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How Baghdad’s Youth Movement is Uniting A Divided Nation
At first glance, the story behind the Baghdad City of Peace Carnival sounds entirely improbable: a carnival with music, dancing, and colourful balloons in downtown Baghdad? Thousands of young people volunteering their time with hopes of improving their society?
The image of the Iraqi capital propagated by the international media is very different. It stands as a symbol of an ongoing war with its grey, bombed-out streets, and walls riddled with bullet holes. Iraqi Qayssar Alwardii tells us about another side of the city.
It is a story so full of hope and courage, that it is almost possible to believe in miracles – and that you can accomplish anything with enough enthusiasm and determination. I first met Qayssar at a conference in the summer of 2016.
It was more of an accidental encounter really, just a bit of small talk in the hall. Qayssar is the kind of person who can brighten your day by his mere presence. He smiles as if he would like to hug the whole world, and his enthusiasm and joy in life is contagious. Then he told me where he was from, and I could hardly believe it.
How could someone from Baghdad, Iraq be so positive and cheerful? “I have once been an angry young man with no dreams and no goals.I had nothing in life. I had poor people skills. I had no friends.”
That jibes a bit better with the image I have of his hometown: young people growing up with no hope for a better future in a society marred by violence. But Qayssar doesn’t really fit this image at all, at least not the Qayssar standing right in front of me, his face creased in a gigantic grin.It is hard to imagine that this bundle of energy once belonged to the supposed lost generation.
He credits the Baghdad City of Peace Carnival with his transformation. Once a year, on September 21, designated by the UN as World Peace Day, young people organize a giant street Carnival at the heart of the capital, a Carnival of music, dancing, helium balloons and colourful posters.
The welcoming, peaceful images it generates fly in the face of all the reports on war and violence.
From 2006 to 2010, the years in which Qayssar says he was an “angry young man”, was a very tough time in Iraq. The civil war raged on the streets of Baghdad too. “People were killing each other because of their different ideas and languages. The Baghdadi families even started to believe that the war was necessary.”
This desperate situation gave rise to the idea for the Peace Carnival, when some young activists entered their city’s name into a Google image search, and were disappointed to see only pictures of war and destruction. They decided to create new images of their city, and founded the Baghdad City of Peace Carnival in 2011.
The first carnival was held on a small stage in Al Zawra Park, where young bands played traditional Iraqi music and young people sold their handicrafts from small booths. 30 volunteers organized the 3-hour event attended by around 300 people. Now, six years later, the little Carnival has grown into a huge event.
Around 15,000 people came in 2015, and over 650 volunteers worked behind the scenes to make it happen, in 2016 the festival reached 23,000 people with over 500 new volunteers working for it. The visitors are a mix of all generations and different backgrounds, and the carnival was broadcast live by local TV and radio stations and global news.
There was live music and dance performances, a playground for children, booths with arts and crafts, and discussion rounds. “This is a light of hope, especially for young people, a peaceful, free space to express their ideas and talents.” Qayssar says.
The carnival moved out of the park in 2012, and now takes place on one of Baghdad’s most famous streets, Abu Nawas Street, once a glamorous outing district where families went for a Sunday stroll until the security risks became too great. Once a year, the Carnival brings the streets to life again.
Without really knowing what it was all about, Qayssar volunteered to work on the very first carnival. He was the event’s photographer: “I didn’t know anything about peace or the youth movement; I was a hobby photographer and mainly saw this as a good opportunity to take pictures.”
Today, he is one of the key figures behind the Carnival, and he can’t imagine life without it any more. “Since then, my people skills have developed. Especially my communication skills, as I have had to talk to a lot of young people, to business managers, and to representatives of international organisations.”
The “new” Qayssar works for the IOM – UN Migration Agency as a professional career, works for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) as a volunteer. “I have a good life: I have a job, friends, a girlfriend, and adventures every day. The carnival made me a better person.”