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Youth-led social cohesion: Bringing Muqdadiya back together

On International Peace Day, Joseph shares the story of the divides in his community that were caused by conflict, and his hopes for the future. DRC social cohesion projects are implemented by Mercy Land Organisation and funded by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation.

Posted on 21 Sep 2023

My name is Joseph. I’m 30 years old and from Muqdadiya, Diyala, Iraq. My region has suffered many recent challenges, including poor economic conditions, insecurity, and occupation by ISIS that has led to extreme sectarian divisions.

Growing up, our villages were full of people from all backgrounds, Sunni, Shia, Christian, Arab, Turkmen and Kurdish - we all lived side by side, we all went to the same schools. I grew up with a Shia neighbour, and as a child never noticed any division, I don’t think there was any. 

All that changed with ISIS. In 2014, my entire village was displaced to northern Kurdistan. Shia militia groups and ISIS fought fiercely, and the militia used bulldozers to completely flatten the area so they could fight more effectively. Our homes and agricultural land were destroyed. We fled to save our lives.

We went to northern Kurdistan, but just a year later, my family were forced to return due to my father’s job. But ISIS still occupied the area, meaning we were trapped in a dangerous situation - vulnerable not only to ISIS but also to other armed groups who may suspect us of collaborating with ISIS if we lived nearby. We decided not to go back to our village but stay in central Muqdadiya instead.

My community was eventually liberated from ISIS in 2016. But the impact of the invasion remains evident to this day. For a long time, people lived under constant threat of arbitrary arrests, the security situation remained tense, homes lay in ruins, and economic hardship impacted many, as our main source of livelihood – agricultural land – had been ruined. The reconstruction of homes did not begin until 2018.

Despite these challenges, I remained committed to my education, attended college, and graduated from university. Following my graduation, I engaged in several intensive training courses and eventually established a volunteer team in 2018, dedicated to aiding displaced and returning families in my community. We provided financial support through a voluntary donation scheme, offered free skills training to facilitate entry into the labor market, and assisted with referrals to other organizations.

Our team comprised individuals from different sects, religions, and ethnic backgrounds, reflecting the diversity of Muqdadiya. I also participated in social cohesion projects that brought together people of all backgrounds to address extremism and promote social cohesion. 

Currently, I work as a Youth Leader for Mercy Land Organization, a partner of the Danish Refugee Council. My role helps me support my community and mend the divisions that have harmed us. I want to strengthen my community, foster peace, and nurture a sense of brotherhood between all groups. I want us to be one community again.

Thanks to my Youth Leader training, I have acquired tools to effectively help my community. I understand the importance of identifying the root causes of conflict and working with communities to address them. I also have witnessed the power and potential of simply having people from different backgrounds in the same room, sitting, conversing and developing understanding. 

During our community dialogues, we gather people with diverse perspectives, including those with extremist views and strong sectarian leanings. Men and women from various religious and ethnic backgrounds participate, including Shia, Sunni, Turkmen and Kurds.

Together, we identify key community issues, of which there are many: drug abuse, unemployment, early marriage, extremism, sectarianism, and discrimination to name a few. Understanding these issues is a key priority for us, as they underpin the root causes of division and conflict.

I've already witnessed positive changes in my community. People from different sects are forming bonds based on shared interests or occupations, and some have begun to support each other's businesses.


We recently rehabilitated the old market as part of the project. The market offers a shared space where people can once again connect. It will also boost the economy and offer employment opportunities.

The market’s restoration has breathed new life into Muqdadiya, rekindling a sense of togetherness. Already, people of different backgrounds sit together and drink coffee. They reminisce about the peaceful past, and plan for the future – together.

I’m hopeful that we will live side by side once again. I’ll continue helping put the pieces back together until we do.

Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation
Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation
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