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April 26, 2022

From trainee to trainer: Youth campaigners in Iraqi Kurdistan

“I became a trainer because I wanted to give back a small part of what I have learned and help others in their growth, just like I was helped in mine,” says Omer, a former campaigner from SPARK’s Networks of Change (NoC) programme, and now a trainer himself. In 2022, 29 junior trainers passed on their knowledge by training other young people in an effort to change the landscape of youth in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI).

Where polarisation and inequality are pervasive in the Kurdish society, and youth radicalisation is a continuous threat creeping under the surface, the youth grow despondent about what the future holds for them. The Networks of Change (NoC) programme has sought to change that since 2019 by training young people in the art of campaigning. In continuing to build more inclusion for the youth in social and political issues, the same young people who have participated in a previous campaigns have now used their gained skills and experience to train the next class of campaigners.

The key message of the programme is that youth in KRI rarely participate in politics or voting, frequently migrate from the country and/or become violent because they believe the leading political parties exploit them for their own interests. The campaign encourages them to vote, remain in their country, and develop their skillsets instead of going down the violent path.

Junior trainers and campaigners of the Networks of Change programme by SPARK © 2022, SPARK

The future of the Kurdish youth
The trainers believe that there are two types of groups within the Kurdish youth: those who are hopeful, and those who are hopeless. The former chooses to take charge of their future where they are and aims to benefit their community, while the latter waits in distress for change to happen to them, eventually turning to radical approaches.

As trainer Huda says: “Youth in the region are becoming polarised into two groups: one group takes every opportunity that comes their way, to benefit themselves and their communities, while the second group are not educated enough and they are not aware of the problems. For this, they need the support of NGOs, universities and the government to find alternative solutions and create opportunities for them.” As emphasised, concrete solutions are needed in order to open doors of opportunities for the youth; that’s what these junior trainers strive to achieve through teaching the new campaigners.

As those who have experienced going through the training, they understand how essential it can be. “Besides giving them a sense of purposefulness, the material we’re teaching is effective, new, and can create many opportunities,” said Awe, one of the newly qualified trainers. The youth in KRI face challenges born from injustice, and as Bilal, another trainer, puts it: “They feel like there is a lot of favouritism, and that there are no equal opportunities provided, so they feel like they need to avenge.” This sense of vengeance has been seen to lead to the radicalisation of these young people.

A common theme the trainers mentioned regarding the significance of this training is the provision of alternatives. “The youth are really influenced by social media hate speech that really promote radicalism and extremism, so the youth need alternatives. Providing them with ways that they can improve is really crucial,” says Sana, a trainer.

In learning to create a campaign, gaining persuasion skills and working in a team allows young people to obtain knowledge and increase their productivity as they channel their energy into developing their value in their community, rather than using it for violent extremism. Providing them with critical thinking skills to become less susceptible to extremist groups gives them more agency over their future. “The youth needs a voice to keep reminding them to choose a path for themselves,” said Kosar, a trainer.

Junior trainers and campaigners of the Networks of Change programme by SPARK © 2022, SPARK

Learning to be a teacher
Just as the campaign training was a first experience for the participants, it was also a new beginning for these trainers, and with it came its challenges. From mastering the material to connecting with the new campaigners in a professional way, the trainers had to practice a whole other set of diplomacy skills. Nonetheless, it was a chance for them to grow and improve themselves.

Other than understanding the importance of preparation, the main objective trainers needed to learn was how to guide the new campaigners. “I learned that, as a trainer, I should never make my trainees feel like I’m directing them in a path I want, they should always feel like they are in charge of their decisions,” says Awe.

“I have learned to not take it lightly and prepare better in the future, and to also coordinate better with your co-trainer so you don’t contradict each other,” Bakhtyar notes. Trainers Omer and Harman expressed how learning how to present the content and how to better control themselves. “Overconfidence makes you come less prepared,” says Bilal, another trainer.

The new Wara Dang campaign logo, a new campaign launched by the Networks of Change programme in Kurdistan Region of Iraq © 2022, SPARK

‘Wara Dang’ campaign
Alongside the newly qualified trainers, the Networks of Change programme has launched a new youth-awareness campaign called Wara Dang (meaning “speak up” in Kurdish), which focuses on awareness, education, and support for Kurdish youth to speak up about the societal, political, and economical issues they are facing. This 3-month campaign that begins in April will focus on empowering these 22 young people to use their voices and engage in discussions that encourage freedom of speech, increase their political understanding and participation, employment, and present opportunities that urge them to bring change in their country, rather than turning to radicalisation or migration.