More than 3 million Iraqis have been forced from their homes in the sweep of the “Islamic State” extremist movement across northern Iraq in the past 18 months. As the group systematically targets other Muslims and minority religions, the massive displacement creates not only a humanitarian disaster but also the prospect that Iraqis may never be able to reconcile and rebuild. The Baghdad Women’s Association (BWA), with a USIP grant, is working with Iraqis in the capital who fled Nineveh Province to help them cope with their trauma and build skills to avoid a dangerous cycle of violence.

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Photo courtesy of NY Times/Lynsey Addario

Scattered and traumatized, those who’ve been displaced struggle to meet basic needs such as food, housing and health care. Local and international organizations have expressed deep concern about the shortage of adequate shelter, security and social services for displaced populations. On the eve of World Refugee Day on June 20, The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reported that the number of people forced from their homes worldwide, whether within their own countries or elsewhere, had already soared to an all-time high last year -- to 59.5 million, from 51.2 million a year earlier and 37.5 million a decade before.

“Globally, one in every 122 humans is now either a refugee, internally displaced, or seeking asylum,” the agency said in issuing its report today. “If this were the population of a country, it would be the world's 24th biggest.”

The UN agency cited wars and other types of conflicts as the key drivers of the increase, including three that have erupted or reignited in the Middle East alone – Syria, Iraq and Yemen.

The Baghdad Women’s Association was formed in 2004 to help end violence against women and to promote women’s political participation in post-war Iraq, including through training in conflict-resolution and dialogue skills. In the current crisis, the organization has focused on providing psycho-social support and conflict-resolution training for young men as well as women. The association connects uprooted Iraqis with social service providers and advocates for greater assistance.

For the training in non-violent conflict resolution skills, the organization brought together displaced Iraqis of different ethnic and religious communities who have been scattered across Baghdad, living in desperate conditions in camps, motor homes, school buildings and mosques. In one mosque that I visited in February, a large blue tarpaulin was the only thing providing families with a little privacy in the otherwise cavernous space, and the conditions there were better than most.

“There are families living in places not intended for human habitation,” said Liza Hido, the president of the Baghdad Women’s Association. “There is poor sanitation and lack of private bathrooms for women, especially in the camps … A large number of children are suffering from diseases such as chronic malnutrition and diarrhea as well as mental illness, and there [were] a number of deaths among newborns because of poor health infrastructure and the spread of many infectious diseases, especially during the winter season.”

Twenty-nine women and 13 young men from Nineveh have participated in the training so far. The aim is to increase their understanding of peacebuilding and the possibility for peaceful coexistence “so they can engage in dialogue with all communities affected by the recent crisis in the north of Iraq and [so that they will] call for peace, not for war and not for retaliation and revenge,” Hido said.  

The speaker of Iraq’s Parliament, Saleem al-Jubouri, recently told an audience at USIP that his country must achieve political reconciliation among its long-divided religious and ethnic groups as a first step toward defeating the self-styled “Islamic State” extremists, who now control a third of the country.

The USIP grant project complements other institute initiatives in Iraq that foster non-violent conflict resolution and strengthening of communities that traditionally have lacked power, including women and religious minorities. The institute works on these priorities with local organizations that it has supported from their inception, including SANAD for Peacebuilding, the Alliance of Iraqi Minorities and the Network of Iraqi Facilitators. USIP also conducts Justice and Security Dialogue projects that seek to ease historic distrust between communities and local police forces.

A Safe Space

The Baghdad Women’s Association workshops provided a safe space for the participants to reflect on the traumatic events they’ve witnessed and to begin to analyze and deal with the emotions that emerge. For the majority of the participants, this was the first time they were able to express their feelings and share their experiences openly, Hido said.

With communities and families shattered and the most basic trust eroded, one of the biggest challenges for the association is persuading participants to agree to train together. For example, Yezidis, who were targets of some of the worst violence by the self-styled “Islamic State,” refused to sit with Turkmen, Shabak or Muslims. Even though the Muslims also had been displaced because of the extremist group’s attacks, the Yezidis deemed all adherents of Islam suspect.

Even among the Christian groups -- Armenians, Orthodox and Catholics -- tensions were visible. The women’s association, which USIP has supported since January, has addressed the divisions by allowing the groups to train separately at first, with the aim of preparing them for future participation with the larger group during the next phase of the project this summer.

All-female sessions with a social worker also helped the women speak frankly about taboo topics such as rape and their continuing feelings of terror and danger.

Rebuilding Confidence and Trust

These women “suffer from intense fear, anxiety and lack of sleep; they have nightmares about the situation[s] they experienced,” said Hido. Counseling and hearing the stories of others who have gone through similarly traumatic experiences are helping the women “rebuild their self-confidence and confidence in others.”

Women should also be recognized as an influential [segment] to prevent and resolve conflicts.

Hido cited the case of a girl who at first didn’t speak at all. Gradually, the girl began expressing her deep fear over what had happened, including attacks by the “Islamic State” militants and incidents of rape suffered by girls and women in her community. “The women asked the social worker to visit them frequently in order to reveal their problems” and help relieve their anxieties, Hido said.

But the work with women should extend beyond helping them cope with trauma and also coach them to build their skills, confidence and influence, she said.

“Women should also be recognized as an influential [segment] to prevent and resolve conflicts and achieve sustainable peace,” Hido said.

Young men in the project have been less enthusiastic than their female counterparts about the possibilities of re-integration of the various groups within Iraqi society and the prospects of peaceful coexistence in Iraq. Still, Hido noted that some young men who had lost hope in Iraq and were seeking to leave the country seemed to see more of a possibility to rebuild their lives at home after participating in the program.

The association plans to evaluate the effectiveness of the project in improving the prospects for reconciliation by gauging the levels of empathy toward different ethnic and religious groups and by conducting a survey of the participants for factors such as how many want to return to the communities where they lived before being uprooted.

After one of the training workshops, a group of Christian men suggested a tour to visit Muslim holy sites in Baghdad, as a demonstration of their willingness to live peacefully within the larger community. Although security concerns have prevented the group from taking the trip, Hido is hopeful that it will be possible soon.

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