All posts by Jamie Biglow

Iraq’s Citizen Journalists

“Under Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime, the media were nothing more than a government mouthpiece. But after the war, it was different. I saw the need to tell the world what was happening in my country.” – Bassam Sebti, former journalist for the Washington Post in Iraq

The story of Iraq’s journalists is something near to my heart. During my first couple of weeks at EPIC, I wrote a blog post about a popular journalist who had been killed, simply for doing his job. The whole time I was thinking of one of my closest friends, Justin, who’s dream is to be a reporter for the New York Times.

This year, Iraq is ranked 152 out of a total of 179 countries on the World Press Freedom Index, and as you can see from the Committee to Protect Journalists‘ page on Iraq, journalists in Iraq face significant, life-threatening dangers. Despite these threats, however, both professional journalists and citizen journalists continue to grow and fight for the freedom of the press, and have gained the respect and admiration of the global community for their resilience.

When youth build nations

Youth are well known for breaking new ground, dreaming big, and rewriting the rules. They fight in wars, push for revolutions, and are often the first to call for reforms and change to a system of governance. Their energy and enthusiasm is often described as a source to be tapped into. And it pretty much goes without saying that a nation’s wealth is measured in part by the promise of a nation’s youth. Unfortunately, contrary to these well documented tendencies, they are not always well represented in the policies and actions of a country – and are sometimes even systematically excluded.

When youth are kept out of the political or economic world they feel isolated and disillusioned – take it from me, I graduated a year ago and still haven’t found a full time job. I am part of the youth of the United States of America, and we are a driving force for the economy, the government, and popular culture. Economists write that because of the lack of opportunity during the formative years of my career, even long after the recession has ended I will still earn less than my peers a few years younger than me. Furthermore, my attitude about work, wages, and higher education will be forever changed – something I’m likely to pass onto my children.

Found: Conflict Resolution Intern!

Thanks to all who heard our call for a Conflict Resolution and helped spread the word! I am pleased to announce that we have found a terrific intern to help us research and design our on the ground projects in Iraq!

Thomas Oldfield is currently the Mustafa Barzani Graduate Peace Fellow and a masters candidate in International Peace and Conflict Resolution at American University. After spending four months studying abroad in Ankara, Turkey, he completed his BA in Politics from the University of California at Santa Cruz in 2010. He has a strong belief in the power of youth and the importance of diversity and his research focuses on the role of education in peacebuilding, specifically within the Middle East.

EPIC Welcomes its Summer Interns!

A dramatic change has taken place, all over the District of Columbia. The temperature has risen, flowers are in full bloom, everywhere I look I see people in shorts and sandals. One other thing, the District has been flooded with summer interns.  Bringing with them their bright minds, unbridled enthusiasm, and willingness to work, they’ve given a more rapid pace to the pulse of the city. And EPIC is no exception!

This year we are pleased to welcome two very talented individuals to our team.

Wanted: Conflict Resolution Intern

EPIC is looking for a motivated intern to begin immediately. As we work to implement our youth and peacebuilding initiatives in Iraq, our EPIC intern will work with staff in Washington, DC, to assist in researching, designing, and implementing our second Iraqi Youth Hike( other programs.

We are currently looking for Master’s Degree candidates or recent graduates with academic or professional experience in the following areas:

1. Grants research & proposal writing

2. Conflict Analysis

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US Falters in Protecting Iraqi Refugees

Following the outbreak of civil war in Iraq in February 2006, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis fled to Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, and Turkey, and more than 1.5 million became displaced within Iraq. Some families relocated to escape an escalation of general violence in their areas, while others fled targeted persecution, including members of religious and ethnic minorities, journalists, scholars, LGBT Iraqis, and those who formerly worked with Americans or other Westerners – whether military, government, or aid agency.

As long as the factors that led to their displacement persist, returning home will never be an option. Instead, these displaced individuals and families must seek refuge elsewhere, and sometimes that can only be found in a foreign country. It cannot be overstated that when vulnerable Iraqis seek resettlement outside Iraq, they do so as a last resort.

Yet despite the continuing large number of Iraqis seeking that last resort and the urgency of so many of their cases, there has been a precipitous drop in the rate of refugee admission to the U.S.  In fact, since 2011, fewer Iraqi refugees have been admitted for resettlement in the US than at any time since 2007.

FY 2007
FY 2008

There’s more in Iraq than just oil

This morning, a Bloomberg Businessweek article proudly proclaimed “Iraq Oil Output Beating Iran Ends Saddam Legacy.”

I agree with Bloomberg that this is an important milestone for the country, one which will generate life saving revenue for development and rebuilding. However, I believe there are two problems with this statement: first, Bloomberg is mistaken in thinking that as complicated a subject as the legacy of Saddam Hussein lies in oil production. The root of Saddam’s legacy actually resides in the violence that exists in the Iraqi political culture. Second, Saddam’s legacy has not, in fact, been eradicated.

