Iraqi Youth Turn an ISIL Prison into a Space for Healing 

Top photos show the safe space as it was left after the war. Bottom photos show the space after youth activists and volunteers completed their rehabilitation. UNFPA Iraq

Peeling paint. Shattered windows. Piles of bricks and tiles layered with dust. This was what youth activists in Iraq’s Anbar governate had to work with when they rehabilitated a former ISIL prison into a safe space last year.  

Before the war broke out in 2014, the building had housed an office of Iraq’s Ministry of Youth and Sport. But then ISIL took over Anbar and the space became a prison, including for children. It was a dark time for the community and many lived in constant fear. 

Anbar has been at peace since the end of 2017, but until recently, the prison stood as a bleak reminder of the past. In 2018, UNFPA supported the conversion of two rooms in the building for peace-building activities. UNFPA finally raised enough funds to complete the project in 2021. Then youth activists and volunteers from Anbar led the rehabilitation of the prison into a youth safe space.  

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At the safe space, youth play sports, build community, and can attend UNFPA sessions on life and social skills, civic engagement, peace building, and reproductive health topics like family planning, menstruation, and awareness of gender-based violence. UNFPA Iraq

Open for Healing

Today, Iraq’s Ministry of Youth and Sport runs the center. UNFPA provides sessions on life and social skills, civic engagement, and peace building. We also support sessions on reproductive health topics like family planning, menstruation, and awareness of gender-based violence. Each week, dozens of youth aged 10-30 access the space for these sessions, as well as to play sports and build friendships.  

The center has special meaning for some attendees—those who were detained there during the war. Salwa Moussa, a communications specialist with UNFPA, explained that the rehabilitation of the safe space, though difficult, has been a source of hope for youth who were imprisoned. What was once a site of terror and punishment is now a place where they can rebuild their communities and lives.  

Dr. Rita Columbia, UNFPA’s Representative in Iraq, said, “I am very proud of the young volunteers who had a dream and made it a reality.”  

Thank you for supporting the dreams of youth like those who lived through the ISIL occupation of Anbar. You make it possible to be there for them, and every woman and girl, no matter what. Donate today to continue reaching those in need of lifesaving sexual and reproductive health care.  

Special thanks to Salwa Moussa for her help with this article. Read her piece about the safe space here.  

Dana Kirkegaard
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