No one knows what the future holds for the government, economy and communities of Iraq. But it is clear who will be left to hold that future: Iraqi youth. Still, the young people themselves say they do not know what it means "to be Iraqi." They identify with their tribes, clans, religions and geographic regions instead. ACDI/VOCA experts who work with young people in Iraq say this lack of a national identity could be the country's largest hurdle yet to future economic growth and stability.
"Iraqi youth are eager to be guided and encouraged to participate in community and economic life in positive ways," says ACDI/VOCA's Lindsey Jones, who participated in this week's Making Cents International Global Youth Conference in Washington, D.C.
Now more than ever, ACDI/VOCA says, efforts to help young people succeed--training, education, team- and community-building activities--must focus on preparing Iraq's youth for employment and governance as well as building a sense for youth of what it means to be an Iraqi.
Youth Learn to Cooperate Despite Differences
For the past two years, ACDI/VOCA has organized youth summer camps--through funding from the USAID Community Action Program--with activities to help build and strengthen youth leadership skills and create an awareness of citizenship and community among young people from various socioeconomic, religious and ethnic backgrounds.
So far 476 young people, ages 15 to 24, have attended the week-long Youth Summer Camp on Leadership and Local Government, where youth participate in many events, ranging from sports and photography competitions to cultural nights and animated group discussions on topics of their choosing. The young women and men attend separate camps.
At the heart of the camp activities is an exercise where the campers organize into five fictional provinces and elect provincial officials and a governor. The youth learn about Iraqi local government structures and election procedures, how to participate in and lead local community development initiatives, and how to mobilize their peers and community leaders.
Because the young people come from different communities (Diyala, Kirkuk, Ninawa and Salah ad Din provinces) and ethnicities (Kurd, Shia, Sunni and Turkmen) they must learn to overcome their differences and cooperate and communicate with each other.
Says one camper from Diyala: "We are learning how important it is to cooperate... and coordinate between ethnicities. This is our future."
The interactions among the youth also prompt questions and discussions about what it means to be an Iraqi, and how they personally can promote peace and multicultural understanding given the political realities that exist in Iraq today.
"The solutions that the young people derive to deal with some very complex issues in Iraq can be surprisingly creative, simple and effective," says ACDI/VOCA's Diana Lynn Caley, citing the example of two sisters from Ninawa who painted scenes of local peace-building across ethnicities, which they plan to exhibit in their community.
Youth Need Holistic Programs
The summer camp program complements other ACDI/VOCA skills building for youth under the USAID-funded community program, including the Apprenticeship Program, which provides on-the-job training for recent high school and college graduates.
Campers receive practical skills training like job training through the summer camp program as well. This year, two of the adult camp facilitators were participants from the 2009 summer camp; nine participants from that same class were hired as staff on other ACDI/VOCA projects.
"So many people today live in conflict, post-conflict and other disruptive environments," says Sally Iadarola, managing director of ACDI/VOCA's community stabilization and development group. "Holistic programs that tap youth's creativity and energy and expand their opportunities to earn incomes and become community leaders help assure that these young people contribute to the future stability and success of their communities--and nation."