Advancing Democracy in Iraq

If you are like me and you grew up in a democratic society, it can be easy to take democracy and all its trappings for granted. But recently I’ve been thinking a lot about what “democracy” means as a concept, a practice, and a system of government.

In particular, what does it take for a democratic society to function and be sustained? And how does a traditional tribal society (from which, in human history, we have all come) or populations overcoming dictatorship make the transition to democracy? Iraq’s movement towards democracy has been difficult to dissect. Iraq is a resource-rich, pluralistic and multi-ethnic country with over 27 million inhabitants. Its recent tumultuous history of successive wars, brutal dictatorship and punishing sanctions has left the country’s infrastructure, government provided services, and institutions in a fragile and vulnerable state. Not to mention that power consolidation has been an unwelcome, but persistent guest in Iraq’s political sphere.

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World Press Freedom Day

Every morning, as I fight off my lingering urge to return to bed, I surround myself by the news. On my phone, on the radio, on TV. Maybe it’s because I live in a city where politics is our bread and butter – or maybe water and oxygen make a better analogy. Maybe I just like feeling “plugged in.” Then again, maybe I’m being too hard on myself – millions all over the world probably did the same thing during their mornings, or something similar.

I’ve got a great deal of respect for journalists – I probably wouldn’t be able to do my job without them. Furthermore, a very good friend, and former roommate, of mine is an aspiring journalist. I learned a great deal from him about journalistic integrity, ethics, and standards.

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All the world’s a stage

William Shakespeare

Yesterday, I blogged about a the power of art to overcome boundaries. I wrote that art has the power to unite people, even from different backgrounds and that we all feel the need to share our stories.

Today, I am happy to report about a group that perpetuates the idea that literature and drama have the power to bring us together.

Shakespeare Iraq: a troupe of college students who simply love Shakespeare. Based out of the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani, the group is made up of actors from all over Iraq, including  Arabs, Kurds, Sunnis, Shias, Yazidis and people who aren’t religious at all.

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The art we leave for our kids

Without a doubt, my fondest memories of adolescence come from art class. In art class, surrounded by laughing friends, the smell of clay and paint, and the gentle voice of my art teacher, I felt I could truly relax, unwind, and express my thoughts. To this day, art remains a core interest of mine. Knowing this, it will probably come as no surprise that I started college believing I wanted to teach art.

Well, life had other plans for me, but art will always remain one of the lenses through which I experience the world and tell my stories. Lucky for me, I’m not alone in that.

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No Options for Iraqi Refugees in Syria seeking Resettlement in U.S.

Iraqi refugees protest in front of the offices of the United Nations Higher Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Damascus, 2009, against how Iraqi asylum requests are handled by the West. Syria, which hosts hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees, is the main centre for the processing of Iraqi asylum applications. Image by Reuters.

For Iraqis in Syria applying for refugee status in the United States, the uprising brings renewed threats of violence and has indefinitely delayed their application. After closing the U.S. embassy in Damascus on January 16th, the embassy fast-tracked about 300 “visa ready” refugee applications, however, the vast majority of applicants are left in limbo. Immigration officials have warned that Iraqis who return home will be penalized because their return would undercut their claims of being at risk.

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Caught in the Crossfire in Syria

Image courtesy of Democratic Underground

As the conflict in Syria escalates, hundreds (if not thousands) of noncombatants are getting caught in the crossfire, including refugees from Iraq. According to UNHCR, Syria hosts one of the largest urban-based populations of refugees and asylum-seekers in the world. As many as one million are Iraqi, representing the largest population of displaced Iraqis outside of Iraq and comprising a large majority of Syria’s refugee population.

Having survived a precarious way of life, working odd jobs and dodging deportation, Iraqi refugees now find themselves caught in a situation that increasingly resembles the one from which they escaped.

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In the words of one who has lived it

To get a more complete understanding of Iraqi refugees, I turned to a more personal story of an Iraqi who was forced to leave her home. Written by the a young Iraqi woman from 2003-2007, the blog “Baghdad Burning” provides a first hand account of life in Iraq during the chaotic aftermath of the invasion and the journey of an Iraqi family to become refugees in Syria. “Baghdad Burning” is a beautifully written, valuable insight into the struggles faced by many Iraqis, including the struggle of not wanting to leave your home, but finding it unbearable to stay.

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The Forgotten Ones: the plight of displaced and vulnerable Iraqis

A few weeks ago I attended “Mission Not Accomplished: The Plight of At Risk Iraqis,” an eye-opening briefing on Capitol Hill about an ongoing crisis affecting millions of Iraqis. Featuring representatives from the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project, The List Project, The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, and the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, the panel primarily focused attention on the dangers facing Iraqis who had aided or worked for the US government. For some of those Iraqis, their affiliation with the US has made them and their families a target of violence.

