Episode 5: The Millennials of Iraq
How do you imagine life in Iraq? Meet four Iraqi millennials who are forging their own paths and busting stereotypes along the way. Laugh, cry, and discover what life looks like for young people in Iraq. And if your idea of Iraq is what you’ve seen on TV, you might be in for a surprise.
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Most of us have a very Western idea of what it means to be a millennial. But we’re all more than stereotypes. We categorize each other into neat and tidy labels because, well, it’s easy. It’s a way to organize cultural ideas. Our social constructs act a way to help us try to understand the world.
In this episode, we set those stereotypes aside for a minute and ask: What does life look like for the roughly 7 million millennials—women and men between the ages of 23 and 38—in Iraq?
On Episode 5: The Millenials of Iraq, we find out. And if your primary picture of Iraq is what you’ve seen on TV, you might be in for a surprise.
On episode 4, “The Millennials of Iraq” you’ll hear from:
- Erin Wilson: Preemptive Love’s senior field editor in Iraq, she brings experience and compassion as the host of our Love Anyway podcast.
- Sulaiman Abdulkareem: Sulaiman has two speeds: full speed and sleeping. He packs every day to the brim, either creating what didn’t exist before or learning how.
- Rawand Salam: Rawand possesses the steady, encouraging presence that allows teams to function. He seems equally comfortable teaching in front of a classroom and working behind the scenes, but Rawand passion lies in helping others reach their highest potential.
- Zheen Jameel: A couple of years ago, Zheen, a Ph.D. student, stepped off the path she thought she was walking. For many PhDs, the goal is a stable teaching position at a university. But Zheen got a taste of what it’s like to lay aside stability, and pursue a passion—using her skills in finance and accounting to make a positive difference in the world. And she hasn’t looked back.
- Sara Fadhil: Sara probably breaks most of the stereotypes out there of practicing Muslim women. She is a dedicated teacher, a gamer, a YouTuber, a big fan of House music…and a hijabi. There is nothing contradictory there for Sara—she uses each of the elements in her life to connect with family and friends, and to encourage the best in others.
- Sulaiman says that as a child, he dreamed of moving to New York. As he reflects on his mother telling him anything was possible if he worked hard, it’s easy to hear the emotion rise in his voice. Why is this worth noting?
- In the beginning of the episode, Erin says that she was struck by the idea that her Iraqi millennial friends aren’t too different from her millennial Preemptive Love colleagues in the US, but says “it’s the edges of their lives that are so different.” Why is this significant? What does this mean?
- Erin reflects that for this generation, having a stable job isn’t enough. Work has to have a higher meaning, it has to make a difference in the world. Did you expect this to be true in Iraq?
- For Zheen, Sulaiman, Sara, Rawand, and the millennials of Iraq, there are plenty of legitimate reasons to feel cynical. They’ve seen and experienced first-hand the devastating, life-altering effects of war. But as Erin points out, their experiences have not dampened their hope. What surprises you most about their optimism?
- Visit Sara’s YouTube channel
- Visit Sulaiman’s Youtube channel
- Listen to Zheen’s favorite song
- See the cartoon Rawand grew up watching
If you’ve connected with our episodes this season, we want to hear from you. Which stories have stood out to you? Which ones made you think? Give us a call at (254) 300-7328 to leave a message. You can even send a text. And you might just hear your voice or hear your text in an upcoming episode.
Love Anyway is written and produced by Kayla Craig, Ben Irwin, and Erin Wilson. Skip Matheny is our digital production director. Dylan Seals is our sound engineer. Jeremy Courtney, Jessica Courtney, and JR Pershall are executive producers. Special thanks to Zheen Jameel, Rawand Salam, Sulaiman Abdulkareem, and Sara Fadhil. Featured music was provided by The Brilliance, Sleeping at Last, and Roman Candle. Featured music was provided by Sleeping at Last and Roman Candle.
Sulaiman: People think that Iraqis don’t have dreams and don’t have wishes and don’t have the ability. Like as if we don’t have the potential to run companies or do [a] job in an accurate way. I believe that we have the potential in Iraq. We just need…not tools, but we need others…
Erin: Millennials. What comes to mind? Avocado toast? Lumberjack beards? Snapchat?
