Promoting peace among young Iraqis

Spectators watch the final game of the football tournament. © UNICEF/Iraq/2016/Niles

On a perfect spring day in the Kurdistan region of Iraq several hundred excited children have gathered in the middle of waving fields of wheat, determined to have a good time.

The children were displaced from their homes by conflict and now live in Kabarto 1 and 2 camps near the city of Dohuk. They’ve come by bus to a remote but picturesque stadium for the finals of a camp-wide football tournament.

Some have climbed up onto the roof of a nearby pavilion for a better view, while others are gathered at the edge of pitch. The children are shouting and chanting and enjoying the novelty of a change of scenery. Many wear shirts with the names of their sporting heroes — Messi, Muller, Ronaldo, Ozil.

© UNICEF/Iraq/2016/Niles

Organized by UNICEF partner War Child, the tournament involves 200 children and 17 teams and is part of a larger peacebuilding programme which aims to give children of different ethnic and religious backgrounds the skills to live harmoniously together and to resolve conflict. The programme also includes a volleyball tournament for girls and a marathon. Supported by a generous contribution from the people of Japan, the programme has benefitted more than 3,000 children and young adults.

Dalgash, 23, from Sinjar, is particularly proud of the role he’s played in helping to organize the tournament and his participation in the peacebuilding programme. He fled violence in Sinjar two years ago, and like many displaced young people living in the camps, has found the lack of opportunities and activities discouraging.

Being involved in the youth committee has not only given him a sense of purpose, but also a greater understanding of his fellow Iraqis who don’t share his faith or traditions.

“I’ve learned that people from different religious backgrounds can live together,” he says. “I’ve learned tolerance and forgiveness and peaceful ways of living.”

The football teams are separated by age but not religion - each team has a mixture of Yazidi, Muslim and Christian players. The final matches are fiercely fought but conducted with good sportsmanship.

Dalgash watches from the sidelines as he waits his turn to go to the pitch and compete.

“The object is to make people closer. We learned that we are all human and there is no difference between us,” he says. “I hope because of this peace programme the next generation will be more forgiving to each other.”

Chris Niles is a Consultant with UNICEF Iraq.

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