Mashable U.S. & World
May 13, 2012
by Alissa Skelton
Educational reality TV and social media are the drivers inspiring a group of Iraqi youth demanding a different future — one with peaceful resolutions and equality.
Nareen, an 18-year-old Iraqi whose last name has been withheld for safety reasons, starred in Iraq’s first youth reality TV show called Salam Shabab to compete for the title of becoming an “Ambassador of Peace” last year. Salam Shabab is a competitive TV show with the ultimate goal of uniting Iraq through peace building.
The first step to peace building is getting Iraqis from different races, religions and geographical backgrounds to respect and understand each other and work together. Iraqis have immense local pride, but do not have a strong sense of nationalism. This could be due to the fact Iraq’s regions are divided and traveling to different provinces is limited. Most youth have not interacted with people from different regions or left their hometowns.
This has cause a lack of cultural understanding and awareness in a nation full of a variety of identities. The North is made up of mostly Kurds and Sunni Muslims. Mainly Sunni and Shia Muslims reside in Central Iraq and Southern Iraq has mostly Shia Muslims.
Salam Shabab casts youth ages 14 to 18 from across Iraq to compete on teams in four challenges — mental, performance, physical and short film compositions. The teams are a conglomerate of youth from different regions, organized to introduce youth to people from other areas of the country. The show encourages respect for diversity, promotes civic action and hopes to improve participants’ self-confidence.
The first season featured youth from six provinces and was filmed in Erbil, Iraq, Nareen’s hometown. Although Nareen’s group didn’t make it past the second round, she says Salam Shabab changed her life and empowered her to focus on her dreams of becoming a lawyer and defending human rights.
“I hope that Iraq will be secure and safe again and as important as it was many years before,” Nareen said. “I hope that I could do some workshops to teach Iraqi youth how much it’s important to keep their identity and how to work together to make peace.”
The second season of the show is set to air in June and season 3 production will be underway late this summer.
How Social Media Unites Iraqi Youth
The show has an active website and an ever growing Facebook following. After the first season of the show aired, participants went home and turned to social media to continue conversations about peace. Nareen said she talks with her fellow Salam Shabab participants on social media to discuss news, peace and political issues.
“I think the Iraqi youth are more open-minded because of their openness to the rest of the world through social media,” Nareen said. “So if they knew that their voices are heard and there are other people who care about their opinions they will be able to express themselves more and will be able to change or affect the political environment.”
Social media is increasingly playing a role in assisting youth’s ability to talk about their vision for the future, said Sheldon Himelfarb, the U.S. Institute of Peace Director for the Center of Innovation on Media, Conflict, and Peacebuilding. Salam Shabab participants and youth who watch the show gather on the Salam Shabab Facebook page and website to discuss what they can do to create a better future for the next generation of Iraqi leaders.
“In Iraq, youth are marginalized — 50% of the population is under the age of 19,” said Theo Dolan, senior program officer at U.S. Institute of Peace’s Center of Innovation for Media, Conflict and Peacebuilding. “This is an incredibly large population that is on the fringe of social discourse. We are giving them a forum and they are doing amazing things.”
Even though television may still the prominent way Iraqis consume media, reports show social media is being used more frequently in Iraq. A 2011 IREX study found Facebook is the most popular social network in Iraq; more than 80% of survey respondents have Facebook accounts. The majority of users — 72% — are 18 to 34 years old.
“In most parts of Iraq, you have electricity that you can count on for 2 to 4 hours per day,” Himelfarb said. “Preliminary data show Iraqi youth are spending more time online than the hours of electricity they have.”
“We have got to meet these kids where they are at, and they’re online,” he said. “The numbers of kids in Iraq that are on Facebook is just huge.”
The U.S.’s Interest in Salam Shabab
Growing up during the Iraq War and the Saddam Hussein regime bred a deep-seated distrust for government and political leaders. Through conducting research and studies, the U.S. Institute of Peace has found youth want a voice but feel they aren’t being heard. This is one of the many reasons the U.S. Institute of Peace decided to fund Salam Shabab. The show allows youth to discuss important political issues facing their country and solve problems.
Salam Shabab also gives the U.S. an opportunity to promote democracy and to build a better relationship with young people in Iraq.
“The political intransigence in Iraq is difficult and gains are going to be limited,” Dolan said. “That is why we are targeting these 14-to-18 year olds. There will be generational replacement and these kids will be able to reach out on TV and online to express themselves. They can model conflict resolution behaviors and make a difference.”
While U.S. Institute of Peace funds the show production, the show is created by Magic Carpet Media Production, an Iraqi-owned production company based in Amman, Jordan. The U.S. Institute of Peace provided $500,000 for first season production costs. All of the crew members are Iraqi, including Hussam A. Hadi, the producer of the show.
Hadi has been through many tough times to get to where he is today. After he was chased out of Iraq by Uday Saddam Hussein, Saddam Hussein’s son, for refusing to work for AlShabab TV, he was later kidnapped by extremists. Hadi said he is finally using his TV producing skills to promote peace in Iraq. His kidnapping gave him motivation to focus on changing the future of Iraq.
“I didn’t let this experience break me, but it made me stronger,” Hadi said. “This encouraged me to be more involved in a peace campaign because I don’t want my children to suffer from those people. I get a chance to work for Salam Shabab; this show represents hope to rebuild Iraq and to make it better now.”
From what Hadi can tell, the show is making an impact on youth participating in the show and also shifting youths’ views on diversity, which will help the next generation set their differences aside.
The Institute of Peace is tracking youth’s views on diversity throughout the show by surveying the participants. Data shows a shift in openness to other cultures. A U.S. Institute of Peace report said “64% of youth agreed that acceptance of cross-cultural dialog among the different groups that make up Iraqi society would constitute an important step in building a peaceful Iraq.”
Nareen is one of many Salam Shabab participants who found a sense of nationalism.
“Iraq can be a peaceful place if people of Iraq love each other and work together to build their country regardless to their differences,” she said. “Salam Shabab changed my life. It made it more active, more creative, more responsible — and it made me know I can do what I want with my life. It made me focus on my dreams.”