Najlaa, a school teacher, returned to her home district, Hamdaniyah, Ninewa, in 2017 after it was retaken from ISIL.

She returned with great enthusiasm and hope, fully embracing the responsibilty to contribute to the reconstruction of the district after years of ISIL control and destruction.

Najlaa returned to Hamdaniyah after more than two years in displacement. Raber Y. Aziz/IOM 2019

She returned to the school where she used to teach, Zawraa. She is proud of the school because the students come from different ethno-religious groups, reflecting the district’s diversity.

Every day, Najlaa sees her students off when they are done with classes. Raber. Y. Aziz/IOM 2019

“Our school is like a mini Iraq; like a bouquet of colorful flowers. I want all of us in the school to celebrate this diversity. This is what we need in Iraq, especially in the current circumstances,” Najlaa said.

Students from eight different ethno-religious communities in Hamdaniyah hold cards that show their ethnicity or denomination with two students holding cards with "We are all Iraq" messages in show of support for diversity and social cohesion. Raber Y. Aziz/IOM 2019

However, as soon as she started teaching and interacting with the students during the first school year, one thing was immediately obvious: there was a behavioral change in the students.

“Unlike before ISIL, aggressive behaviors, such as cursing and fighting, had become widespread among the students, and there was more tension between the different groups – for example, children would say to one another, ‘you are Christian or Muslim and I don’t want play with you’. Even during sports activities, the students would automatically polarize into Christian and Muslims teams.”

Najlaa explained that this could be attributed to what the children saw, including ISIL violence, and what they went through during their time in displacement. In displacement, many families concentrated in one location and lived in cramped, poor conditions. The destruction that ISIL left behind in Hamdaniyah also impacted people as they returned.

Destruction was widespread in Hamdaniyah after it was retaken from ISIL and signs of military operations are still seen around the town today. Auday Alwee/IOM 2018.

ISIL inscription on this wall warns that no one is allowed to touch the vehicles in this unfinished building; which was used by ISIL to make car bombs. Raber Y. Aziz/IOM 2019

Nadine, a 15-year-old student

who returned to Qaraqosh

with her family, was shocked at the

level of  destruction and damage

in the  town that she grew up in.

Photo: Sarah Ali/IOM 2019

Nadine was one of 80 secondary schools students from Qaraqosh between 13 -18 years of age who participated in a youth leadership and creativity camp led and facilitated by 20 youth volunteers, aimed to build the interpersonal skills and individual resilience of participants and empower youth to lead change within their communities. Sarah Ali/IOM 2019

“We arrived to find that everything had been destroyed, burned, and plundered. The town was completely empty, streets full of rubble, and there were no signs of life. This felt strange and had a negative impact on my mental health because I grew up in Qaraqosh. I am attached to it as my place of origin and the home of my neighbors and close friends,” Nadine said.

Nadine managed to overcome her mental health problems with support from her parents and through her participation in community activities, such as cleaning campaigns and planting trees that volunteers at IOM’s community center in Hamdaniyah organized.

Back at Zawraa school, Najlaa decided to do something about her students' behavioral change – something that would set an example for other schools in the district.

Najlaa asks her students what activities they enjoy most so she can plan them into her schedules. Raber Y. Aziz/IOM 2019

“We wanted to change their psychological state to help them build trust and overcome their issues and sensitivities. So, I talked to the school’s principal and he dedicated a room as a friendly space for psychosocial and mental health support activities.”

She greets each and everyone of her students at the class entrance before starting her class. Raber Y. Aziz/IOM 2019

The support includes both mental and physical activities, such as reading a story together or watching an animation movie and discussing the story afterwards. Some students draw their feelings and post them on the wall to open discussions about how they feel and how to turn negative feelings and emotions into positive thoughts and energy.

“I saw the students were drawn to these activities; they were different from the usual classes. The activities helped them relax, alleviate stress, and build trust. Additionally, I was able to identify those children who needed special attention.”

“After six months of activities, things changed dramatically. One student who did not accept sitting and playing with students from other ethno-religious groups was now interacting, playing, and sharing the same desk with students regardless of their backgrounds.”

Najlaa actively involves all of her students in the discussions to make sure that the students express what they feel. Raber Y. Aziz/IOM 2019

“It is very important for our kids to have these friendly spaces. Our kids are psychologically exhausted; they really need this.”

Teachers from other schools are encouraged to follow the same model, building on Najaa’s successful example and the Hamdaniyah Department of Education’s support.

About half of the population has returned to Hamdaniyah thanks to efforts by the local government and humanitarian actors to bring life back to the district. Auday Alwee/IOM 2019

Teachers from other schools are encouraged to follow the same model, building on Najaa’s successful example and the Hamdaniyah Department of Education’s support.

“Najlaa’s model is 100 per cent effective. Students sit in classes doing the same thing every day; seeing the same white board, pens, notebooks, and desks becomes boring. When you set up a room that facilitates fun, educational activities and provides psychosocial support, children will not just enjoy the activities, but mentally relax. We fully support this model,” said Nibras Khaddo Shaba, Teaching Coordinator at Hamdaniyah Department of Education.

“IOM’s training arts therapy sesisons were effective and fruitful in improving the relationships between the students and teachers and between students from different groups. We were able to organize a big arts and sports exhibition this year as a result of improvement in the students’ psychosocial and mental states,” he said.

Najlaa also recalls how her school held its first graduation ceremony last year since people began returning to Hamdaniyah, a sure sign that the schools’ social cohesion activities were having a positive impact.

“It was the most wonderful event. Students wore Qarqoshi dresses, Kurdish and Arabic costumes, and traditional dresses from the Kakayi, Shabaki, and other groups. During the ceremony two students – one Christian and one Muslim – exchanged costumes as a show of love and acceptance. This was very heart warming.”

With support from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), IOM provides support to social cohesion efforts in 12 schools in Hamdaniyah. One particularly popular activity are the weekly art therapy sessions that strive to prevent segregation and restore trust between communities in the post-ISIL era.

Handcrafted items made by students at Sanharib School for Girls. Raber Y. Aziz/IOM 2019

On 4 April 2019, students from the 12 schools who had gone through art therapy held an arts and crafts exhibition in Maryam Al-Athraa high school to promote peace and social cohesion. The event drew a sizeable audience from officials and the local community, who enjoyed handcrafted items on show, drawings about peace and hope for the future, and musical and gymnastics performances, amongst others.

The attendants enjoyed a variety of activities from handcrafted items on show to drawings about peace and hope for the future, to musical and gymnastics performances. Raber Y. Aziz/IOM Iraq, 2019

“I drew this map to show that all of us, Muslims, Christians, and other ethno-religious groups, work together, hand in hand. We can build an Iraq where stability and peace will prevail, and the dove of peace will take the war and destruction away from our country,” said Diyana Zuhair, a high school student in the district of Hamdaniyah.

Diyana. Raber Y. Aziz/IOM 2019