Most of us have a very Western idea of what it means to be a millennial.
The truth is, we’re all more than stereotypes. We categorize each other into neat and tidy labels because, well, it’s easy. It’s a way to organize cultural ideas. Our social constructs act a way to help us try to understand the world.
But set those stereotypes aside for a minute and ask: What does life look like for the roughly 7 million millennials—women and men between the ages of 23 and 38—in Iraq?
Today, we’re going to find out. And if your primary picture of Iraq is what you’ve grown up seeing on TV, you might be in for a surprise. I’m Erin Wilson, Preemptive Love’s senior field editor in Iraq. And you’re listening to the Love Anyway Podcast.
This is episode 5, The Millennials of Iraq.
Erin: Who are millennials, anyway? Well, they’re a bit of a moving target, for one thing. The Pew Research Center recently updated its definition. Their take? You’re officially a millennial if you were born between the years 1981 and 1996, finding yourself squished between Gen X and the Post-Millennials, sometimes known as Generation Z.
That new cutoff date, 1996, is significant, especially in the US. [pause]
American millennials are old enough to have lived through—and remember—9/11.
Erin: They’ve known war of some kind—usually fought in distant countries—for their entire adult lives.
Erin: My millennial friends in Iraq remember 9/11, too. They’ve grown up in a near-constant state of war stretching even further back. Only, for them, war has hit much closer to home.
Erin: The oldest millennials have lived through 6 major wars. They’ve experienced the fall of Saddam Hussein and the rise of ISIS. They’ve seen the introduction of computers and the internet in places that still don’t have stable electricity. Not unlike their American counterparts, they’ve lived through financial collapse and the ever-widening gap between those who have much and those who have nothing. They’ve seen the devastating long-term consequences of war. They’ve had to live with the fallout from the decisions of those who came before them—and those who still hold most of the power.
Erin: Recently I sat down with four friends and colleagues—each of whom works at one of Preemptive Love’s four tech hubs for refugees and vulnerable students. These friends all grew up in urban areas; they come from open-minded families. They are well-educated, highly skilled, passionate about what they do, providing tech skills and work opportunities for other young people… and they’re all millennials.
Erin: As I sat with them, laughed with them, cried with them, and listened to their stories, it struck me that they’re not too different from my millennial Preemptive Love colleagues in the US. It’s just the edges of their lives that are so different.
Zheen: My name is Zheen. I came from Duhok.
Rawand: Hi, so my name is Rawand and I live in Erbil.
Sara: Okay. So my name is Sara.
Sulaiman: My name is Sulaiman and I’m from Mosul.
Erin: Dohuk. Erbil. Mosul. These are some of the key cities in northern Iraq. All of them have been affected by war. Thousands of refugees fled to Dohuk when ISIS swept across Iraq and remain in refugee camps still today. Militants came within 30 minutes of Erbil, the regional capital. And Mosul? Iraq’s second largest city lay in ISIS hands for three long, devastating years.
Sulaiman: Okay, first of all, like, first the crisis happened Mosul and then ISIS invade Mosul. And then we had to run away.
Erin: That’s Sulaiman. He’s 24 years old, displaced because of the war with ISIS, and quite frankly, one of the most focused people I know. I sat down with him at our tech hub in Erbil just a couple days after he and two teammates won first place in a Hackathon—a frenzied 48-hour competition where those with coding skills form teams to solve big problems in a short amount of time. His team came up with an app that helps to solve his community’s plastic waste problem.
We launched our first tech hub in Iraq in 2017, as Iraqi forces were declaring victory in the war with ISIS. The idea was to provide a space where young people, many of whom have been affected by years of war, can become entrepreneurs, coders, and freelancers. Where they can find jobs in the digital marketplace they otherwise wouldn’t be able to access—because Iraq is still largely cut off economically from the rest of the world.
Sulaiman teaches Ruby, an open-source programming, language, at once of these tech hubs. We started our conversation with the story of how he ended up in the city where he now lives and teaches.
Sulaiman: And we first went to Baghdad, and then from Baghdad, we came to Erbil. And after one year and a half, I continued my studies at University of Mosul in Kirkuk. My last year was in Mosul, because after Mosul liberated, so I finished my last year in college, and then I moved back to Erbil again.
