Growing up through three wars in Iraq, Sarhang Hamasaeed gained an early appreciation for the importance of conflict resolution. He vividly remembers an Iranian fighter jet bombarding his hometown at the outset of the Iran-Iraq war, when he was only 5 years old.
“I said that, one day, once I became a professional and had the capability, I would be part of whatever organization would foster a culture of peacebuilding,” he said.
Today Hamasaeed, a Fulbright scholar and 2007 Master of International Development Policy graduate, is fulfilling this goal by serving as a Program Officer for Iraq and North Africa at the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP). USIP was created by the U.S. Congress in 1984 to promote the resolution of conflicts among the nations and peoples of the world through nonviolent means.
Since joining USIP in February 2011, Hamasaeed has worked to defuse violent conflict in Iraq through programs that train networks of mediators and empower minority communities.
One such program, the Network of Iraqi Facilitators, is a group of 40 individuals throughout Iraq who are trained by USIP to find peaceful solutions to disputes. Their efforts have led to reduction in violence in even the most heated areas of Iraq such as Baghdad and Anbar.
In addition, USIP and the Institute for International Law and Human Rights partnered in 2010 to convene the Alliance of Iraqi Minorities, a group of 65 individuals and civil society organizations that promote minority rights and build links among minority communities and the larger Iraqi population. The Institute for International Law and Human Rights helps states in transition to democracy develop the capacity to promote human rights and the rule of law.
“The alliance worked with the minority caucus in Parliament in 2012 to introduce a clause that allows for a fair distribution of the Iraqi budget,” Hamasaeed said. “This has meant that more money came to these areas for projects like the construction of schools, health clinics, water projects and roads that will positively affect the well-being and lives of Iraqi minorities.”
The alliance also worked with the Ministry of Education to include the names of Iraqi religious minorities in the elementary and intermediate school curriculum for the first time in history. Further changes are expected to follow that will provide children with information about the intellectuals and literary works of these communities so they are better known and appreciated by the Iraqi population as a whole.
“In recent years, the minorities have been severely attacked by terrorists and other violent groups because of misperceptions,” Hamasaeed said. “Hopefully these efforts will bridge the relationship.”
USIP also invests in the future of its peacebuilding efforts by actively engaging Iraqi youth. In 2011, USIP introduced the reality TV show Salam Shabab, which brought together youth from six different Iraqi provinces to participate in a variety of challenges in which they worked together as a team.
“Youth are critical to the future of peacebuilding,” Hamasaeed said. “Through Salam Shabab, they get to recognize the diversity of Iraqi society and hopefully go back and become ambassadors for peace.”
Hamasaeed brought more than 10 years of strategy, management, and monitoring and evaluation experience to his role at USIP. While serving as Deputy Director General at the Council of Ministers of the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq after his graduation from Duke University, he led efforts to modernize information technology to improve governance and service delivery.
For example, he worked to develop and issue biometric ID cards to the region’s civil servants to create a standard and secure identification system for employees and provide a basis for the future use of e-government systems. He also assisted in the creation of an Information Technology Academy and helped build an electronic human resources system to collect employee data and help measure the ratio of service providers to the population.
“What I take pride in is trying to introduce changes to the way an organization works by focusing efforts on results,” he said.
Hamasaeed said that the training he received at Duke helped him in his efforts to better evaluate projects and improve outcomes. He called the Master of International Development Policy program a life-changing experience, socially as well as academically.
“The Sanford School places a high value on the personal relationship,” Hamasaeed said. “Arriving on day one, you feel that there is family waiting for you.”
He added that Duke gave him the tools – and the hope – that he needed to effect positive change in Iraq.
“We thought that we were unique,” said Hamasaeed, referring to the challenges that Iraq is facing. “My two years at Duke took me through all kinds of case studies and experiences of other countries that have gone through similar problems over the years. That was very helpful in the sense that you are not alone in this.”