06 May 2021
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Young people in Iraq have been protesting for civil rights and a better economy for more than a year — here's what it looks like on the ground

Friday, 08 January 2021 20:42

For the past year, young Iraqis have been protesting in the streets. 

They are demanding civil rights, a solution to record-high unemployment, and an end to government corruption. The protesters are mostly under the age of 30, and for many of them, the future looks bleak.

"People will not fear," said Ali Riyadh, a 27-year-old protester. "They don't have the [sense of fear]. They can't be scared from anything anymore."

It seemed as if change was on its way when earlier this year the protests forced the resignation of Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi. But that wasn't enough — Iraq's youth want a revolution.

At least 500 people have died in clashes with police and security forces in the protests, which began in October 2019. Riyadh has been there nearly every day and has seen it all.

"I dream of a free Iraq," he said.

Riyadh lives with his mother in Abu Ghraib, a city almost 20 miles outside Baghdad. His mother is proud of her son's activism but does worry about his safety. While Riyadh loves his country, he is discouraged by the poverty and unemployment he sees among his peers.

The average Iraqi is only 20 years old — very young, compared with 38 in the United States and 31 in neighboring Turkey.

But they don't have much to look forward to in a country where the poverty rate could double this year and reach 40%. About a fourth of Iraqis between the ages of 15 and 24 don't have jobs.

"It's hard to live here," he said. "Depression is so contagious in Iraq."

Among young people, suicide rates are at their highest since 2003, when the US invaded Iraq.

That war, which ended nearly a decade ago, was followed by a civil war. The economy was left in ruins, with unemployment soaring.

"They really don't have anything to do," said Sajad Jiyad, an Iraqi political analyst. "And unfortunately, because services are so bad, because there's a lack of programs targeting the youth, a lot of them are finding that they literally have to go out to the streets and do something because they have no alternatives."

Adding fuel to the fire, the coronavirus pandemic has wreaked havoc on the economy, closing doors in a time of need.

Iraq has one of the highest COVID-19 death tolls in the Middle East. But Riyadh is determined.

"Even though my mother is old and me catching the virus would put her in jeopardy, I would still go because a part of me just has to be there to participate in those protests," Riyadh said.

Riyadh works at the ministry of culture, where he earns $320 a month. In fact, most Iraqis work in the public sector, even though it's run by the same establishment many are fighting against.

"I think a lot of young people are disappointed by the fact that most of the government has not managed to initiate any serious reforms," Jiyad said. "I think they're concerned that the status quo will remain." 

Now their movement is losing momentum. Daily gatherings in Tahrir Square have dwindled as violent militias have threatened and kidnapped protesters. 

On top of that, the pandemic is keeping crowds away.

For young women in Iraq, the future is even bleaker. The country's conservative culture means they have fewer job opportunities in an already tough economic environment.

"I imagined myself a businesswoman, a cool businesswoman who had her car and her apartment," said Inas Moosa, 25.

Moosa, a friend of Riyadh's, wanted to be an architect but settled for being a pharmacist instead.

"The economic situation in Iraq is not so welcoming for architects," she said. "You will end college and end up broke."

Moosa knows many young people who have been shot and killed in the streets for no real reason. So for some, the choice to leave Iraq is a no-brainer.

"One of my dearest friends left the country for Turkey just this past Saturday," Moosa said. "My other friend will leave Iraq at the end of this year."

Since 2014, tens of thousands of people have fled Iraq, and millions have been displaced.

"They are pushing us really," Moosa said.

While the future is uncertain for many young Iraqis, Riyadh says one thing is clear: He will not leave his country.

"I usiness Insiderhad many chances," Riyadh said. "Can't leave Baghdad. It's too romantic. I just can't."

Source: Business Insider

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