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The spirit of Salam Shabab in DC

On Wednesday, January 25th, EPIC Director Erik Gustafson and I attended an extraordinary program at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) exploring what brings young people together in Iraq and the region, and the role youth are playing in creating social change. Titled Next Generation of Peacebuilding and Social Change in the Arab World, the program featured a special screening of Salam Shabab; a groundbreaking reality TV series about young Iraqi peacebuilders, followed by a fascinating panel discussion with the show’s creators and producers who shared a behind-the-scenes look at what went into developing the show’s concept and creating the series, highlights of their experience working with young Iraqi contestants from different parts of Iraq, and the series’ impact on contestants and studio audiences. The event concluded with an inspiring panel of celebrated social and political activists from across the Middle East and a live performance by the Iraqi pop band UTN1.

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Soundtrack of Peacebuilding

Unknown To No One a.k.a. UTN1

Unkown To No One, or, as they are more commonly called, UTN1, is considered the pioneer pop band of Iraq. Having begun in 1999 during the reign of Saddam Hussein they dared to form a pop band at a time when Iraq was dominated by traditional music. UTN1 began as the creative project of band members Art (Artin) and Shant, who later recruited three more members – Hassan, Akhlad, and Nadeem (who left the group in 2009). Completely self funded, they scraped together the money to record their first album in 2000. The band can still recall a time when they had only one instrument – a keyboard, which they used to compose songs together out of their Volkswagen Passat, which doubled as their original practice space.

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Making New Opportunities for Iraqi Women

2012 is the year set by the Iraqi government to begin implementing new hiring quotas regarding government workers. The new system would require that 50% of hires in the Ministries of Health and Education be female, as well as 30% of hires in all other government ministries. This echoes Iraq’s already existing quota of 25% female elected officials in parliament and has been impatiently awaited by the highly educated, ambitious women of Iraq.

Iraqi women have historically been represented well in the work force. Women began entering prestigious career paths as early as the 1920’s. During times of war they were often called upon to fill gaps in the workforce. Laws that protect their rights in the work place have been on the books since 1969. They are legally protected from discrimination and sexual harassment, as well as guaranteed maternity leave, time off to care for sick children, and equal pay and benefits.

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Make the Impossible Possible

“Make the impossible possible” was the slogan of the recent TEDx Conference in Baghdad. TEDxBaghdad hosted the National Youth Orchestra, environmentalists, activists, and educators from all over Iraq. For many, it was a dream come true to have their hopes for Iraq’s future displayed publicly and with like-minded individuals.

Unfortunately, that kind of opportunity is enjoyed all too rarely by Iraq’s youth who have few outlets like TEDxBaghdad in which to participate. Even with a growing youth population, the supply of outlets for creative and civic expression haven’t risen with demand.

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Time is Running Out

The news out of Iraq has been peppered with reports of violence, conflict, and upheaval.

It’s a powerful reminder why now, more than ever, we must recommit ourselves to creating a peaceful and prosperous Iraq.

On EPIC’s Iraqi Youth Hike, a project you helped make happen, young Iraqis of different ethnicities from the diverse but violent city of Kirkuk came together to learn about nature and each other. They ended the hike as environmental conservationists and friends.

When we asked the young Iraqis on the hike about their dreams for the future, responses included things like “be the best computer programmer” and “become a famous journalist”. But most of all, they said that they wanted a normal life: to find a job, get married, and have kids.

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Obama to Iraq: You Will Not Stand Alone

Earlier today, President Obama and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of Iraq held a joint press conference to discuss the future of US-Iraq relations. Both sides took questions and then journeyed to Arlington National Cemetery for a wreath-laying ceremony to pay respects to Servicemen and women.

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and President Barack Obama

The withdrawal of the United States military signals a change in relations between the two countries, one that President Obama says will be a “normal relationship between sovereign nations.” Obama declared that ours would be a strong and enduring partnership and promised the Iraqi people: “You will not stand alone.”

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Celebrating the History of a Nation

As a self proclaimed art & history nerd, there are few things that make me as ecstatic as the discovery of new objects of historical significance (I was obsessed with the Staffordshire Hoard for weeks and don’t even get me started on Anglo-Saxon decorative arts). Which is why I’m writing this in celebration of my fellow art & history lovers in Iraq and the successes of the National Museum in Baghdad, which recently opened a new exhibition on cuneiform writing.

