“Activism is action to bring about change in society. It can be trying to make a government change its laws, or trying to make people change what they do.”- Thamer Alyas
Once upon a time, Baghdad was known as the City of Peace. After years of conflict throughout Iraq it is fair to say Baghdad is rarely looked at as a symbol of peace any more, but what people don’t understand is that peace is still very present in this city and all over Iraq.
Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program (IYLEP) is a highly competitive program sponsored by the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and Meridian International Center. Through this program 99 students from various cities in Iraq had the opportunity to visit America for a month in July 2015. During their visit, the students studied either Information Technology and Media, Entrepreneurship and Community Development, Public Policy, or Leadership Law and Social Justice at a university. After a welcoming reception in New York City the group divided and traveled to different universities depending on the subject each participant chose to study. University of Massachusetts, Ball State University, University of Texas at Austin, or University of Virginia Commonwealth were the homes of the participants for the following weeks where they studied, made friends, and learned first hand about American culture. The group reconvened in Washington D.C. at the end of the program to visit Meridian International Center and celebrate their accomplishments. It was a sad day as the group of tight knit friends departed back to their various locations in Iraq, but they are still connected through social media and often meet to catch up.
The most fascinating part of IYLEP is not the program itself but the participants who demand peace and justice and strove to establish them. Meridian keeps in contact with the graduated students, and some of the work IYLEP graduates have been doing is simply incredible.
In 2011 Noof Assi and friend came up with the idea of lighting candles in a neighborhood of Baghdad to recognize World Peace Day. Seeing the candles in the neighborhood, someone approached Noof Assi and suggested she create a small stage and organize plays for the community to celebrate the day. Over the past 4 years this small celebration has turned into the Baghdad City of Peace Carnival held September 21st every year. The event brings together people of all ages to make crafts, purchase items, eat food, enjoy singing and dancing, and light candles. The main goal of the carnival is to come together as a city, bond, and spread small acts of peace throughout Baghdad. Every year numerous IYLEP graduates can be seen volunteering at booths, performing on stage, promoting IYLEP, and organizing and running events. A 2014 IYLEPer Sadiq H. Aladily served as the Manager of Media and Social Media teams, and captured beautiful photos of the Carnival and shared them with the world to highlight Baghdad’s efforts for peace.
Word of the Baghdad City of Peace Festival’s success reached other parts of Iraq and sparked inspiration from other groups interested in the cause. An example of this is the Basra City of Peace Carnival that was initiated as a branch off of the Baghdad City of Peace Festival. Similar activities are held at the festival, and just like the Baghdad celebration, many IYLEP graduates attended the event. Mustafa Aldeewan, and IYLEP alum, was a founder of the Basra City of Peace Carnival. His hard work and dedication along with that of other volunteers in the community such as Rusul Alaa, has turned the event into a successful festival. One of the most impactful moments was the presentation of a piece of artwork by a team of IYLEP graduates and volunteers who created it specifically for the event.
One of the 2015 IYLEP students has been involved with Basmat Amal (A Smile of Hope) upon her return to Iraq. Basmat Amal is a voluntary team originating from Kuwait, and distributes supplies to Syrian and Jordanian families in need. The organization’s goal is to raise an equivalent of $70,000 for 500 Jordan families in need. She was a representative of Basmat Amal at the Baghdad City of Peace Festival and raised significant funds towards their goal. Along with her work with Basmat Amal, she also co-organized a Naseer Shamma (an Oud player) concert at the Baghdad National Theatre to mark World Peace Day. The concert devoted all of its profits to internally displaced persons.
Peace is not just a word devoted to people. For Ibrahim Al-Zaidi, peace means animal rights for the animals of Iraq and all around the world. As a veterinary medicine student, animals are an important part of his life and working with a team of nine passionate students to promote animal rights is a serious job. His team started with a social media campaign to determine goals and raise awareness for their cause. Their main call for people was to supply food and water for street animals during the hot Iraqi summer days. The group’s first official event was the Baghdad City of Peace Festival where they set up a booth which attracted crowds for an opportunity to free a caged bird into the air. The moment was captured on film and a photo was sold to each participant. The booth sold handmade crafts and animal toys with flowers and notes attached that had interesting facts about the animal written on them. There was also an artwork section of the booth that enabled people to draw their favorite animal and write a wish or nice words. When asked about the future Ibrahim said they intend to organize more events and raise awareness widely in schools by giving information and simple tips about animals’ health. “If we get enough support we intend to make shelters for stray animals,” he added.
The most dedicated and passionate person graduated from IYLEP could possibly be Thamer Alyas. In 2014 he founded Humanity, a non-governmental organization devoted to helping Syrian refugees and other internally displaced persons in Iraq and its surrounding countries. Thamer describes his organization’s purpose as “Helping children forget about their situation for some time, and giving them the opportunity to live a normal childhood despite poor living conditions, and allowing them to express themselves though playing games”. One of Thamer’s recent activities involved visiting Sharya town and giving winter boots to more than 200 kids who were suffering in the bare buildings and freezing temperatures of the fall season. To support Thamer’s cause and donate to Humanity’s campaign visit the organization’s gofundme page to learn more about how you can help. Thamer’s activism reached further than Iraq as he can be seen speaking at the United Nations. His most recent speech was on ISIS and its impact on women. Thamer’s drive will carry him to new heights throughout his life and his cause will touch many people.