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Oxfam Urges Help for Youths Returning to Mosul

Mounds of trash are being cleared and roads and homes are being rebuilt in the effort to reconstruct Mosul now that the Iraqi-led coalition has ended Islamic State’s occupation of the city. But equal investment needs to be made in integrating returning young people, according to a new Oxfam report, “We Have Forgotten What Happiness Is: Perspectives of Displacement and Return in Qayyarah Subdistrict, Mosul.”

Although the report only looks at one suburb of a city after a conflict, it reflects a new emphasis among international humanitarian nongovernmental organizations working in the Arab region: Thinking beyond the days of “refugees” and moving forward to the ideal of “safe return.”

Helping returning youths should have two main components, Oxfam advises. “The first two steps are education, and reconciliation involving youth and women,” Andres Gonzales, Oxfam’s country director in Iraq, said in an interview.

In 2014, Islamic State took control of Mosul. Then in October 2016, about 980,000 out of two million residents fled as the Iraqi army began an offensive to retake the city, successfully doing so in July. Some 9,325 displaced families have returned to Qayyarah, a town in the Mosul district about 35 miles south of the city and one of the first areas of Mosul to be liberated, the Oxfam report says.

The report is based on interviews conducted five months ago with returnees to Qayyarah about life before, during and after the expulsion of Islamic State. The participants include 30 young men and women between the ages of 15 and 22.

Oxfam found that levels of trust are low in Mosul. That’s because many local politicians, tribal leaders and family members were killed. The army has filled the leadership vacuum—but residents, still suffering psychologically from their experience with Islamic State, are suspicious that some soldiers could also be with the militant group.

To build lasting community trust, Gonzales underlined that the various committees now being set up for reconciliation must include women and young people.

Meanwhile, Mosul’s students lost two academic years—2014 and 2015. When the Islamic State changed the curriculum to reflect its beliefs, students stayed away, and the central Iraqi government nullified the academic results for those years anyway. (See related articles, “10 Iraqi Universities Rebuild In Wake of Islamic State” and “Rebuilding Mosul’s Library, Book by Book“)

To get the education system back up and running, there is something even more important than building schools, Gonzales said. After all, classes can take place in container structures, government buildings and mosques. What’s more important is to speed the return of professors by giving incentives such as housing allowances, since so many homes were destroyed.

Taking care of basic needs such as shelter is going to be key, residents said.

Aws Ma’an Al Jammal, a 26-year-old doctor studying ophthalmology and a lecturer at Nineveh Medical College, returned to Mosul in September. When he couldn’t take his last undergraduate exam and the situation became intolerable—his home had been looted—he left for Dohuk, where he finished his schooling.

“When I came back to Mosul, I felt as if a nightmare had ended,” Al Jammal said in an interview with Al-Fanar Media. “But everything has changed: people, places, attitude.”

Education, including vocational education, should also be a high priority in Mosul, said Gonzales, the Oxfam director. The city has lost most of its plumbers, electricians, carpenters and builders.

“There are very few left,” Gonzales said. “The government needs to invest more in vocational skills, which are needed to rebuild.”

The conflict was also a time of lost youth. Girls and boys stayed at home and couldn’t go to parks or play sports. Young people had almost no contact with each other.

But creating spaces for playing together again is not just about promoting random fun. “You need young men and women to do things together,” Gonzales said. “That’s the first step in reconciliation.”

To achieve this, the Oxfam report recommends that the government create youth centers, which could be housed in a multipurpose building or even a house, Gonzales said. Rooms would be dedicated for various activities, from games and the Internet to music and the arts.

A room should also be set aside for mental-health services, the report said. Many of the youths Oxfam interviewed reported feeling anxious, having difficulty concentrating, and drinking alcohol heavily—classic symptoms of post-traumatic stress.

Mosul’s economy is at a low ebb, and opportunities to make a living are scarce. “People are spending less,” Al Jammal said. “Everything was cheaper than half before the invasion. Less money available decreases trading potential, and increases the lack of trust between seller and buyer, who are asking for cash,” he said.

Since jobs are scarce, some of the young men interviewed are helping to provide for their families by working for the tribal militias that have long thrived in Iraq—a worrying development for future security and the peaceful reintegration of young people, the Oxfam report says.

Despite the many challenges that come with return, the young people interviewed were optimistic and expressed a desire to stay in Mosul. None of them wanted to leave their city or their country.

“We should be optimistic,” said Zaid Al-Ta’i, a 32-year-old English teacher who has come back to teach. “But this depends on the government’s efforts to fight unemployment so we can restore peace. If not, the situation before 2014 could come back, when young people were getting $100 to kill someone.”


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