Erin: So you like it here?
Sulaiman: I like it here and I see as a city that has an innovative way of life.
Erin: Innovative. It describes Sulaiman, too. He has two speeds: full steam ahead — and, like other single guys his age, sleeping. He packs every day to the brim, either creating what didn’t exist before or learning how. He speaks four languages: Arabic, English, French, and some Kurdish. He also knows eight computer programming languages. I asked him how he feels about the way his generation uses technology.
Sulaiman: We can use our mobiles not to just scroll down on Facebook or Twitter, on Instagram. We can publish things, we can benefit other people from this technology. Also on mobiles, you can use applications like taxi applications, delivery applications, I see technology as a tool, not as something that consumes time. Now, you can use technology for good. You can use technology for education, for health, for transportation, for economy, for everything.
Zheen: Instagram is my favorite because I don’t use Facebook and I don’t use Snapchat…I have Whatsapp, of course.
Erin: That’s Zheen talking.
Zheen: This wasn’t the same like years ago because like years ago when I was in high school student, there were no like such technology like now.
Erin: Millennials in Iraq, like Zheen, haven’t known technology their whole lives. Former dictators like Saddam Hussein and US-led sanctions against Iraq, kept personal technology out of the country for nearly a generation after it was introduced in the west. Millennials here clearly remember the first time they gained access to a computer, and to the world outside Iraq.
Zheen: Fortunately, my father bought me a computer back then. Internet that was the first like the first internet like hair and nobody is having the internet and I was in high school student. So I used to like to do it just for fun or just to explore what is there. And when I started when I was in college, I start to use it for my projects and also for translation whenever I needed for emailing my professors and my colleagues sometimes, but it was just like that just doing some data analyzing for my projects.
But after my graduation and the years next, it started like to be more part of my life. Because now like my whole world is on the internet and computer and also my study stuff.
Erin: Zheen is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in finance and banking, while working full-time at our tech hub in Dohuk, in the far northwestern corner of Iraq. But as hard as she works, her view toward work is different from the generations that came before.
Zheen: I think the work has to be both. Like it has to be something you do it for a living and also something you do it because you want to do it. Because there’s something related to your feelings and to the way you think about people or about something specific. Yeah.
Erin: I think that in the past, having a stable job was the most important thing was really after getting married. It was the most important thing in life. It wasn’t about loving your job. It was about having a stable job.
Zheen: When I was like a fresh graduated and even when I was like doing my master degree, the only way I was thinking about what was to accomplish my study and to be like a professor in the university to have a stable job, like you mentioned, but after that, I can say in the last three years of my life, I started to think differently, because I started to read more. And I started to, to explore things more. And I started to ask questions. Like is I’m like, Am I really happy doing this job and as a was like, No not really. So I started to look for other things to do besides what I’m already doing.
Erin: When I sat down with Rawand, he had carved out a little time between teaching classes. He teaches IT and programming at our tech hub in Erbil, and works closely with closely with Sulaiman, who you heard earlier.
Erin: Describe yourself in one sentence.
Rawand: Hyperactive, firstly.Okay, so a very, very calm energy that whenever you interact with it, it gives of a really infinite energy.
Erin: Like many millennials in Iraq, Rawand speaks multiple languages.
Rawand: Besides my language, my native language Kurdish, I know English and Arabic And I’m intermediate, not intermediate…like advanced beginner, in Japanese.
Erin: Most of the Millennials I know here speak at least three languages—their native language, either Arabic or Kurdish, English, and a third. But many of our tech instructors speak 5 or more languages.
Rawand: Because like basically when you grow up in this generation, you have to know three main languages. You have to know them in this generation.
Erin: Rawand first started learning English as a child, in the same way most here do: through television.
Rawand: I think I was around the nine. I started learning language based by looking at cartoons and Nickelodeon, which, unfortunately is shut down right now. My favorite cartoon was Adventure Time.
Erin: Then, of course, there were re-runs of his all-time favourite show when he was a bit older…
Rawand: I have one that’s my favorite which is the Friends. That is my favorite TV shows and I pretty much grew up on that like looking at that. Chandler…I think kind of represents me.
