An online community on Facebook, Twitter and a website for the award-winning Iraqi reality TV series “Salam Shabab” has grown to reach hundreds of thousands of teens in Iraq as well as in Egypt, Jordan, the Palestinian Territories, Tunisia and Libya.

Iraqi TV Reality Series Connects Pan-Arab Youth In Online Community
Salam Shabab Season 1 Finalists

An online community on Facebook, Twitter and a website for the award-winning Iraqi reality TV series “Salam Shabab” has grown to reach hundreds of thousands of teens in Iraq as well as in Egypt, Jordan, the Palestinian Territories, Tunisia and Libya.

The aim is to preserve and expand on the personal peacebuilding connections established during the successful USIP-supported series, which will air its third – and possibly final – season later this spring. The USIP project, funded by the U.S. State Department, officially ends this month, though an Iraqi production company – with the Institute’s assistance – is exploring ways to continue the series.

“The real opportunity for the online community is for youth in Iraq to take their message well beyond the borders of Iraq,” said Senior Program Officer Theo Dolan in USIP’s Center of Innovation for Media, Conflict and Peacebuilding. “This is pan-Arab. This is global.”

With a title that means “Peace Youth” in Arabic and based on a curriculum developed with Iraqi educators and youth groups, the television series offers a positive, constructive approach to resolving conflict. Each season begins with about 50 teens ages 14 to 18 from six Iraqi provinces competing in teams to determine a winning group from each province. The contest involves the youths producing their own short films, performing on stage, and competing in mental and physical challenges.

The winning teams from each province then come together to participate in the final episodes of competition. But first, their provincial teams are split and each member is reassigned to a new group of mixed geographic, ethnic and sectarian origins, a development that often rattles the participants at first, largely because of the political divisions that persist in Iraq today, even 10 years after the U.S. invasion toppled dictator Saddam Hussein.

“When they first came together, they didn’t realize that kids from other provinces were just like them,” Dolan said. By working together in the new teams, they gain confidence and grow to respect and appreciate Iraq’s diversity.

The PRIX JEUNESSE Foundation and the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) awarded “Salam Shabab” a Special Prize at the foundation’s biannual festival in June 2012. One of eight prizes awarded, the UNESCO Special Prize recognizes youth television programming that promotes cultural understanding.

The series has helped fill a gap for Iraqi youth, who often see largely negative programming on television or online about their own country and mostly don’t have community recreation centers or other venues to express themselves. But Salam Shabab goes beyond the television series to build a multimedia program that incorporates a burgeoning group of Iraqi online users.

In the online community, the second-largest group of active users on the Salam Shabab Facebook page are Egyptians, Dolan said. Each week, about 380,000 Iraqi teens, or 21 percent of the 1.8 million on Facebook weekly, log onto the social network and see a message from Salam Shabab. Approximately 4 percent of all Iraqi youth who are on Facebook are active members of the Salam Shabab fan page.

More than 30,000 youths in Iraq have opted to become members of the online community by “liking,” “following” or registering on one of the platforms. On Twitter, the number of followers for @SalamShabab is growing quickly, surpassing 725 as of March 25, which accounts for more than 5 percent of Twitter users in Iraq.

On SalamShabab.com, more than 60 percent of visitors go from there directly to a social network sub-page that allows them to communicate and share multimedia content with peers.

A “street team” of Iraqi social media gurus who are active members of the online community manage the sites with project funding. They’ve volunteered to take on curation of the site after funding expires. Some of the winning teams in the TV series, who won trophies, laptop computers and video cameras, have gone on to develop their own community peacebuilding projects and conduct their own Salam Shabab screenings to reach other youth in their communities.

“That’s the type of behavior we want to encourage,” Dolan said. “This is about modeling peacebuilding activities that youth can engage in offline – in their own hometowns.”

The website and social media have provided the youths involved the channels they need to express themselves and inspire others, said Ban Hameed, Salam Shabab’s online community manager in the U.S., who oversees the social media team in Iraq.

"The youth online community members may engage online, but it's our goal to get them to engage and be active peacebuilders offline,” she said. “Ultimately, it was created to be a community for Iraqi youth and that's what it will be in the future - a community for and by the youth of Iraq." Tell us what effective avenues you’ve seen for Iraqi young people who want to express themselves constructively? Submit your comment below. Viola Gienger is a senior writer at USIP.

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