The Iraqi Civil Society Solidarity Initiative celebrates the tremendous success of the Iraqi Social Forum and The Baghdad Marathon for Peace in Iraq (22-24 September 2016, Baghdad).

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Where can you go to talk freely with Iraqis of Shia, Sunni, Kurdish, Palestinian, Christian, Eziidi, International and many other backgrounds about equality, civil and human rights, solidarity, unemployment and freedom? Anyone visiting Baghdad last week could not have missed the great energy of the nearly 3500 diverse Iraqi activists (young and old) from across the country who came to support the third Iraqi Social Forum, the second running of the Baghdad Marathon for Peace, and closing ceremony of the Forum. Ten international supporters included attendees from Italy, Norway, UK, the USA, Japan, and Canada. Followers of the events on social media reached 24 thousand via the Iraqi Social Forum Facebook page and the Baghdad Marathon Facebook page.

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The Iraqi Social Forum [ISF] is a chapter of the World Social Forum that strives to build a powerful social justice movement uniting Iraqis as part of a shared, worldwide struggle to advance human rights and freedoms, and oppose corruption, exploitation, and militarism. The ISF brought together NGO leaders, labor union representatives, and human rights activists who participated in 19 small group sessions on topics including nonviolent social action, creative media advocacy, women’s rights, environmental action, legislation to advance the needs of differently abled persons, workers’ rights and other critical labor and economic issues. On the second day, Assemblies of Convergence addressed three themes: 1) the economic and social rights of workers; 2) women’s rights and equality; and 3) nonviolence as a tool for social and political change.

One of the most significant successes of the third ISF was the active participation and deep commitment of hundreds of people during the two days of focused workshops and the resulting three convergence assemblies. The ISF secretary and volunteers are preparing detailed reports so that the goals articulated in the workshops shape the efforts of Iraqi activists for their country, for the coming months. Summaries of the plans coming out of these workshops will be published on the ICSSI website soon.

More than 100 dynamic, Iraqi youth volunteers organized the ISF, providing leadership, session facilitation, media coverage, translation, entertainment, hospitality, and, most importantly, making possible an open space for discussion on issues critical to Iraq’s future. Many young activists were asked why they were attending the forum, volunteer, and why they are working as activists. One young Iraqi woman from Canada said, “I came with my father to see where he grew up and to learn about our country.”

Another youth said, “It’s like when we all got together to clean and prepare this beautiful old theatre for the Iraqi Social Forum. We came together as a group of young people to organize and ready this space for something very important. I want to do that for my country. I want to come together and do something important. I don’t want to just sit at home wasting my time.”

Perhaps one of the most moving testimonies of these young activists were the physical scars apparent as they worked. One young Christian man, carried scars of bombings and fires in Mosul; another young leader wore a full prosthetic leg necessitated by a bus bombing in Baghdad. So many suffered injuries and reduced physical abilities, after living in cities attacked year after year by the international war machine. Despite their suffering, they are working together to restore their cities and to maintain hope in the future. As one young man, Mohammed, explained:

When I was 5, I saw bombs dropping on my house.

When I was 7, I saw my teachers killed and my school destroyed.

When I was 12, I saw dead bodies in the streets.

I am an activist because I will do anything, so that when I have children, they don’t grow up like this.

The Italian Initiative Sport Against Violence and ICSSI have also been working with the Iraqi Social Forum to support Iraqi youth who want to build peace through sports. On Saturday, 813 Iraqis and internationals ran in the second Baghdad Marathon for Peace. The Italian runner Nicola Visconti (read his post here) challenged everyone the day before to use the Marathon as a time to take back the streets for Peace in Baghdad! And the youth did just that, supported by mothers, fathers and children from across the country.

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Zainab, a 22 year-old who was one of dozens of women of all ages who participated in the Marathon said: “the most important thing for us young women is to defeat the fear in our society. And I think it’s almost the same all over the world. Fear (and those who promote it) tries to cause us not to participate in these events and tries to reduce our role in the society. I am here to say young women can do many things just like men, we are equal. Personally, I want to reach the point where I don’t blame my self for not leaving Iraqi to live abroad, I want to live in Iraq and I want to be proud of this choice

Dr Shath Jumaa, an activist who participated in Tahreer protests in Baghdad against corruption and sectarianism, was among those who ran the marathon. She carried the photo of another young Tahreer activist, Adel, who was the winner of the first Baghdad Marathon. As she wrote on her Facebook page, “this year he could not participate, he was killed in the terroristic attack on Karrada. I decided to do the marathon with his photo, I think he is still with us” His friends joined Dr. Shath, shouting his name for peace in Baghdad.”

Abu Nawas park was the location of the closing ceremony in Baghdad on Saturday September 24, 2016. The race was indeed followed by a music and entertainment festival and social activities for youth and adults hosted by 53 non-governmental organizations, many who work as volunteers to support displaced families without food or homes.

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Despite the triumph of the running of the marathon and the joy of the evening’s festivities, many attendees thought of those men and women fighting at the front, and those who had already given their lives to keep militants out of Iraq’s cities. It made the striving to find nonviolent means to create social and political change feel all the more urgent.

The theme of the Iraqi Social Forum this year was “Rights and Peace,” an important message for Iraqis across the country. Since its founding in 2013, the ISF has adopted a global slogan, “Another Iraq is possible,” and many youth and older activists have asked, “What does ‘another’ Iraq mean to you?”

For many it seemed a difficult question to answer and responses varied from security, freedom for our children, and other concerns. One of the more moving responses was offered by a Kurdish Baghdadi who said he wanted to see all Iraqis develop a real sense of national belonging. He and friends searched for the right expression and settled on “entima” in Arabic.

As he said “we are missing a sense of deep entima for our country, not just to a governorate, to a political party or to a religion.” He continued, “We need to have a sense of being part of a country that we are willing to fight for because we feel we really belong to it and it belongs to us.” Many youth expressed a great sense of loss of national identity and sadness at feeling like they don’t belong to Iraq. What the ISF offers them is the possibility to play a role, through public events and advocacy campaigns, in “being the change they want to see in Iraq”, in Gandhi’s words.

How to get involved

To contact the Iraqi Social Forum Secretariat write to:  isf.iraq@gmail.com

To join our international solidarity initiative with the ISF and Iraqi civil society write to: icssi.project@gmail.com

And please take part in spreading this statement to your friends, government leaders, and opponents. Spread the word to support civil society activists in Iraq to rebuild a country belonging to all.

This edition of the Iraqi Social Forum has been supported by ICSSI, Fondation Assistance Internationale, Karibu Foundation, CCFD – Terre Solidaire