DUHOK, IRAQ – At an educational workshop in Khanke, a small town in northwestern Iraq, instructors from the University of Duhok’s (UoD) Center for Peace and Conflict Resolution Studies ask a group of high-school students to assemble into pairs and stand with their backs to one another. Through the exercise, the trainers hope to demonstrate how a lack of communication breeds fear and ignorance.
Among the participants is seventeen-year-old Yazidi student, Rawshan Daxel. In an interview with Muftah, Rawshan says she was amazed how such a simple activity could so accurately reflect the problems facing communities in the region. As she recounts, “people judge one another without truly knowing each other.”
The workshop offers the local population different techniques and strategies, such as mediation and nonviolence, to help resolve conflicts peacefully. Rawshan believes these lessons are of great use in Duhok governorate, which is home to Muslims, Christians, Yazidi, Turkmen, Shabak, an ethnic minority located mainly in villages east of Mosul, and Kakai, a secretive monotheistic religious minority.
In 2014, ISIS’s seizure of large swathes of territory across eastern Syria and northern Iraq dealt a harsh blow to trust and coexistence within the region. Facing threats of persecution and forced conversion, thousands of Christians fled Mosul and other nearby villages. ISIS soon began a genocidal campaign against the Yazidi community, which led to the death of thousands of civilians, the abduction of 5,000 to 7,000 women and children, and the displacement of 400,000 people from the Yazidi homeland of Mount Shingal (Sinjar), the Nineveh Plain, and northeastern Syria.
As Iraqi forces have retaken some of this territory, the local population has been left to pick up the pieces. For Rawshan, the workshop’s lessons have become an important part of her work in the community. As a volunteer for the Dak Organization for Yazidi Women’s Development, Rawshan has put these lessons to good use through peace education workshops she runs for Yazidi women at camps in the Yazidi-majority towns of Khanke, Sharia and Baadre. “The goal of these workshops is to rebuild trust with other communities and religious groups. If there is no peace between communities, people cannot live within those communities,” Rawshan says.
Since her work began in March 2016, Rawshan has trained twenty women in peace building and conflict resolution techniques. “During the [UoD] workshop, I realized the importance of peace in our daily lives. I now use 80% of what I learned in the workshops I conduct for Dak. The women I have trained have welcomed the idea. They have always lived in peace with other religious groups,” she observes.
In these ways, the workshops run by the UoD’s Center for Peace and Conflict Resolution Studies have created a chain reaction in which, like a baton in a relay race, peace building and conflict resolution skills are passed from person to person in areas hit hard by war and displacement.
Ambassadors of Peace
Dr. Joutyar M.R. Sedeeq, the director of the UoD’s Center for Peace and Conflict Resolution Studies, has been promoting peacebuilding and peace and conflict studies in the Kurdistan region since the center’s creation in 2002. “The idea behind the peace education workshops is to create ambassadors of peace in schools, youth centers, and IDP (internally-displaced persons) and refugee camps,” he says. “Most participants think that peace is shaking hands with the enemy, but, after the workshops, they see that peace sometimes is made with your friends, your brother, your sister, your local community. It has to do with how you manage your issues,”
Together with the University of Duhok, Sedeeq has helped develop the only Masters degree program in Iraq dedicated to teaching the theory and practice of peacebuilding. With funding from the U.S. State Department, and in partnership with New York University’s (NYU) Center for Global Affairs, the Center for Peace and Conflict Resolution Studies has conducted 212 community-based peace education workshops in public schools, social centers, and refugee and IDP camps in the Duhok governorate and disputed areas of Nineveh province, since summer 2014. A total of seventeen trainers with a variety of academic backgrounds and previous experience in peace building and conflict resolution conduct these three-day workshops in teams of two.
Through these programs, 2,727 primary and high school students and 732 refugees and IDPs have been trained in peace building, as of June 3, 2016. An estimated 1,000 IDPs and refugees have been trained since summer 2014.
Workshop: Warar School
In Duhok, a group of female students at the Warar School take the stage to perform a scenario of their own creation. It is the third session of the UoD peace education workshop. Two months have passed since the last training session and the trainees must now demonstrate how they have applied the lessons learned in the previous sessions to their daily lives.
“On the first two days, we teach them about peace, conflict, peace building, diversity, [and] multiculturalism… On the third day, students have to tell us how they used what they learned,” Zeravan Germavy, a UoD trainer, says.
The students assemble on stage; some sit and stare at their cell phones, while others begin to sweep the floor. Soon, an argument breaks out. The students, who are cleaning up, reproach those who are sitting by idly. Suddenly, another student, named Hevi, appears on stage and suggests they take turns cleaning the classroom. Everyone agrees to her proposal.
The audience and UoD trainers, Germavy and Zeinab Omar Shoro, give the students a round of applause for presenting such a good example of mediation.
“The issue of peace and conflict is very new at university level, but it is very important, given the situation we are facing now in Kurdistan,” Zeravan says. He is an experienced trainer who has been involved from the program’s start, as the university’s field project director. “There is a lot of conflict. However, we are trying to focus on small disputes between the students, especially inside schools, in order to try to manage them differently.”
During the third session, a shy girl says she has managed to improve the relationship between two friends who did not get along. Another girl is mediating an argument between two friends and even between a teacher and a student.
“We teach them that, in order to become ambassadors of peace, they have to treat their friends, families, neighbors respectfully and respect their ideological, cultural, and religious differences,” Zeravan says. “This is very new for them at the beginning, but we are making the contents very clear and simple.”
Challenges and Rewards
Despite the best efforts of the trainers, deep-rooted grudges and prejudices between communities sometimes emerge during the workshops. The trainers must address these issues, as well as challenge participants to view these situations from different perspectives.
According to Adnan Yousif Hussein, a trainer with the program since the start and the director of the local TV station, this is an enduring obstacle. “Especially after the attacks by ISIS in 2014, students say they hate Arabs and cannot live together. Do you know why? Because there is no connection between both worlds,” he says, “There is no communication and you can misunderstand the other.”
“In refugee and IDP camps, it is difficult to tell people whose relatives are dead or have been kidnapped that they should think of peace or reconciliation rather than of revenge. There lies the challenge. However, the good thing is that they interacted with Arabs in the past, so I appeal to their personal experiences and ask them if they think that all of them are bad, or if Arabs helped them, supported them or traded with them in the past, so that they don’t generalize” Adnan explains.
For his part, Breendar H. Garmavi, a lawyer, was more familiar with conflict than peacekeeping when he first joined the Duhok program as a trainer. His father, a Peshmerga soldier, along with his brother, died during the Anfal campaign launched by Saddam Hussein in the final stages of the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988) against Iraqi Kurds.
In Breendar’s view, the workshop’s conflict resolution methods could improve relations among communities within the region. One of the challenges Breedar encounters during the workshops is explaining how pluralism and diversity can be assets rather than liabilities. “Although most participants agree that diversity is not the cause of conflict, we use examples to show them that diversity and pluralism can be an advantage if managed correctly,” Breendar says.
“We are teaching them new ways to solve their daily problems. One of the participants for example helped his father settle a dispute over land with his uncle by proposing three different solutions. That is what we are trying to teach them: solving conflicts is your job to do. It is a role that they should play in their families, with their friends.”
“Whenever they see conflict between friends or family, they should try to solve it,” Breendar says, “I like working with people of this age, because they are the future of our community.”