Erin: Zheen is a big Friends fan, too. The Joey Tribbiani character is her favourite.
Zheen: Until now, like every time I finish the whole taste seasons I start again from the season one because I like them very much. They’re so funny.
Erin: Knowing English does so much more than open up possibilities for binge-watching sitcoms. For these Millennials, fluency in English has introduced them to different cultures, different attitudes about work—and it has presented unique opportunities.
Rawand: Any work that I do if I see that I’m not going to enjoy or gain any benefit, like knowledge or friendship from it, I get bored of it. But when I see like a good environment in the workplace or see that I’m doing something beneficial for the community or giving something back. Because right now if my job is not sustainable, I don’t care as much as I love the job that I do it. And I’m not looking for a sustainable job. I’m looking for something like an adventure.
Sara: When I press publish, or post on a YouTube video that I’ve been working so hard on. And like, when I do that I feel really, really accomplished. Because I know like the message behind it. I know. There are some funny videos as well, I guess not only it’s not only like informative videos, but in general, when I do that I feel really accomplished. Or when I know that I’ve helped somebody, it just makes me super happy. It just like elevates me to a whole new level. It’s just amazing.
Erin: That’s Sara is. She’s a dedicated IT instructor, a gamer, a fan of House music… and a successful YouTuber.
Sara: I love people. Love as in, I would love to see the good in people. And honest. I’m super honest. Integrity as a whole…it really matters to me. It matters to me a lot. And I would love to help people. I like when I see a problem. Like, I want to fix it for like I’m very, even though I like I am an introvert and I would rather like stay at home and watch a video or something and not interact with a lot of people. But when it comes to like, problems, and you know, helping people I would really, like I would love to do that.
People say if you do the job that you love, then you don’t have to work your entire life. Like you don’t have to work a day in your entire life. Well, that’s not really true. Because you have to, like you have to try your best and you have to work every single day, there will be days where you just don’t want to work at all. There will be days you absolutely love it.
Erin: Some days it’s a grind. No matter what.
Sara: Exactly, exactly.
Sulaiman: When you work as a freelancer, when you work as an entrepreneur, when you work as a programmer, in a company or for, for contract, you don’t have that, this that stability.
But in a stable job, you won’t learn anything at all. It’s just a routine, you go and sit at your desk, you open the laptop, if you have a laptop, and then you just work, work work. At the end of the day, at the end of you know, at the end of the day, you just go back home. And that’s it.
Erin: It’s a common refrain, across continents and cultures. For this generation, having a stable job isn’t enough. Work has to have a higher meaning, it has to make a difference in the world.
Sara: I want to make YouTube a thing, like I really want to do it. Because if it had been just for like wanting to earn money from it, I could have done that with posting literally anything. But like, I don’t want to be that kind of person. I want to make videos to help people, like literally help them.
YOUTUBE CLIP: “Hey, what’s up everyone? So if you’re a student who is recently going to attend college or if you’re a freshman who doesn’t know what college is about, this video is for you…”
Sara: And thank God, like some people have texted me and said that some of my videos have helped them. And I absolutely love that. Because at the end of the day, like I have said it before, and I’ll say it again, if if I give advice or a gift tips and tricks on how to do something, even if I don’t follow that myself, I want other people to follow it. So so that at least I make this world a better place in a way or another.
Erin: We’ll be right back.
Erin: In Iraq, reputation matters. For many here, reputation is everything. Because Iraqis still rely on each other for so much–for protection, for getting a job, even finding a spouse. It matters that you are seen as a good, decent, reliable person. And families guard each other’s reputations.
This is starting to change in some parts of Iraq, as more families spend time in other countries. And this change can be seen most starkly when it comes to dating and relationships. I asked Zheen about it.
Zheen: If you are in a relationship or if you are dating someone, it has to be secretly because they don’t accept and especially like your family. You will face difficulties and if you are a girl, it is not accepted at all. Yes, true. It’s changed like now they are more like, open to it, but not very much.
Erin: Arranged marriages have been the traditional way of starting families in Iraq. The thinking goes that it’s your family who knows you best, and your family who should decide who would make a perfect partner for you.
Zheen: In the past, like they were families they were marrying their kids together without letting them know.
