Iraqi youth rebuild their dreams

By Oxfam

In Qayyarah, Iraq, an ISIS stronghold until October 2016, youth who were stripped of basic rights under Islamic State (ISIS) rule are clamoring for a chance at a brighter future. 

In Iraq, 61 percent of the population is below age 24. Turmoil and loss shape the collective memory of this generation. Under ISIS, citizens were robbed of basic services, such as education, health care, and electricity. Youth were particularly hard hit: their schooling was cut short, young women lost their autonomy, and boys were recuited to armed groups.

Oxfam has been working in Qayyarah since September 2016. We recently rehabilitated a school, helping kids get back to class, and are planning programs to address the needs of young men and women between the ages of 15 and 22. Despite the odds, the young people we've encountered display extraordinary resilience. They're starting to rebuild their lives and dream about the future. 

To ensure their security in a place that has seen so much violence, we've changed their names.

Hazam Ibrahim, 22

Photo: Tommy Trenchard/Oxfam

Before ISIS took Qayyarah, Ibrahim's family relied on his father's police officer salary. Back then, he says, "I was only worried about good grades and being successful at school." 

After ISIS looted the police station, his father lost his salary. The stress, coupled with years of smoking, caused him to die of heart failure. Ibrahim stopped going to school because he wasn't sure his education would count. "Those two years felt like 10 years," he says. "I could see my future fade before my eyes."

"Now I want to go to university and get a job," he says. "Then I will feel like my efforts did not go to waste. Education strengthens you and makes you more confident in life."

Malak Obed Khadr, 15

Photo: Tommy Trenchard/Oxfam

"Before ISIS, I was feeling 100 percent safe," says Khadr. But once they took over, girls were not allowed to go outside without a male chaperone. Even then, they were required to be fully covered. 

"They told my father that in order for me to go to school, we had to pay," she says. "ISIS destroyed my future, they stopped my education."

Khadr—who lost her mother and sister when a mortar hit their house—says with ISIS gone, she finally feels free. She aspires to become a doctor or an engineer. "If I could wake up and all my dreams had come true, we would have a new house, better conditions, more money, and a new life where everything is safe," she says. 

Odai Saed, 15

Photo: Tommy Trenchard/Oxfam

After Saed's father escaped ISIS, he and a cousin hatched a plan to flee. They made it 62 miles before getting hit by a rocket. A piece of shrapnel took off his arm and his cousin's leg. But Saed didn't give up. Two days after undergoing an operation, he made one final attempt to get away—and succeeded.

Saed is now the man of the house, taking care of his mother and sisters. He looks forward to finishing school so he can become an engineer. 

"If I was in charge, the first thing I would do is rebuild all the buildings ISIS destroyed, like the hospitals and schools, he says. "I would bring back services and buy books for all the schools."

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