Young Iraqis defend freedom of thought
Many young people in Syria and Iraq live in difficult times. In the news this week, you may see that there is more fighting there. But this is a story of how some of them refused to put up with people telling them what to think and making it hard for them to learn.
Before we tell the story of Omar, Shahd and Faisal, though, we’d like you to think a bit. Think about how you know that this story, in WoW!, is true?
You know some things about the world because you can see and touch them. But a lot of what you learn comes from reading or listening to other people, on TV, in books, magazines or the Internet. That’s how you know, say, that Madrid is the capital of Spain. Or that the Moon is not made of green cheese.
And you learn to tell who tends to tell you the truth – like teachers and parents who care about you, and of course they tell you that WoW! can be trusted. And you also learn that sometimes people lie and you must be a bit careful who you believe.
But imagine a city where there were almost no books or newspapers. Where the Internet was in a language you couldn’t understand. And where the government tells lots of lies and punish anyone who disagrees with them or talks to people in other countries.
Five years ago, Mosul, a big city in Iraq close to Syria, was taken over by angry men who call themselves IS. They hate the rest of the world and shut off people’s contact with it. Life became horrible but IS told the world that people in Mosul were happy living under their rule. Omar decided people must know the truth and it was his job to write a true history.
He wrote in secret about what was happening and put it on the Internet. IS hated people finding out. They tried to find Omar and stop him. But IS were defeated and forced to leave Mosul first. Today, however, life is still difficult in Mosul and it is hard for young people to learn about the world. Omar’s new project is getting more books into the library.
When IS were in Mosul, Shahd was a student and says she escaped from them “to another world” by reading in secret about space and science. Learning is something that IS don’t think girls should do. Now, Shahd told The Guardian this week, she is translating chunks of the Internet encyclopedia Wikipedia into Arabic to help other Iraqis understand that “women can do anything”.
She is one of more than 100 young people working for a group run by Faisal called Ideas Beyond Borders. It is proud of articles it has translated on human rights and Marie Curie, a great scientist at a time when women did not get to do much science even in Europe. Faisal says that opening people up to ideas will help calm the fighting in Iraq.
In Iraq, Syria and other big countries where people speak Arabic – a language spoken by 5% of the world’s population – very few people can read the amazing knowledge contained on the Internet because hardly any of it is translated for them. “Many of these young people … really want to know about the world but really there is nothing for them to read,” says Faisal. “Demand is super high.”
Faisal wants to remind Arabs who live now in hard times of their ancient history of science and learning. He calls his project The House of Wisdom 2.0. That was the name of a huge library in Iraq 1,000 years ago that was perhaps the biggest in the world at the time.
It is not just his readers who benefit. Faisal says of his young translators: “These are people who have every reason to feel hopeless – all they have known is war and destruction – yet they wake up every morning and translate stories about culture and diversity because they want to be part of a solution that makes their country a better place.”
We don’t have to be as brave as Omar, Shahd or Faisal to tell the truth or to help other people learn about the world so that they can make their own minds up. But their hard work reminds us that we should treasure the truth and our freedom to learn about it.