Peer Education behind bars?!

Written with guest blogger: Huda Sarhang

Dearest loyal reader,

Peer Education in the Kurdistan Region has gone to various places and touched the lives of a good number of young people- not as much as I’d dream of (I still have this dream of having the program in every single school in Kurdistan) but from NGO offices it has gradually moved to some university lecture rooms, tents of refugee camps, women centers in Erbil’s neighborhoods and now what I believe is the biggest achievement….. Peer Education inside juvenile reformatories (others refer to this as Youth Prisons) in all three governorates of the Kurdistan Region- Erbil, Duhok, and Sulaimani.*

In a corner of the world, I sit putting together some peer education activities

Last week, as I sat to draw a brainstorm of the agenda for the first three days of this workshop a good million gazillion things came to my mind. How powerful we are to walk ‘behind bars’ and have eight hours a day with a group of youth who have “committed crimes.” With every example I thought twice, “Sazan, you can’t make them feel like they are criminals, we are there to help them make better choices.” I kept repeating in my head: Delete this example, get rid of that activity, move this activity, add this information, remove this topic. Indeed, the hardest and most thoughtful sessions I have prepared.

The power to be able to help youth make better, healthier decisions in their lives is the most rewarding personal experience for me. As I was writing I would dream these youth will one day leave the doors of the reformatory, putting behind their crime and helping to build this society.

It would only have been a dream, this time last week, if you told me there will be youth in the reformatories who are willing to join the peer education network after their release . Imagine, when a young man who has been in “prison” goes and speaks to other young people, holds sessions to help others make healthy life decisions and shares his own experience. This is the Kurdistan I dream of.

I will let Huda continue from here, about her experience in holding the peer education session with the youth in the juvenile reformatory in Erbil. It is truly touching. You can also read more of Huda’s experience on her blog.

Walking into the reformatory prison was not easy for me. My heart beats were fast to an extent I could feel them on my chest bones. I was very worried, and scared wondering what will happen.

In another corner of the world another Peer Educator prepares sessions for the next day. Photo: Huda Sarhang

We began with a few activities and soon we got to know each other more. I tried as much as I can to be down to earth with them and never show them I am better, but we are all good people. I found out, they are thirsty for new information, and they participated actively in every activity we did. I genuinely believe they want to be better boys than they were/are.

We need to give them the right opportunities, give them the skills and help through this.

In one of the sessions on self-esteem and expressing emotions one of participants told me, “You are encouraging us and telling us we are not bad people but our actions were bad…but not everyone thinks this way of us. People think of us as criminals and they don’t look at our faces.” This broke my heart.

I got emotional but controlled myself. Those boys are not bad, but unfortunately their families didn’t raise them well otherwise they could have been in my place and do trainings at the highs schools and universities. Most of them are victims of their families first then the society. It was getting harder as I was learning more about each one of their stories.

For my surprise most of them were very eager to learn and they stared to ask question after question and gave fruitful opinions in all the discussions we did. Every day they were better than the day before. Some of them even came to me with their contact numbers telling me they will leave the reformatory soon and they want to be part of the PEER EDUCATION network. I call this an achievement. Some of them spent 3 to 5 years there and they will be released in a few months, I hope we are helping them to go back to a better life….

Peer Education training underway in the juvenile reformatory. Photo: Huda Sarhang #SecondChance

Some said they are very excited to be releases as they want to participate in workshops and volunteer work. Some said they are happy but at the same time they will miss the place that taught them a lesson. (I.B) is one of them; He will be released soon after spending 5 years there. He said “I have big dreams, I studied here, and as soon as I go out I will continue, I will do an entrance exam to go to University.” He is one of those participants who I won’t forget as he was asking a lot about the training and new information.

If I continue writing for days and days I won’t finish what I saw and what I have learnt there. Those youth have beautiful souls inside them; they only need a second chance from us. Therefore if I, you and others came across one of those youth don’t treat them like criminals. They are not criminals, they are victims.  Through their evaluations, I am satisfied with my work and I found out they are very happy to be treated well and they really need us to pay them attention and help them. Let’s teach our children well and give th proper education, pay them attention and care about them.

Thanks Huda! I would like to add the UNFPA is committed to working closely with the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs  (MoLSA) to continue the peer education program inside the juvenile reformatories across the Kurdistan Region. Some of the individuals we work with in MoLSA are indeed people who want to create a better Kurdistan- thank you to everyone who works in making such programs work. I know very well how difficult it is.

Until another entry, lots of love from

My Nest in Kurdistan


*Kak Hussein Hanary began this loooooong, slow journey with our government officials and relevant ministries, now Kak Ahmad Tahir is continuing the work. A special thank you to both these great individuals, for giving us, the peer educators room to implement what we believe in (and what they truly believe in too).

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