They were just like giving them one day to meet each other and they will saying well you suit each other and that is it. And if they, you know, like new, she or he had a relationship with another one, it will be something not accepted at all. But now, when you have a relationship or when you are in when you are dating someone, and after that they come to propose to you or you say to your family, I’m going to marry this person. And if they knew you were in a relationship they kind of accept it, but this is still like, without leading to a marriage, the dating here, it’s not accepted.
Erin: Just because something isn’t publicly acceptable, doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.
Sara: It’s really different for each and every person. The traditional way of doing it is..a guy likes a girl, and then the guy goes to the girl’s family or like, and he asks for her hand and it goes from there. Or the guy and the girl like each other. They like the date or like they tell each other and they both know, and then they tell the families, and then they get engaged or married and whatever. And there’s another way where the family has no clue and the guy and the girl, I don’t know, they date and go out or maybe not maybe it’s a secret. You don’t know. Some, some of them are public. So it really depends on the people and some people just do it for fun. And there’s nothing like like there’s no marriage or any commitment to it. So it depends on the people.
Erin: That was Sara. In the traditional family structure, marriages happened quite young. Like pretty much anywhere else in the world, life in rural areas can be brutal. The physical strength needed for farming, having and raising children, taking care of older generations—that comes with youth. And just like elsewhere in the world, the shift to modern, urban lifestyles means that the decision to marry and start a family comes later and later.
Rawand: Dating or relationships? Ah, I don’t know how to explain it like for myself. Okay for myself. I see that someone special to you. Like are you cared so much about? You want to get close to them and be with them most of the time? That’s like how I see relationship. Like a very, very close person to you.
And I don’t know not yet. I don’t know, because I might I don’t know what will happen tomorrow. So I might be open to make friends as friends right now, but not as a relationship because when I think of a relationship when I want to commit to it, and right now, I don’t think that I can commit to it.
Erin: That doesn’t mean that marriage and family doesn’t figure into Rawand’s future plans. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.
Rawand: In the next seven years out, my goals are personal. To have a house to have my own house and a car, maybe I’m good with walking. I really hate transportation, especially in my personal cars.
So that’s the thing like I’m trying to like my personal goal is to provide a really happy life for someone special that I might find
Erin: “To provide a really happy life for someone special that I might find.” Before this episode started, if I had asked you to think about the average Iraqi your age, is that what would come to your mind? Would you think of Phd students working on their dissertation in financial administration? Would you think of coders designing their own app to tackle the global crisis of plastic waste?
Sulaiman: People think that Iraqis don’t have dreams and don’t have wishes and don’t have the ability. Like as if we don’t have the potential to run companies or do [a] job in an accurate way. I believe that we have the potential in Iraq, we just need not tools, but we need others. That’s it. We do have the potential. But people are underestimating the Iraqis. It’s unfortunate for us to hear that from outside Iraq.
You know when I was a kid my dream was to go to New York, I used to watch Home Alone movie and like it was in New York. I was telling my mom I want to go to New York and visit all these places there and she said, like study hard, work hard, and then one day…you’ll reach there.
Sulaiman: Yeah…so. All Iraqis have dreams. It’s just the bad timing.
Erin: I say this a lot, but um…Iraqis believe that their greatest resource is oil. And they’ve been deceived by the world, because their greatest resource is YOU, Sulaiman, and people like you. It’s the people here that is the country’s greatest resource.
Erin: I asked my colleagues what role they see themselves playing in the future of their country. First, here is Sara…
Sara: If I do my best, not only will I be benefiting my own country, I’ll be also benefiting humanity in general. Like, if I’m making a video, I know, I’m referring, like, that’s, that’s how I can reach out to people, right, that’s how I can probably help. If somebody from from let’s say, Australia watches my video and they’re feeling depressed, and that helps them that means I have done something good. So it’s, it’s not only about the country, but I can perhaps with like my own voice, help. Help my country through like, getting in touch with companies from outside or, or movements from outside. And then, you know, letting them like get into the country in a way or another.
Erin: For Zheen, she feels most personally empowered when she’s speaking to a large group about something she’s passionate about.
