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At a glance: Switzerland

Iraqi children tell their stories through music at UNICEF-sponsored event in Geneva

UNICEF Image: Iraq, Switzerland, Geneva, music
© UNICEF Geneva/2008/Serri
Zuhal, a 16-year-old musician from Baghdad, plays the piano before an international audience at the UNICEF-sponsored 'Voices of Iraq’s Children' event in Geneva, Switzerland.

By Claire Hajaj

GENEVA, Switzerland, 1 July 2008 – The opening notes of a piano concerto recently brought a touch of sunshine to Geneva’s unseasonably grey summer skies. Passers-by near the city’s famous Palais des Nations turned their heads to get a glimpse of the musician.

It may not be unusual to hear talented playing in one of the world’s great cultural centres. But this performer was unique even for Geneva: She is an Iraqi teenager who travelled all the way from her home in Baghdad to make herself heard in the world’s greatest humanitarian centre.

Zuhal, 16, an Iraqi student and concert pianist, was participating in a UNICEF-sponsored event called 'Voices of Iraq’s Children'. The event brought Iraqi youths together to tell the international community their own concerns, in their own words.

A world away

Geneva is a world away from Baghdad. Electricity works. Water comes regularly from the tap and is safe to drink. Children go to school every day, without a second thought. And more than anything else, the streets are safe.

“No one knows what its like just to be able to walk without fear,” said Zuhal. “Here I don’t have worry that people will find out I’m a musician. In Baghdad, musicians are targeted.”

Zuhal has paid a high price for Iraq’s conflict. She lost her father to violence in 2004. Her mother died soon after, due to illness.

The school she attends – the Baghdad School of Music and Ballet – was looted and burned. Most of the teachers have fled. Deprived of her parent’s love and care, Zuhal held on to her music. With no piano teachers to help her in Baghdad, she began taking lessons via webcam twice a month.

UNICEF Image: Iraq, Switzerland, Geneva, music, Sigrid, Kaag
© UNICEF Geneva/2008/Serri
UNICEF Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa Sigrid Kaag calls for more support for children in Iraq.

Preserving dreams

Zuhal came to Geneva with another young Iraqi girl, Baraa, to describe the reality of life in Iraq to those with the power to help. Baraa’s story is also one of loss, albeit of a different kind.

Three years ago, her school bus was seized and every girl on it was kidnapped. Baraa was sick at home that day. Every day since, fear has kept her out of school. Now, she wants the chance to learn but has missed too many classes to catch up.

“It is my dream to go back to school,” said Baraa. “I know this is the only way to make a better future for myself. I preserve this dream despite everything, because I believe it can be fulfilled some day.”

Expanded emergency operation

UNICEF works with children like Baraa and Zuhal inside Iraq to try to undo some of the damage violence has done to their lives.

An expanded emergency operation, ‘IMPACT: Iraq’, is rolling out across the country this month to reach children currently hidden from view. UNICEF is partnering with non-governmental organizations to deliver the most comprehensive support package of health, nutrition, water and sanitation, education and protection in Iraq today.

The operation could reach up to 720,000 of the most vulnerable young Iraqis over the year ahead.

Call for Iraq’s young generation

At the event in Geneva, UNICEF Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa, Sigrid Kaag, called on international partners in the audience to make Iraq’s current young generation a priority for support.

“Young people in Iraq have paid a disproportionate price for conflict,” she said. “They need and deserve our assistance alongside their peers in neighbouring countries.”

Zuhal was the last speaker to step up at the event, speaking on behalf of the many other children in Iraq who could not be here.

“I love my country,” she said. “Many young people like me are determined to stay to try to make things better. But we need education, basic essentials and safety in order to fulfil our potential. To achieve this takes individual commitment and also global support.”

With that, she stepped to the piano to play, forgetting, for a moment, all her troubles in the flow of the music.




14 June 2008:
Washaq Amer Tawfiq, a young musician who was not able to leave Bagdad to perform in Geneva, sent this recorded message to the 'Voices of Iraq’s Children' event.
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