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Raised By War

Raised by war: This is what it’s like to come of age in Iraq

BAGHDAD, Iraq — In 2003, the most powerful army in the world invaded Iraq. Ali al-Makhzomy was 16 at the time. He remembers the grating sound of American tanks as they rolled into Baghdad. The invasion was just the beginning. It was a warning shot for the unimaginable forces that would define life for an entire generation of young Iraqis.
“There is so much research now on how [conflict] changes the brain. I think the main part is an inability to feel safe, both in an external world and in an internal world.”JOHANNA VAN GRINSVEN, A PSYCHOLOGIST FOR DOCTORS WITHOUT BORDERS
At the time, its architects expected the war to be short. Removing Saddam Hussein — whom the US falsely accused of harboring weapons of mass destruction and supporting al-Qaeda — was the stated goal. Few considered the possibility that, in one form or another, the conflict could drag on for well over a decade. And certainly none of them considered the impact that 13 years of war could have on Iraqi youth.
The lives of Iraqis now in their late teens and twenties have been shaped by years of Western economic sanctions, the US invasion, and the conflicts that were at least partly born from it: multiple insurgencies, civil war, and the rise of ISIS. The paths of young people have been altered in life-changing ways. And as Iraq’s 20 million children grow to be adults, their experiences will shape the country — for better or for worse — for many years still to come.
“There is so much research now on how it changes the brain,” says Johanna Van Grinsven, a psychologist with Doctors Without Borders based in neighboring Jordan. Studies show how exposure to trauma can rewire the brain of a child, often halting social or emotional development and the ability to learn. “I think the main part is an inability to feel safe, both in an external world and in an internal world.”
While the United States promised freedom, security and prosperity, young Iraqis have known very little of any of those things. The figures are staggering. Analysts believe more than 800,000 Iraqi children have been orphaned by conflict since 2003. Two million children are out of school and more than a million more are at risk of dropping out, according to UNICEF. Three million of Iraq’s 35 million people are now displaced inside the country — more than half of them children. The Association of Iraqi Psychologists says anxiety over violence has affected millions of Iraqi children, raising concerns about how they will function as adults.
But in some cases, particularly in young adults, trauma can also lead to resilience. Iraq is a nation of survivors.
“It’s called post-traumatic growth,” Van Grinsven says. “Every trauma we experience we learn something from it and we grow something from it. A part of you becomes more resilient.”

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