“I’ve tried to gather all of Iraq in one statue,” says Anbar University student Sruor, 24.
She’s standing in front of a large statue in central Ramadi that she designed. The structure is striking. Four black and white cubes stacked asymmetrically, sitting in central Ramadi. “The first cube bears the names of each Iraqi governorate in kufi script. 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.”
Srour is joined with her friend and fellow student, Tasneem, 28.
Both young women call Anbar home and share a commitment to build peace in their community by understanding 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 trained 289 young people (including 122 women) from across Iraq. Students designed activities that would invite people from various backgrounds to exchange ideas about peace. One hundred and fourteen projects were given small cash grants and supported as they carried out their ideas.
Giving women a voice
A passionate photographer, Tasneem chose to host a photo exhibition. “I wanted to connect two things — photography, a powerful medium for storytelling, and women, very few of which are photographers in Iraq,” she says. “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!” Tasneem says.
Painting for peace
Leaving the city centre, we meet another young woman on the grounds of the University of Anbar. Noor, 24, an aspiring artist, received a grant for ‘Anbar Women’s Touch’. “My painting exhibition invited 17 young women living in Anbar to paint their peace,” she says. “The youngest exhibitor was seven 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,” Tasneem says, as she relays Noor’s story.
Most of the university’s main campus was destroyed or damaged during the ISIL occupation of Ramadi, hindering the return of students, and forcing them to study 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, including the female dormitories, the main library, several engineering laboratories and five women’s colleges. Today, the university bustles with more than 23,000 students.
From this space, young people such as Noor, are being encouraged to use their skills to help shape recovery amongst the people of Anbar — starting with peace.
“Noor connected women interested in painting with experienced faculty members from the art college, helping them to get the support they needed to transform their ideas with paint,” Tasneem says.
The power of books
Next, we meet Hassan, a new graduate, who’s standing by a tall glass cabinet in the courtyard of the Faculty of Political Science & Law. “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 its many interpretations,” he says.
“I saw a need — people want to know what causes conflict, and why we need peacebuilding,” he says. “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. 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.”
UNDP Iraq and the Iraqi al Amal Association bring young people together from across the country, mixing young women and men of mixed ethnic and religious backgrounds, to promote understanding. 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,” says Tasneem.
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.
The Peace Education Project was made possible with the generous funding of the Government of Japan and the Government of Germany. In 2019, the project launched the first national Diploma for Peace and Conflict Studies. It was designed in collaboration with the Iraqi Universities Consortium for Peace Studies and the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research.
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 such as water and electricity networks, healthcare facilities, school and homes.
Photos: UNDP Iraq/Vincent Haiges