When the museum reopened permanently in 2009, Iraqis, eager to learn about their history, teach their children, or just enjoy going to a museum flocked to the site. Students of Iraq’s past have a wealth of history at their disposal. Not only was Iraq the birthplace of civilization (Mesopotamia, 3000 BCE) but it was also home to dozens of empires over the millennia. Please see this ridiculously cool video! All of part of what we now understand to be Iraq was at one point controlled by Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Macedonians, Romans, Byzantines, Sassanids, the Umayyad Caliphate, Seljuks, Mongols, the Ottoman Empire, and finally Imperial Britain.Iraq’s National Museum holds the largest collection of Mesopotamian artifacts anywhere in the world. After the disastrous looting of the museum following the American invasion in 2003, having lost roughly 15,400 artifacts and works of art to looters, the museum experienced a near-miraculous revival. About 8,500 of the looted artifacts have been recovered in an inspiring display of international cooperation involving numerous organizations and individuals.

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Spark Notes: Youth Development

You’ve probably heard us throw around the phrase “youth development” a lot lately, and it might have you wondering what that is or why it’s important. And in this day and age when jargon is more common than a simple explanation, we realize that you deserve better.

So, to put it quickly and concisely, youth development is:

…the ongoing growth process in which all youth are engaged in attempting to (1) meet their basic personal and social needs to be safe, feel cared for, be valued, be useful… and (2) to build skills and competencies that allow them to function and contribute in their daily lives.
(Pittman, 1993, p. 8.)

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Basketballs and Peace: the professional player’s story

It might seem antithetical that something competitive could  lead to positive youth development goals. But participating in sports can instill confidence, broaden social networks, and provide people with the skills to tackle challenges and achieve goals. That’s one reason EPIC is researching and developing programming around athletic endeavors. It is with that goal in mind we welcome to the team our newest adviser and blog contributor, Leah Rush.

After graduating from the University of Oklahoma in 2007, Leah began playing basketball professionally, both in the US and abroad. In addition to being a professional athlete, she is a humanitarian, working in youth development and community building all over the world.

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Salam Shabab

Welcome to the first post of our Partners in Change series!

An organization that has long inspired us is the United States Institute of Peace. USIP was created by Congress in 1984 and works in conflict management, helping prevent and mitigate international conflicts before they escalate to violence. Although USIP’s funding came under attack a few months back, this organization has a successful history of saving lives, reducing government costs, and enhancing national security, and it has won praise from Ronald Reagan, George Shultz, and David Petraeus. USIP has a long history of humanitarian and reconstruction efforts in Iraq including embedding with provincial reconstruction teams and running programs designed to advance the status and security of women and strengthen governance and civil society. But one of the most interesting of their recent projects is a youth focused program.

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Bringing Us Together

Recently our own Erik Gustafson has returned to us from Iraq, where he hiked, mentored Iraqi youth, and, of course, ate delicious Iraqi food. As a tribute to the success of the Iraqi Youth Hike, the enduring relationships we helped to foster, the memories that we created, and Erik’s favorite falafel restaurant, we decided to create a blog about one of our favorite subjects – food.

Iraqi cuisine is largely influenced by Persian cuisine, but given Iraq’s history of cultural diffusion, trade, immigration, and, well, being invaded, there have been numerous influences on Iraqi cuisine, including Turkish and Egyptian.

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Celebrating the Successes of Iraq’s Female Judges

Historically, Iraqi women and girls have fought for, and received, relatively equal protection under the law, according to Human Rights Watch. Iraqi women began attending universities and entering the work force in the 1920’s, but it wasn’t until the 1960’s that large numbers of women entered the public sphere. The Iraqi Provisional Constitution, drafted in 1970, guaranteed women’s equality before the law and, in 1980, also guaranteed their right to vote and hold office. Iraq was also the first Arab country that allowed women to serve as judges.

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Pressing on

From where I sit, it’s sometimes easy to take for granted how far things have come and how much hope there is for the future. As a part of the EPIC team, I have a pretty sweet deal going for me: I get to look at pictures of the beautiful countryside and the smiling faces of participants in our Iraqi Youth Hike and I am constantly reminded of all the natural beauty and hope there is in Iraq. But every now and then, I come across something that reminds me how important it is that organizations, like EPIC and our partners, are helping to create positive opportunities and empower young people so that they can lead Iraq in a better direction. In this case, it is the unwarranted and unexplained death of another Iraqi journalist, Hadi Mehdi.

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Nature Iraq and the ecological future

Lots of us remember studying Mesopotamia in middle school. What were those two rivers called? (The Tigris and the Euphrates!) Not everyone remembers that the Fertile Crescent still runs straight through Iraq, nourishing a rich cultural heritage and supporting a lush collection of wildlife and plant life. This has been the case since, well, the earliest civilizations.

These days, however, rising populations and the resulting increases in industrial production and the consumption of water have led to higher pollution levels throughout this precious region and the entire country. This video about Nature Iraq’s “Upper Tigris Waterkeeper Project” demonstrates some of the pollution problems facing Iraq as well as the direct, hands-on efforts to conserve the natural beauty and biodiversity of Iraq.

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