Playing for Peace: Sports and Iraqi Youth

by Ahmed Gutan   July 30, 2013

All over the world, sports unite people across divides due to their accessibility and the fundamental human need for play and social interaction. But, instead of seeing it as “just a game,” sports can be an important vehicle to help us reach across political divides, civil conflicts, and ethnic/religious differences. By helping to reinforce our common humanity, sports have the potential to build conditions for a peaceful world. Sports are particularly effective for youth growing up in an environment of intolerance and conflict, where diversity is demonized as a threat. When peacebuilding programs incorporate sports, they become fun and interactive experiences that build collegiality. They also help build bonds between youth of different backgrounds, and the resulting impact can be transformative. In addition, youth can share similar passions and admirations for the same sports role models. In fact, utilizing sports to achieve cooperative development goals has proven to be such a productive approach that the United States Agency for Development Aid (USAID) has created a Sport for Development Monitoring and Evaluation Group to encourage knowledge sharing, best practices, and research.

Today, with a quarter of the world’s 1.8 billion youth transcending into adulthood, teaching them how to be active, peaceful citizens in their communities is essential for the world’s economic and social progress. Instilling the positive life skills that sportsmanship provides will enable youth to practice these behaviors within their communities. Otherwise, youth may fall victim to bad influences, especially in the world’s poorest nations where the youth population is comparatively higher.

In the Iraqi context, no group has a greater stake in the success of Iraq’s future than its youth. According to the United Nations Development Program, more than 50 percent of the population in Iraq is under the age of 19, one of the highest percentages of youth in the world. As Iraq continues in its struggle for sociopolitical and economic development, spaces to engage at-risk youth groups must be created. These youth are Iraq’s future and will ultimately be the catalysts of change in their societies. While recent wars have thoroughly damaged Iraqi social structures, one of the most negative effects of war on Iraq has been the rise of ISIS. With radical recruitment activities increasing, alienated and disenfranchised youth have become more and more susceptible to their influences of violent political and religious extremism.

MENA Director, Ahmed Gutan and Iraq 20/20 Assembly Chairman, Dr. Ali Anbori presents awards to participants

MENA Director, Ahmed Gutan and Iraq 20/20 Assembly Chairman, Dr. Ali Anbori presents an award to a youth participant.

To counteract these negative influences in Iraq, Partners for Democratic Change (Partners) has used the convening power of sports to attract disenfranchised youth. The participating adolescents often have low literacy, little inclination to join classroom-based conflict management training, and an increased risk for violence. The youth are also susceptible to the negative stereotypes and perceptions that develop during conflict through segregation and propaganda; in response, Partners used soccer to encourage mutual understanding, to promote the acceptance of cultural differences, and to break down negative perceptions of diverse groups. Our Enabling At-Risk Youth To Transform Conflict In Iraq Program is helping young people of diverse sects and ethnicities, including Shabak, Yazidi, Turkmen, Assyrian, Sunni, and Shia, to resist the manipulations of political leaders and violent groups through social integration across lines of conflict. The program creates an opportunity to build relationships and encourages them to believe in a shared future with peace and prosperity for all. Through our sports-based conflict management curriculum, we teach youth the negotiation and communication skills they need to resolve problems and build relationships.

What makes the Partners’ model so unique from other sports for peace programs are the youth meet-ups. In separate groups, adolescents from each side of socio-political tensions meet multiple times a month to work on countering stereotypes and reflect on cultural differences. These groups then meet with their respective communities and neighbors to solidify and share the reconciliation skills they have learned. As a result, they see the potential for peace in the midst of conflict, even when they and their families are directly affected by the conflict.

Sports peacebuilding programs incorporate a number of characteristics that are essential to the foundation of thriving, peaceful communities. Participants learn the means for non-verbal communication and they can build meaningful relationships with a diverse group of players. Players will hone their emotional intelligence skills, which enables them to identify the emotions of others, and harness their own non-verbal communications when conflict arises. However, one of the most important lessons to be learned from sports is how to deal with failure. Just like in sports, politics has its winners and losers. Learning how to take a loss and still work as team is essential for conflict resolution, democracy, and peacebuilding.