Zheen: When when I talk about such a thing in front of a big amount of people I believe they can feel my passion and I believe they can touch the desire that I am talking with. Because I see it in their eyes, I see it in the way like they react. I see it in the way they are looking at me. I think I will play a role that’s very close to be like an intermediary between my country and the rest of the world. I yeah, I can see myself doing such our core playing such a role.
Rawand: Be optimistic. Not everything is going to be bad here. Like Don’t think about the half glass that is empty. Think about the other half that is like full and think about like think of ways to make the other half full as well. So most of the time, be optimistic, be energetic, and think positively. because not everything is going to stay the same way. Everything’s going to go in a better way. So hopefully Everything’s going to be fine and move on and be better.
Zheen: We have dreams may be as big as they are, as well. It isn’t just like the dream of us just to have a very traditional life just to work and get married, maybe have kids and that is it. For some of us. It’s more than that. And for some of us we wish that other unknown Iraqis can understand that we have dreams a big ones, and we have skills and nobody knows about them
So yeah, I think we are just like we are all together if we are all the same if you look look at as a human without any nationalities, we are all the same. We have our differences and we have our similarities, but the way the human think is the same, some of them really hope for big things. Others really looking for stable things. So it depends on the the it depends on the the person itself. It’s not about where you’re coming from all your nationality. Yeah.
Sara: You loving yourself, you gotta love yourself, okay? If you don’t love yourself, you’re gonna ruin your own life. And you got to be your own best friend, you got to be your own, buddy. And you gotta lift yourself up, because other people can help you do it. But if you like, if deep down inside, you’re not strong enough to like, get up on your feet. When other people are not around, you’re just gonna crash. So just keep in mind that if you want to make this world a better place, you got to start working with yourself. You got to be the best version of you. And not compare yourself to anyone else. Be the strongest you can be and then from there on, make this world a better place.
Erin: For Zheen, Suliman, Sara, Rawand and the millennials of Iraq, there are plenty of legitimate reasons to feel cynical. They’ve seen and experienced first-hand the devastating, life-altering effects of war. But for these Millennials, with big dreams and big skills to back it up, their experiences have not dampened their hope.
Rawand: I’m mostly optimistic.
Sara: Realist, but I’m super optimistic, though.
Zheen: I’m very very, very optimistic
Erin: with every part of your body.
Zheen: Yeah, yes, I am.
Erin: Visit this episode’s show notes at preemptivelove.org/podcast to get to know Suliaman, Zheen, Sara, and Rawand. To see their photos. Listen to their favorite songs. And maybe even check out the links to their Youtube channels.
In our next episode, the final episode of season one, you’ll hear from Jessica Courtney, co-founder of Preemptive Love, as she provides a glimpse into some powerful stories of both remaking, and still yearning for home.
You can also connect with us and learn more about what we do via @preemptivelove on Instagram and Twitter. Use the hashtag #loveanyway to give feedback or start a conversation.
Erin: I’m Erin Wilson, and this is Love Anyway. Thanks for listening.
End ad: I’m Kayla Craig, a producer with the Love Anyway podcast. You might be wondering how you can link arms with the young people you heard today. Well, here’s your chance. Every session at WorkWell begins with you. As you heard in this episode, WorkWell is our tech hub where young people in Iraq who were impacted by war learn high-demand skills, receive coaching, and gain access to the global digital marketplace. Through WorkWell, you can help empower those you heard today. Every gift counts. Donate now at preemptivelove.org/jobs.
And before we go, if you’ve connected with our episodes this season, we want to hear from you. Which stories have stood out to you? Which ones made you think? Give us a call at (254) 300-7328, thats (254) 300-7328, to leave a message. You can even send a text. And you might just hear your voice, or hear your text, in an upcoming episode. Thanks for listening.
“The Love Anyway Podcast” is written and produced by Kayla Craig, Ben Irwin, and Erin Wilson. Skip Matheny is our digital production director. Dylan Seals is our sound engineer. Jeremy Courtney, Jessica Courtney, and JR Pershall are executive producers. Special thanks to Zheen Jameel, Rawand Salam, Sulaiman Abdulkareem, and Sara Fadhil. Featured music was provided by The Brilliance, Sleeping at Last, and Roman Candle.