At first glance, the Iraqi visitors seemed to have left their burning homeland behind. But not quite. The group of Iraqis - three men and four women - were using the language of theatre to better equip themselves to cope with the violent reality of Iraq. "We were taught games and exercises that helped us to understand ourselves and to reach out to others in need, especially women and young people," says Asmaa Y Pauls from Baghdad's United Women's League at the end of a weeklong workshop.
Pauls was one of the seven heads of NGOs who participated in 'Train the Trainer Workshop, Step by Step into the Future' organized in January 2006 at the invitation of the Vienna-based Women Without Borders (WWB) and Women for Women International (WWI).
This workshop was part of 'Youth in the Midst of Horror and Hope', an ongoing project supported by the Austrian Ministry for Social Affairs. As part of this project, questionnaires were distributed to about 100 young people in Baghdad in the summer of 2005 to get a feel of what preoccupied the youth. An analysis of the responses showed that, despite the ongoing conflict and a paucity of opportunities, the youth are optimistic about the future. The workshop will be followed up with a peace camp this summer in Vienna, when young people caught in the midst of war around the world, including Iraq, will exchange experiences with each other and learn strategies to cope with trauma.
The sole purpose of both the workshop and the peace camp is to help young Iraqis to believe in themselves and to take the future in their own hands, despite all the terror and uncertainty that they face at the moment.
"The Iraqis know what they want and where they would like to go. But in the midst of war they lack the skills to reach their goals," said Manal Omar, Head of WWI. WWI opened an office in Baghdad in 2003 to provide women vocational training, education in leadership and rights awareness, so that they remain active participants in the reconstruction process. The priority in Iraq today is to provide food, shelter and security to citizens, and to invest in rebuilding the infrastructure, Omar believes.
Three wars in the last quarter of the last century, years of international economic sanctions and now occupation by the American military have reduced Iraq - the oil-rich and the most developed country in the Middle East until the late 1970s - into a bloody battlefield. It is said of Iraq that mothers are more educated today than their daughters. The illiteracy rate amongst women has reached 70 per cent in a total population of 30 million, where half the number are below the age of 18, according to UNICEF.
"We want to get the unemployed, uneducated and demoralized youngsters before the extremists get them," says Omar, adding that the entire effort is to see that young Iraqis do not lose hope at this hour of extreme stress. What she is taking back to Iraq from the recent workshop are skills that she hopes will sharpen her efforts to communicate with young people.
Eva Maria Gauss, a theatre personality and speech specialist, focusing on gender issues in Berlin was one of the two trainers. Her effort was to get participants to exchange experiences and emotions in a non-violent way. Instead of saying "You are lazy! You are shy!" - accusations that invariably lead to an aggressive reaction - participants were asked to reinvent vocabulary to focus on the sin that was offensive without offending the sinner.
Gauss feels fortunate to have learnt about the troubles in Iraq from those living there, and tried out numerous communication techniques like that of controlled dialogue - where concentrating on what is said and repeating it is very important before giving an answer.
These NGOs in Iraq are helping residents deal with very sensitive situations like how to live beside a neighbor who is responsible for the murder of a loved one. Or, how to prevent young people whose energies are all used up in suppressing the anger and frustration they feel.
For Muhammed J Amanj, one of the issues is to ensure the safety of women escaping violence at home. This is why he started the Sulaimaniya-based Asuda Centre in northern Iraq, which provides temporary refuge and counselling to homeless and battered women.
Before Ali J Khaldoun founder of Mercy Hands, the single-most important task is to daily assure the safety of hundreds of citizens returning home. A medical doctor by profession, Khaldoun gave up his practice to provide first aid to the wounded on the street and to eventually start Mercy Hands two years ago to take humanitarian aid to the most vulnerable populations of the homeless, urban poor and war victims.
"The entire exercise is to get women and youth to be an active part of the post- conflict process," Edit Schlaffer, head of WWB says, expressing great joy at the mixed group of men and women who participated in the workshop. An important activity of WWB remains to involve men in all its initiatives under the "Men For Change" programme. Armin Staffler, an Austrian trainer for political and social theatre introduced the Iraqis to techniques from the Theatre of the Oppressed, a worldwide movement started by Augusto Boal, a Brazilian director, in the 1960s. Boal does not believe in theatre being a monologue but in the maxim that "we are all theatre" and what we perform is a "collective rehearsal for reality". "To overcome obstacles we have to train ourselves to move beyond habitual behavior," says Staffler.
One of the many exercises he engaged the Iraqis in was to make them choose the place they thought was the best one in a room, and in the second round the worst place, and then to explain why they thought so. The second step was to use all the creativity at their command to move from the worst spot in the room, in their opinion, to the more comfortable, secure one.
"Since the presence of international aid communities in Iraq is limited, we have to increase the number of qualified local aid workers," feels Khaldoun. Mercy Hands will now introduce the techniques learnt in Vienna - especially those that help NGOs to find out from civil society itself what it needs most - at a series of workshops in Iraq. The attempt is to introduce international humanitarian standards throughout the country.