November 11, 2019

Payam Sarbast, Journalist

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Sitting serenely amongst the chaos of the bustling newsroom, 21-year-old Payam Sarbast is unique. Not only is she the youngest news reporter at Rudaw, one of the fastest growing news channels in the Middle East, just a year ago she had no job, no work experience and no confidence.

In the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, while generally more stable and prosperous than the rest of Iraq, young people often find themselves trapped between graduation and a fruitless job market. The Syrian refugee crisis across the border, Islamic State (IS) on the doorstep and an economic crisis has seen unemployment rates skyrocket in recent years. 

In December 2017, IS was defeated but young people’s battle was far from over. Violent extremist groups exploited the internet and social media to promote their narrative and recruit young people by presenting radicalisation as empowerment. And hundreds of young Kurds had joined them, feeling disenfranchised or hopeless. 

“Initially authorities told us that it was because of IS, but now IS is gone and there is still no jobs”
– Erbil Digital Workforce member.


In order to prevent youth from reaching this vulnerable stage, SPARK and the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs, began a programme that would develop the digital and campaigning skills of young people so that they could provide alternative narratives to the online violent extremism. Studies show that in order to reduce radicalisation, extremist material needs to become less accessible, and less socially acceptable. So the young people, known as the Erbil Digital Workforce, set out to change the narrative.

In 2018, Payam was searching for a job after graduating. Interested in the media, she joined SPARK’s Boosting Your Beliefs programme to gain some work experience. Alongside 20 other male and female Kurdish youth, the team received digital campaigning and storytelling training and developed new, innovative online campaigns that explicitly rejected violence. 

Payam and the Erbil Digital Workforce got to work organising a year-long digital campaign. Often the team worked through the night to arrange side activities and events to engage the local community in their cause. In order to raise awareness of the dangers and effects of online radicalisation, the group decided to stage a large-scale conference on the topic…the first of its kind in the Kurdistan region.

The Peace through Moderation conference openly discussed the sensitive topic and the potential combative measures and as such, attracted local leaders, diplomats, policy makers and NGO representatives. With so many unexpectedly high-profile attendees, the event was also picked up by national news channels, including Rudaw. 

Payam, who was acting as the host of the event, nervously surveyed the impressive hotel hall room with its royal blue carpets and full of important people, much older than her. As she stood on the stage, she no longer considered herself the shy girl she had been when she joined the Erbil Digital Workforce. Ensued with new found skills and confidence, she carried the event with grace, tackling difficult subjects with important people. 

“I am so proud of myself. SPARK has given me the self confidence to know that I can face anything in this life, without being shy”
– Payam Sarbast.

After the event was over, Payam’s confidence and talent had not gone unnoticed. She was approached by a journalist from Rudaw Media Network who had been reporting on the conference that day. The journalist asked her to come for an interview to be a reporter. 

After several months and several rounds of interviews and tests, Payam – without any professional experience in media, journalism or being on camera, only the skills that she had gained being part of the Erbil Digital Workforce – was offered the job at Rudaw. She has gone on to become one of Rudaw’s most successful up and coming journalists, even travelling to China to make her reports. 

“This was a door for me, to bring me to the place where I am now. Now I am a journalist”