The Iraqi Youth Hike
In September of 2011, EPIC brought together a group of Iraqi kids from diverse backgrounds to do something many of them would otherwise never get a chance to do: go on a guided nature hike through the Zagros Mountains in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.
During better times, Iraqi families traveled to other parts of the country for recreation and vacation. Today, most children in Iraq live their entire lives in only one city or province. In divided cities like Mosul and Kirkuk, families fear allowing their children to go beyond their neighborhood’s boundaries. Kids have fewer opportunities to form friendships with kids from different backgrounds, learn about the environment, discover new things about themselves, and fulfill their potential.
EPIC teamed up with experienced local guides, ecologists, and nature photographers. Together, we provided these kids with the chance to learn new skills, form new friendships with kids from different communities, and discover new opportunities for future careers, fields of study, and hobbies. We also put cameras in their hands, so they could document what they learned about each other, themselves, and the environment.
Northern Iraq has tremendous natural beauty, and is the most secure part of the country. Thanks so much to those who helped us create a safe space, and a positive learning atmosphere, for these kids that fostered life-long lessons.
At noon, Kak Bzhar made his way into Kirkuk with a bus EPIC hired and picked up the Iraqi Youth Hike participants at a safe central location. On the way back to Sulaimaniyah, Bzhar treated them to a nice lunch where they got to know each other. The group arrived in Sulaimaniyah late in the afternoon having made new friends. Then, Bzhar and Erik introduced them to the program and objectives–and the new challenges they’ll learn to overcome.
On Day Two of the Iraqi Youth Hike, participants got to know each other better through–what else?–ice breakers. Then our partners at Nature Iraq introduced the hikers to the biodiversity of Iraq at Nature Iraq’s Eco-Camp in the mountains.
After a short break for tea, the hikers learned about the mammals and watersheds of Iraq. The watersheds, in particular, are a delicate natural resource that Nature Iraq is working towards preserving.
Following lunch, EPIC’s partners at Metrography, Iraq’s first national photo agency, led a training on camera use and photography. Some of the hikers with photography experience helped out their peers and gained valuable mentoring experience.
In preparation for the next day’s hike, the young Iraqis and mentors from Nature Iraq went on a guided nature walk and learned about hiking safety.
The Hike! With the help of Ali and Agri, co-founders of the Trailblazers Hiking Club at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani, the youth hikers learned more about hiking safety and how hiking can be fun and safe at the same time. Ready to head into the mountains equipped with their cameras, the hikers tips from the pros at Metrgraphy, including Kamaran Najm, its founder.
Nature was ready for its close up. The youth hikers and their guides headed through Kani Shok near Mount Peramagroon. The terrain was rocky, but the hikers worked together to safely traverse the crevices. Camera traps had been set up to capture wildlife in its natural state and everyone took a break to see what surprises the camera had in store. Nabil Musa from Nature Iraq took the students through the photos one-by-one and explained the significance of their finds.
The hike continued through Kani Shok and the students had a chance to practice their photography skills. A hot day to be sure, a natural spring was a welcome relief to all participants. After cooling down and finishing the hike, the students returned to Sulaimaniyah.
Taking the knowledge they learned through EPIC’s environmental education program and the appreciation for nature they gained on the Hike, the students visited the Sulaimaniyah city dump and later saw the effect of unchecked dumping on the ecosystem.
On the program’s final day, the learning and mentoring continued. Dr. Azzam Alwash, the head of Nature Iraq, spoke to the young hikers about the importance of environmental conservation. The hikers also reviewed what they learned over the previous days and discovered new ways of talking about the environment with people in their communities. What knowledge they gained on the hike would not end as the program did, but would be taken back by each of them to their different neighborhoods in Kirkuk. The may have ended, but their love of learning and their friendships were just beginning.
EPIC’s first peace and youth-focused initiative in Iraq was a huge success. We brought together nine young Iraqis from different parts of war-torn Kirkuk for a great outdoor adventure. What made it great was the way the students opened up and discovered a wider world around them. They gained new knowledge, new confidence in their abilities, and new friends and mentors.
You can see it in the photos, but more importantly, we heard what a great time the hikers had from the kids themselves. When evaluating the program, all nine participants were very positive. They had fun together and felt safe, something too rare for many of them, and they experienced the joys of seeing wildlife for the first time.
New knowledge and skills came from experts in their fields. What made the lessons so powerful was that instructors shared not only information but also a passion for knowledge. That different kind of education, one not bound by walls and rigid desks, motivates a love of learning, one so many of the students talked about gaining from the hike.
“We benefitted so much. Through the Iraqi Youth Hike program we realized that learning does not only happen in school,” said Ali J. One of Ahmed’s favorite teachers was Nabil–even though he got an extra homework assignment from him! “He is a great teacher. He is making me write a report about water quality in Khasa Kirkuk when I return home.”
The inspiring quotes from the participants just don’t end. Each one demonstrates the immense impact the Iraqi Youth Hike had. Not only is Ahmed excited to educate his neighbors about nature, he also said he was grateful for “spending a peaceful time with the teachers and students because there were no discriminations or political issues in between us.”
The experiences the hikers had and the things they learned are thanks to you. You helped give them confidence and a new appreciation for the environment, for each other, and for the power of education.
The generous donations of over 150 EPIC supporters made the Iraqi Youth Hike possible and our work on the ground only began with the Iraqi Youth Hike. The pictures and stories you see here are because a community of supporters emerged, one that saw the necessity of empowering Iraqi youth. EPIC will continue working to empower the young people of Iraq with the skills and confidence to build a more peaceful and prosperous world; one where communities and young people work together as friends, not enemies, to overcome the challenges of tomorrow.
Your support was essential to making the Iraqi Youth Hike happen and your continued support will be essential for taking our youth and peacebuilding work to the next level. You’re already part of an EPIC community, help us keep being EPIC with a donation today.