Born in war and poverty, youth don’t abandon Iraq

BAGHDAD: The 21-year-old college student in Baghdad lost her father during the Iraq War to gunmen from a rival Muslim sect. Now she dreams of an Iraq where all people can “enjoy stable life and security.”

The young bus driver from a former al-Qaida stronghold had to drop out of school to help support his family. He struggles to make ends meet but longs to resume his education.

The teenager from the northern Kurdish region works in his father’s barber shop when he’s not in class. He looks forward to making a lot of money in Iraq — but only if the government can capitalize on its oil trade and foreign investments.

As part of Iraq’s growing youth population — which accounts for about 60 percent of the nation’s people — all three say they are impatient at best about where their country is headed. The U.S.-led invasion of March 20, 2003, promised better lives for Iraqis after three decades of war, dictatorship and sanctions. Ten years later, the county is mired in widespread instability and political corruption.

Nevertheless, interviews and discussions across the country with more than a dozen Iraqi teenagers and young adults reveal a resiliency and refusal to abandon hope. Deadly violence is common, jobs are scarce and education is a luxury, but they say they are unwilling to give up on Iraq. Moreover, a government survey shows that 80 percent of young Iraqis don’t want to move to another country.

“I want my country to be better, and I want my people to enjoy stable life and security, and for Iraq to be like a Western country,” said Shahad Abdul-Amir Abbas, whose father was killed in 2005 in the widespread sectarian fighting that brought Iraq to the brink of civil war.

Abbas, a Shiite who attends college in Baghdad, wants to find a good-paying job and to marry, but thinks “my personal ambitions will not come true unless my country gets rid of all the security, political and economic problems.”

An estimated 18 million people of Iraq’s population of 30 million are younger than 25, according to data provided by the CIA and the United Nations. By comparison, Americans of that same age group make up about one-third of the U.S. population. Contraceptives are limited in Iraq, and an estimated 20 percent of girls ages 15 to 19 are married, according to the U.N.

The fate of Iraq’s youth is a top concern for the U.N. envoy in Baghdad, especially as there are few — if any — obvious successors to the nation’s aging political leaders. As the upcoming generation looks to the future, the decisions they make today — pursuing education, finding jobs, whether or whom to marry, and even to stay or leave the country — will help determine whether and how quickly Iraq is able to achieve peace and prosperity.

A 2009 study by the Iraqi Ministry of Youth and Sport reveals a decidedly traditional worldview among the nation’s young people. The survey of 6,492 households across Iraq, focusing in large part on 15,087 people ages 10 to 30, concluded that 60 percent of the country’s youth are generally optimistic about the future, especially teenage girls. The study was the first of its kind in Iraq, according to the U.N.

However, the study also found that nearly 40 percent refuse to talk to people deemed different than them. Slightly more than half — 52 percent — do not have friends from different religions or sects. And more than 90 percent believe women must have the approval of their husbands or families before they are allowed to work outside the home.

The survey has not been updated since 2009. It is currently being used to develop a national youth strategy, Iraqi government officials said.

U.N. envoy Martin Kobler said teenage and young Iraqi adults generally remain isolated from other religious sects. But a group of several dozen Iraqi youths he recently took on a series of field trips to different mosques and shrines indicated a curiosity and willingness to learn.

“They asked all kinds of questions — they just do not know about the other denominations,” Kobler said in an interview Thursday. “And on one occasion, they interrupted the sheik, saying they don’t want to hear about sectarian attitudes. They said, ‘We want to hear about jobs, and about our future in Iraq — not sectarianism.'”

“The young people who have tolerance today will be adults with tolerance tomorrow,” Kobler said. “But young people with limited views and sectarianism today will have those views tomorrow. It’s very important that this country stays together. Everything that works to separate the country along sectarian lines is not conducive to an atmosphere where everybody is an Iraqi.”

Abdul-Wadoud Fawzi, a 25-year-old Sunni, struggles to be optimistic. He is a native of Fallujah, the former al-Qaida stronghold in Iraq’s west that has been a recent hotspot of anti-government protests. Each weekday morning, Fawzi drives a minibus of students to Anbar University in the city of Ramadi, about 45 minutes away. He had to drop out of school to help support his family, earning $300 a month as a driver.

“Studying might provide me with a better life and future,” he said. “My hopes are similar to the hopes of all Iraqis — to live a peaceful and dignified life away from violence and war miseries. The country is getting worse, as long as justice is absent in Iraq, and it will not get better until we get rid of the unjust government.”

The ministry study says nearly all youth — 92 percent — receive some formal schooling but that there’s a high drop-out rate. In 2009, the study estimated that fewer than half of Iraqis between the ages of 15 and 24 were still in school, with more males than females enrolled.

Government officials have tried to help young people mostly by creating sports clubs, offering computer training and opening fine arts centers. The Youth and Sport ministry has an annual $840 million budget but no authority to create jobs.

Unemployment remains high among young Iraqis. Only 46 percent of people aged 25 to 30 had jobs in 2009, the government study showed. That’s compared to 81 percent of working Americans of the same age last year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Some of the best jobs in Iraq are with the government, where a midlevel worker makes about $600 a month. Those jobs aren’t easy to get.

In the southern port city of Basra, Akram Hashim, 25, is earning pocket change at a photography store even though he’s been trained in computer science. He says he does not have the political connections necessary to be given public work.

“A stable government job to help my family is what is needed,” said Hashim, a Shiite who lives with his wife and daughter in his parents’ home with six other relatives. “It is very hard to get a good job.”

How does he see his country’s future? “It could get worse,” he said gloomily.

Basra is surrounded by some of the world’s most lucrative oil fields, which are being mined for foreign investors. Yet Hashim’s desire for a government job reflects a deep-seated reluctance among many Iraqis to wean themselves off reliable employment. Kobler said that is rooted in part by security fears: If the violence continues, fewer foreign investors will come to Iraq, and jobs could dry up.

A notable exception is in the self-rule Kurdish region in Iraq’s north. The region is generally more stable and financially well-off than the rest of Iraq, largely because it was not under Saddam Hussein’s control in 2003 and was spared the violence, military and political chaos in the years after the U.S.-led occupation.

Alan Fatih Kareem, 18, a Kurdish high school student who works in his father’s barber shop in the regional capital of Irbil, says new foreign investment and influences have given him a taste of the West and, generally, should bode well for Iraq’s future.

“Iraq and Kurdistan are making remarkable progress in terms of development, construction and mixing with foreigners,” Kareem said. “I’m looking forward. I don’t know what will happen in the future, but I’m sure Iraq will change for the better.”

The youth study shows that more than half of young adults own cell phones, which were nonexistent in Iraq 10 years ago. It also found that more than four out of five young Iraqis have no desire to leave their homeland, despite its many problems.

But Iraq’s leaders cannot afford to let security threats and bleak economic opportunities go unchecked, Kobler said. “My impression is (Iraqi youth) want to stay,” he said. “But if framework conditions are as they are, then they will want to leave.”

In the holy Shiite city of Najaf, Intithar Hussein has put faith in her up-and-coming generation. She is a satellite television reporter in a country where, according to the study, only a 52 percent majority of young men believe women should work. She does not care.

“The important thing is to have the smile of victory on your face when you achieve what you work hard to do,” said Hussein, 22. “The size of corruption and destruction is big, but the well-doing hands of Iraqis who are working to draw a shining future are many.”