“We are part of the same humanity”- promoting peace through art to restore hope in Iraq


Duhok/Erbil, 20 September 2017- For youth affected by the crisis in Iraq, brushes, palettes and a good dose of creativity can be powerful tools to build a vision of peace and coexistence. 


  • The workshops challenged perceived ethnic and religious boundaries and stereotypes
  • Mawy Qosay, 20, from Mosul: "I have realized we are not so different after all"
  • Over 11,000 IDPs, Syrian refugees and host community members benefited from community dialogues, peace education and social cohesion activities in 2017

Now that most of the areas of Iraq held by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) have been retaken, focusing on social cohesion, promoting community based dialogues and participatory peace and reconciliation initiatives is critical to the future of Iraq. Rebuilding lives in post-ISIL Iraq will require communities with the skills and tools to work together. To create a vision of peace, we must first imagine it and art can help us to do that.

In Duhok, hundreds of displaced Iraqi youth, Syrian refugees and host community members participated in Peace through Art workshops supported by UNDP’s Iraq Crisis Response and Resilience Programme (ICRRP). The workshops enabled young people from different ethnic and religious background to get to know each other and discuss peace and social cohesion issues using the universal language of art.

Located in northwest Iraq, bordering Turkey and Syria, Duhok Governorate has served as a shelter for refugees fleeing the Syrian conflict since 2012. In 2014, as ISIL swept across much of Ninewah, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi families from Mosul, other cities in Ninewah, and Yazidis from Sinjar also fled to Duhok.

As a result, over the last four years, the urban population in Duhok has increased by 31 percent. This has not only put considerable pressure on the provision of basic services and livelihoods opportunities, but also increased the need to strengthen trust and tolerance amongst internally displaced people (IDPs), refugees and host community members. 

With the help of international and national NGOs, and generous funding from the Government of Germany, the Peace through Art workshops enabled Iraqi youth to use art to increase self-esteem, develop empathy and heal trauma.

“The workshops had a positive impact on the lives of the young artists who took part in this journey. Art planted seeds of peace in their souls and their minds,” said Mr. Sirwan Shakir, an Iraqi artist and trainer at the workshops.

What does peace mean to you? What is the relation between peace and art? How can we express and disseminate peace messages through art? These are some of the questions addressed during the workshops and the answers given by the young artists are inspiring.

“Before participating in this project, I was not aware that peace could be expressed through art.” For Taha Rizgar, 21, from Duhok, peace is a “Hand Full of Hope”.

“This was my first time interacting with displaced people and refugees; I have learned so much about their culture and the suffering they went through. I hope they feel welcomed in Duhok,” he said.

The workshops challenged perceived ethnic and religious boundaries and stereotypes. As Mawy Qosay, 20, from Mosul explained: “I am a Muslim and I thought I could not get along with Yazidis. I thought we were so different! I found my best friend thanks to this art workshop and guess what…she is Yazidi! I have realized we are not so different after all!”

The suffering that many IDPs and refugees endured is unspeakable. The participants in the art workshops also benefited from trauma healing support, like Hanefa Abbas Khlafa, 28, a Yazidi from Mount Sinjar.

Hanefa and her family had to flee their home when ISIL approached Mount Sinjar, worried that as members of the Yazidi minority, they would be targeted. She took refuge in Duhok. Her mother and brother fled to Germany, but ISIL killed her father and kidnapped three of her sisters. 

“I used to cry every day. I could not help but think about my dad and my sisters. I felt so angry for what has happened to my family. When I joined this workshop, I could only paint pictures of violence and suffering. I could not even talk. But little by little, art is healing my suffering. I cannot forget what happened to my family, but I have realized that there is hope for a better future. I can rebuild my life after ISIL,” she said.

For Iman Zeda Mohammed, 20, a Syrian refugee living in Duhok, the Peace through Art workshop created an opportunity to find a new family.

“Thanks to this project, I found new friends - Christians, Yazidis, Muslims - and we feel we are part of the same humanity. I believe in peace and I want to keep expressing it through art. It allows us to transform negative energy into positive feelings.”

UNDP’s ICRRP will continue using art and other recreational activities to promote tolerance and coexistence in Iraq. With our support, over 11,000 IDPs, Syrian refugees and host community members have already benefited from community dialogues, peace education and social cohesion activities across Iraq in 2017.




Text and photos by Paola Piccione/UNDP Iraq

UNDP Around the world

You are at UNDP Iraq (Republic of) 
Go to UNDP Global