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January 25, 2022

Youth in the driver’s seat in the KR-I

Campaigns to promote positive alternatives to radicalisation in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KR-I).

On 29 Sept, the Youth Campaign Workforce (part of SPARK’s Networks of Change programme) concluded a 9-month youth campaign, called 22+You, on preventing and countering radicalisation and violent extremism in the KR-I. The closing event in Erbil raised awareness among the youth, international diplomats and relevant stakeholders.

KR-I particularly suffers from youth unemployment and lack of opportunities for Kurdish youth, which can lead to protests, migration, and even radicalisation. Recently, thousands of Kurds ended up at the border of Belarus and Poland, trying to make their way into Europe.

Continuous threat of radicalisation

Although Islamic State (IS) lost all of its territory in Iraq in 2017, IS still presents an ideological threat to the youth in this region. Between 2014 and 2017 – reports differ about the exact amount – around 500 Kurdish youth were recruited by extremists. Most of them were killed. In that period of time, hundreds of youth were stopped at the border by the Kurdish intelligence services as well. 

However, since 2017, there have been numerous incidents, even attacks, close to Sulaymaniyah, Halabja and Erbil, involving new IS cells. In 2018, 3 young Kurdish high school students attacked the Erbil Governorate building and were killed by the security forces.

Creating opportunities for youth

Even after the defeat of IS, young people are still at risk of becoming radicalised due to the lack of job or education opportunities and recruitment by IS supporters. The Kurdish government, education, civil society and private sector – and of course youth themselves – need to step up to counter the ideas and recruitment of extremist groups in the region. The Youth Campaign Workforce from SPARK is one of them.

Pari Abid Osman (right), youth campaigner, moderating a panel © 2021, SPARK

Pari Abid Osman, a youth campaigner who joined the campaign workforce this year says of her peers: “They are young and they are sensitive and today we, as a campaign team, try to lobby the government to show radicalisation exists here and youth will be first who are  attracted by such ideas.”

Pari emphasised that steps should be taken to protect the Kurdish youth from extremist groups such as IS, to take youth more seriously and facilitate them better – create opportunities. “We are trying to show alternatives to the youth in KR-I, in order to prevent them from taking pathways of radicalisation.” She refers to starting dialogues between youth, their teachers and parents, to starting youth projects and small businesses, or to becoming part of campaigns such as those being organised in SPARK’s Networks of Change programme.

Youth panel during final campaign event

At the centre of the event organised by the campaign team was a panel that connected youth with stakeholders, decision makers from the government and civil society. Giving youth a platform to speak about the challenges they are facing in their communities across the region, they all highlighted the importance of being part of campaigns like 22+You.

Bushra Sabah (left), youth campaigner, speaking during the event © 2021, SPARK

“This campaign has provided me with an alternative and a platform to share my thoughts with others about the future of Kurdish youth. Now I’m on stage representing the Kurdish youth,” said Bushra Sabah, a young woman who got involved in the campaign after seeing it on social media.

Opening by Dutch Consul-General

The Dutch Consul-General to the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, Mr. Hans Akerboom, agreed with the need for youth projects like the Networks of Change programme, which is funded by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. ​“​One of the most important key players in our network are youth. Young people have the ideas, energy, and willingness to change. They are flexible and have a positive look towards the future,” Mr. Akerboom said.

Mr. Hans Akerboom, Dutch Consul-General to the Kurdistan Region of Iraq © 2021, SPARK

“I am humbled to know that 22 wise and active young men and women from the provinces of Erbil, Sulaimaniyah and Halabja, have successfully completed the 9 month training curriculum and are now able to design and organise public awareness campaigns for social change.”

Mr. Akerboom’s speech was followed by a keynote from Huda Sarhang, a pioneering entrepreneur and owner of LaLa Candles. She made sure that the audience understood the challenges she and many other women entrepreneurs face on a daily basis. “I remember the amount of online hate speech I received when I first announced that I wanted to start my business. I wish campaigns like 22+You existed then to back women like me against hate speech.”

Dr. Abdulsalam Madani, Director of the Rwanga Foundation © 2021, SPARK

Guest speaker, Dr. Abdulsalam Madani, Director of the Rwanga Foundation, an NGO based in the KR-I focused on youth and education, reacted immediately to Huda’s inspiring story: “Our youth need to hear about success stories like Huda’s much more…We need to put young people in the centre of decision making activities, on political, educational and religious levels.”

Expanding activities

Mr. Jamal Hussein, General Director of Youth at the Kurdistan Regional Government Ministry of Culture and Youth, stated during the same panel: “We suggest that SPARK makes the scope of this programme even bigger, including the outreach to other cities. We noticed that the government only focuses on sports activities in youth centres and we really are looking forward to making space in these centres for other activities for youth as well.”

“We as the government, parliament and political parties are responsible for the existing situation in which youth are struggling,” he added. “So if we don’t take youth seriously, they will not participate in elections and politics, because they have lost faith already!”

Preventing radicalisation is a collective task

Dr. Nariman Abdulla, Dean of the Humanities Science College at the University of Halabja, highlighted the need for reform. “We believe there should be reform in our law articles to include youths consistently, so they don’t feel excluded anymore and join radical groups.” He continued: “With SPARK we have already started this reform in our educational system. However, such programmes need to be continued in order to achieve bigger goals.” He emphasised the importance of recruiting, mobilising and involving more youth in schools and universities and preparing them better for the future, so they are ready to enter the labour market.

Dr. Nariman Abdulla, Dean of the Humanities Science College at the University of Halabja (centre) © 2021, SPARK

Dr. Nariman further underlined that preventing and countering radicalisation and violent extremism is a collective task. Not just a task of schools and universities, but also a task of NGO’s, private sector, and the government. The latter “should put this high on the political agenda and also include other relevant stakeholders in creating this strategy.”

In this light, Mr. Madani from the Rwanga Foundation added: “I believe we already have enough success stories about youth, on individual and NGO level. However, we need to have multi-stakeholder meetings like this one today to come up with a Regional Action Plan which works effectively.”

Attendees of the 22+You campaign closure event in Erbil, KR-I. Part of SPARK's Networks of Change programme © 2021, SPARK
Youth speakers at the 22+You campaign closure event in Erbil, KR-I. Part of SPARK's Networks of Change programme © 2021, SPARK
The 22+You campaign closure event in Erbil, KR-I, part of SPARK's Networks of Change programme © 2021, SPARK

Next steps

At the moment, SPARK is preparing the next and last campaign with a new Youth Campaign Workforce. For one last time, an exciting public awareness campaign will be designed and organised by students from Erbil, Sulaymaniyah and Halabja in order to demonstrate to their peers the positive alternatives to radicalisation and violent extremism. 

The already established youth centres in these three cities will continue to be at the heart of this effort and give Kurdish youth access to knowledge, experience and the relevant skills to raise awareness about youth radicalisation, find a job or start their own business. 

In the meantime, SPARK will also be working with several Kurdish ministries, such as the Ministry of Interior Affairs and the Ministry of Culture and Youth, to make progress on a clear, regional strategy for preventing violent extremism. This process will also involve key stakeholders such as Dr. Nariman Abdullah, entrepreneur Huda Sarhang and several campaigners from the previous campaign groups.  

By Wladimir van Wilgenburg