nearly half is under 19 years old and about a third between 15 and 29 years old. Youth unemployment has significantly risen due to the stifling economic conditions resulting from ongoing conflict.
The World Bank estimates youth unemployment in Iraq to be 36 percent, compared with the national unemployment rate of 16 percent. Iraq’s government expressed its commitment to work with the youth to rebuild the social fabric of the country and to enhance their opportunities for social and economic inclusion. Promoting the Inclusion of Conflict-affected Iraqi Youth is a pilot project developed to get youth involved in community development, peacebuilding, and micro-entrepreneurship. The project is financed by US$2.75 million grant, provided by the Japan Social Development Fund and administered by the World Bank.
The project is being implemented by the Ministry of Youth and Sports (MoYS), with the support of local NGOs to conduct soft skills training, provide psycho-social support, support youth in the design and implementation of community development initiatives, and provide technical and financial support to aspiring youth entrepreneurs.
“Investing in the youth is key to build a stable and more prosperous future for Iraq. This project will help promote the social and economic inclusion of youth in conflict-affected areas. It will provide them with the skills needed to find better job opportunities and contribute to the reconstruction of Iraq,” said Faiz Taha Al-Obeidi, the Ministry of Youth and Sports’ Project Director.
Project activities are encouraging youth to contribute to their community and, for those with entrepreneurial ideas, to start up a business. “Promoting peacebuilding initiatives, building youth skills, and providing opportunities for rapid employment and long-term livelihoods are critical to bringing about recovery and rebuilding social cohesion in Iraq,” said Ramzi Neman, Head of the World Bank Office in Iraq.
The MoYS is working in some of the most marginalized districts of Baghdad—Sadr City, Al-Amriya, Zayouna, Al-Doura, 9Nisan, and Abu Ghraib, some of which were at the epicenter of anti-government protests in October 2019, when people took to the streets denouncing corruption, unemployment, and poor state services. COVID-19 in Iraq has created more challenges: working with local NGOs and other partners on the ground has helped to ensure project activities can continue to take place. At first, all its activities were suspended. The Ministry and its local partners are now delivering training online and adopting protocols and social distancing during the implementation of community development initiatives and micro-entrepreneurship activities.
Testimonials of Iraqi beneficiaries who received psycho-social support:
- Hoda (28, single mother, separated from her husband). Hoda was at first too shy and afraid of interacting with society and avoided attending public events. She used to think that whoever looked at her would think that she is a failure. After psycho-social training, her way of thinking and behavior started to change. She became more secure and comfortable speaking in front of everyone about her suffering. She began working on strengthening herself and her personality. She has a goal to fight for and wants to support her community in development.
- Zeinab (15, internally displaced from Al Mosel city). Zeinab’s home was bombed, leaving her father and grandmother under the rubble. Her loss—and her traumatic experience—have been sources of deep suffering and pain. Through psycho-social support, Zeinab was able to spend time with people of her age and to find the strength to share her experience and get some attention and care.
- Karar, (18, looking for a job). Karar has faced many failures and hardships finding a job: “I was so distracted, jobless, and had no ambitions until I heard about the launch of the training program. I was hesitant at first to attend but, surprisingly, as the days passed and I attended the psycho-social sessions, I changed and became much happier. I became an ambitious, self-confident person.”
- Baraa, 21, said her family deprived her of the opportunity to go to school. She considered the training as an opportunity to learn. After attending the training sessions, she felt motivated and inspired and wrote about a community development initiative that she looks forward to implementing with others like herself.
- Mostafa, 26, said: “I was lost and didn’t know how to deal with my struggles, especially in light of the disasters, traumas, and crisis that our country is suffering from. It was a co-incidence when I heard about the training; truly, I didn’t want to participate, but I was so lucky when I went and found something different from what I expected. The training raised my awareness and expanded my insights. Many of my thoughts were transformed from negative to positive. I have gained interest in entrepreneurship.”
- Khalid, 28, said: “Here was the turning point in my life as I started becoming more active and effective than before. On the third day of the training, I shared with my colleagues a poem that I wrote, and they liked it. … On the seventh day of the training, I presented another speech to my colleagues. Today, I’ve taken my first step in writing motivational speeches. I also now have ideas for many pilot community-driven projects. This was possible thanks to the help of the trainers. So, thank you to all from my heart.”