Violent Decade Shatters Dreams of Iraqi Youth
Yasmine wants a future free of violence and fear, but like many young Iraqis, 10 years of bloodshed have made her doubt she can find such a future in her home country and she now wants to leave.
The 25-year-old is one of a generation of Iraqis who grew up during the battles and brutal sectarian killings that followed the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
In her central Baghdad home, Yasmine recounts the "fear and terror" she lived through when the capital was bombed in the invasion that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein.
"I was with my father, mother and sisters. We sat in one room, praying and reading the Koran. We felt very afraid -- those were hard days, with non-stop bombing, and a day felt like a year," Yasmine says.
"I felt like my life could end at any moment. I still remember the sound of the bombs, those terrifying sounds."
Yasmine, a civil servant with the youth and sports ministry, says the hardest time for the young was just after Saddam's fall, when "there was no law, no nothing, just occupation. Safety disappeared, and life was almost nonexistent."
"Before the invasion, my ambition was to stay in my country and build something good for my future, and at the same time to take part in developing Iraq," Yasmine says.
"But right now, my ambition is to leave, so I can feel safety and stability, and build a good future for myself away from this miserable situation."
After the invasion, American and coalition forces battled insurgents who carried out increasingly frequent attacks. Then in 2006, Sunni militants bombed a Shiite shrine in Samarra, setting off a wave of sectarian bloodshed.
The violence has decreased significantly, but attacks still remain common. And there are other problems for young Iraqis to deal with.
Despite Iraq's vast oil wealth, unemployment is officially listed at 10 percent, though other estimates put the number as high as 35 percent -- pushing many young people to seek work abroad.
The Babil Centre for Human Rights and Civil Development in 2011 published a study of Iraqi men under 30 that indicated 89 percent of respondents preferred to leave the country.
And although 10 years have passed since the invasion, basic services such as water and electricity are still lacking for many Iraqis, and corruption in the country is high.
-- 'Here I am today' --
Wissam Jamal Jabbar, 23, spends his days managing his small cafe in central Baghdad, leaving behind dreams of being a doctor or engineer that were wrecked by the years of violence after the invasion.
"I was a good student, but after the occupation, I felt that something was broken inside of me," he says as customers chain-smoke nearby and balls clack on his shop's billiards tables.
"I used to always dream of becoming a doctor or an architect, but conditions prevented me from continuing (studies), and here I am today... supporting my family and my parents," says Jabbar, now married with a young child.
At a youth club on Palestine Street in east Baghdad, 29-year-old Adel practices dance moves with five other members of his band, to go along with the rap songs he writes.
The six men, aged between 19 and 32, warm up by running in a circle in the room, then jumping in the air or doing brief one-handed handstands.
"We lost friends, we lost our school, so we headed toward sports, and little by little, we gathered ourselves up again. Life must continue," Adel says, smiling.
"I dream of going on stage and presenting my art, but society's views do not help and no one is supporting us," he says, as the stereo plays a song called "Bagpipes from Baghdad" by Eminem, Adel's favorite rapper.
Adel says he wants to leave Iraq but would like to eventually return.
"My ambition is to practice abroad, and then come back to benefit my country -- I want to leave Iraq, but not for good," he says.