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November 23, 2021

350 youth join festival on non-violent change in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq

Kurdish youth came together in Sulaymaniyah in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, for a festival discussing non-violent change and new opportunities for young people, organised by the 22+You campaign team.

The lobby of a prestigious hotel in Sulaymaniyah, normally packed with businessmen, was crowded with Kurdish youth – talking loudly and sharing ideas. “This is my first time at an event like this. Look at all these young people. This gives me hope,” said one student from Halabja. Walking into the hotel, visitors were welcomed by the organisers of the 22+You campaign team, part of SPARK’s Networks of Change programme. Ten minutes before the start, all chairs in the main venue were filled and it was time to applaud the first speaker. 

The 22+You campaign, led by 22 young leaders from Erbil, Sulaymaniyah and Halabja, was a nine-month long, impactful online and offline campaign that focused on preventing violent extremism through positive communication, empowering and engaging local young people and their communities. This created alternative opportunities to engage in positive activism, online debates, and training in youth centres. The main topics of this awareness campaign were hate speech, womens’ participation, peaceful demonstration and the toxic influencers who are swarming social media.

Kurdish youth participants at the 22+You campaign festival in Sulaymaniyah © 2021, SPARK

Central to the festival were lively focus group discussions, taking place at round tables with each twenty participants, during which they mapped out youth issues and collected potential solutions. The participants had a space to express their opinions: “Throughout all four years of university, I didn’t have the courage to give a presentation, but today I was talking to a table full of people and I could feel my power,” said one overwhelmed attendee.

The festival emphasised how important campaigns like 22+You are for engaging youth and showing the wider society how creative and enthusiastic young Kurdish men and women are. Given the opportunity, young people can accomplish amazing goals. 

Participant enjoying a live music performance at the 22+You campaign festival in Sulaymaniyah © 2021, SPARK

At another table, online hate speech was the central topic. “Nowadays, hate speech is not only used against women like it used to be before,” shared an attendee from Sulaymaniyah. “Now hate speech is being used against people who are trying to educate the community, people who are trying to benefit us.”

Alongside heated discussions, the youth festival was also entertaining, offering games and music performances. In the lobby there was a beautiful bazaar for 12 local businesses to showcase their products and 14 local and international NGOs introduced their projects to attendees. Some of these organisations offered internships and job opportunities. 

Bawar Mohammed, keynote speaker and a former team member of the Halmachu campaign, now supports students and graduates finding out what they are capable of by offering (international) scholarships and training courses on his online platform, Exchange Programmes. His stand in the lobby of the hotel turned into a hotspot for ambitious students. 

Nareen Farhad, the Sulaymaniyah office manager of WorkWell, speaking during the 22+You campaign festival in Sulaymaniyah © 2021, SPARK

Another of the keynote speakers of the day, Nareen Farhad, the Sulaymaniyah office manager of WorkWell, challenged the youth at the festival: “To be a successful individual, we need to know what we’re capable of, and try to find the right thing for us to do, so that we can serve and create a better community.”

At the end of the day, everyone left the festival energised, entertained, full of ideas, and encouraged to continue to learn and search for new opportunities.