Pathways to Success: Supporting Youth in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq

Published: May 21, 2024 Reading time: 6 minutes
Pathways to Success: Supporting Youth in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq
© Foto: Zaynab Mayladan
Basirma camp, located 50 km northeast of Erbil in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, is a refuge for Syrian Kurds who fled Syria. Currently, it is home to 2,108 people. While the camp provides safety and shelter, its isolation from urban centres and economic hubs poses substantial challenges for its residents, particularly the youth. In this confined setting, limited opportunities for employment and education lead to a high rate of unemployment among the camp’s younger population. 

The youth in Basirma—many of whom arrived as children or were born in the camp—face unique challenges. With limited access to quality education and professional training, many find themselves caught in a cycle of dependency and hopelessness. This lack of engagement not only affects their economic prospects but also their personal development and mental health. The transition from adolescence to adulthood in such an environment is often carried with frustration, which can lead to despair.

Recognising these challenges, we are focused on fostering skills and confidence in these young people, not just for their advancement but for the well-being and future of their entire community. We aim to break the cycle of dependency by equipping young refugees with practical skills and knowledge that can open routes to employment and self-sufficiency.

A significant number of the camp’s 19-24 year-olds find themselves out of education, employment, and training. In this environment, the prospects for personal growth and economic stability are distant.

From a Law Student to a Shopkeeper:

Mohammad’s journey began in Qamishli, Syria; at just 12 years old, he fled home with his family to seek safety in the Kurdish region of Iraq.

“I remember seeing people dying in front of us back home; it was scary,” he recalls. “After a few weeks here, we moved to Basirma camp.” Mohammad, now 24, was able to resume his studies in Kurdistan and graduated at the top of his class. “My grades back then would have allowed me to study a major related to physics or math, but I wanted to study law to defend the rights of the refugees and the vulnerable people,” he says.

Graduating with honours after 5 years of studying law is Mohammed’s crowning achievement. “Because I had good grades, I was able to acquire a full scholarship for my college fees, and I was in the top 7 amongst my peers,” he adds.

However, upon attempting to join the Kurdistan Bar Association, a newly implemented law dashed his hopes; in Iraq, only Iraqi nationals can practice law.

“I felt lost, unsure what to do next,” he recalls. Mohammad attempted to bring attention to his issue through media interviews but with no success. He also applied tirelessly to jobs with humanitarian organisations. The isolation of the camp compounded these difficulties, limiting access to viable job opportunities.

It was during this period of uncertainty that Mohammad discovered the vocational training programme we offer. The programme offered new possibilities, teaching participants about various trades, including electronics, which caught Mohammad’s interest. “This was a chance to reshape my future,” he explains.

In training, Mohammad learned not only the basics of electronics and customer service but also visited wholesalers and explored markets to understand the business landscape better. “We need more than just theoretical knowledge; hands-on experience is much more useful,” he explains. “The camp is small, and most shop owners don’t need employees. Otherwise, he would have employed me.”

Equipped with new skills and a deeper understanding of market dynamics, Mohammad is eager to get an opportunity to open his own shop. “Understanding the needs of your community is crucial,” he says. “I now understand that for this camp, I must look to sell products that are affordable yet reliable, which are much needed here.”

Today, Mohammad is recognised in the camp not just for his legal knowledge but also for his entrepreneurial spirit. “Many youth in this camp look up to me. However, my story has affected some negatively as their passion for education was diminished after witnessing my experience. I don’t want to be that kind of influence on them; I still want them to study if they have the opportunity,” he adds.

Mohammad’s transformation from a refugee to a rights advocate and then to someone with few opportunities never discouraged him from trying to improve his life and leading change within his community, proving that even in the most challenging circumstances, there is hope and space for growth.

Media Dreams on Hold

At just 7 years old, Rodan’s life took a dramatic turn as her family left their home in Syria, seeking safety and refuge in Kurdistan’s Basirma camp, where she spent over a decade adapting to a new reality far from the life she once knew.

Rodan watched as her elder sister had to abandon her education dreams and marry due to financial constraints. These early experiences exposed Rodan to the challenges that come with displacement at a young age, including the financial pressures on her father.

“I have always been passionate about media since I was little. I like to appear on TV,” Rodan expresses. This dream led her to enrol in media studies at a university in Kurdistan. However, the family’s financial situation didn’t allow her to pay the rest of the college fees. “This year, I felt sick, watching my friends moving forward while I was stuck,” Rodan recalls, describing the deep disappointment of having to pause her studies.

It was during this period of uncertainty that Rodan learnt about People in Need’s vocational training programme from a friend. “Joining PIN’s programme opened up a new world for me,” she says. “I learnt marketing skills, how to engage customers, to negotiate prices, and to understand market dynamics.”

The training covered various aspects of running a business, from sourcing items at wholesale prices to effectively selling them in a competitive environment. “The most valuable lesson for me was learning how to turn a ‘no’ into a ‘yes’ in negotiations,” Rodan shares.

Despite the successful completion of her training, Rodan faces the reality of limited job opportunities within the camp. The geographical isolation of the camp limits access to larger markets. “The camp is small, and if anyone wants to open a shop, the probability of them succeeding is very low,” she explains. “If we were closer to factories, people would find more jobs.”

This opportunity not only gives youth knowledge but also a daily income, which helps them support their families even for a short period. “This is not the end; new opportunities can appear when you least expect them. There is always hope,” she concludes.

Empowering Youth at Basirma Camp:

In response to the significant challenges faced by young Syrian adults in Basirma camp, we developed, with funding from Education Cannot Wait (ECW), partnered with Save the Children, Intersos, and Rwanga Foundation, a vocational training and mentorship programme targeted at youths aged 19 to 24 who are out of education, employment, or training.

This programme is designed to provide these young individuals with practical skills and soft skills enhancement through a structured series of training and apprenticeships.

Following the training phase, participants enter an internship period where they apply their new skills. This phase is structured around partnerships with local businesses within the camp, ranging from markets to mobile shops and salons. Here, apprentices can gain hands-on experience. Each business agrees to host one to three apprentices for up to 30 working days within a three-month timeframe, ensuring that learning is both intensive and immersive. 

Autor: Zaynab Mayladan, Regional Communications Manager for Iraq and Syria

Related articles