It is an unusually hot day in February in Baghdad, even for a city where February is usually hot. But everything else is business as usual. Traffic jams. Car horns. Street vendors. Security situation. Chaos. Except for maybe one thing. In downtown Baghdad, Ahmed Ramz, a twenty-two-year-old electronics engineering graduate, is holding an event on microcontrollers.
“Microcontrollers are very simple yet very powerful instruments” Ramz starts the event. “They can be built to control any electronic system. They are the future of DIY. And DIY is the future”.
Ramz is part of a makerspace called Fikra Space. “Fikra” is the Arabic word for idea, and Fikra Space gathers young technology enthusiasts and aspiring entrepreneurs to exchange ideas and to work together to make them happen. Some study computer science, some study engineering, and some study finance. Some are students, some are graduates, and some are public sector employees. Some are Sunni, some are Shia, and some are Christian. They are all different. But they share two common traits, the willingness to improve and the readiness to embrace change.
“Fikra Space is a place for everyone who has an interest in technology” Aws Yaseen says. “There is no place like Fikra Space, it is the only place where I can work on what I want.”
There is a stark contrast between what is happening outside this room and inside it. But stark contrasts are no strange things in Iraq. It is a country with significant wealth, but a fifth of its people live on less than two US dollars per day. It was once the cradle of civilization and the birthplace of the first alphabet, but illiteracy has risen to twenty percent. It has one of the most youthful populations in the world, but struggles to engage them as youth unemployment surpasses thrity-four percent.
Since 2012, Fikra Space has organised more than two hundred events. Sometimes once, sometimes twice a week. Other times, months could pass before they organise an event. Many times due to the security situation in Baghdad. They have no place of their own, so they gather at a thirty-seat conference room of the IWPR, an NGO in downtown Baghdad. Their events have become so popular that attendance must be booked days in advance due to the limited number of seats. They have no equipment of their own, so they rely on members to bring their own equipment to the events. They gather to try disruptive products like microcontrollers, rasperry pi and 3D printers.
“But we are not only about technology” says Nael. “We’ve held many different events. We’ve even had music nights and book nights”.
So who funds an initiative like Fikra Space? Fikra Space has been operating with no funding since it was founded. But while its members have no monetary support to do what they love, they have an abundance of passion to keep them going. Ahmed, Aws and Nael all volunteer at Fikra Space post full-time jobs and studies. In a country with an abundance of problems, they have also learned how to become problem solvers. One of the biggest issues Iraqis deal with on a daily basis is the government’s bureaucratic procedures. The public system is an out-dated spider web that is impossible to navigate. It is prone to corruption and inefficiency. To help people overcome, Ahmed Ramz created Mu3amala, a crowdsourcing platform that provides step-by-step guidelines on government procedures. In just a few months, Mu3amala has been downloaded by more than ten thousand people.
The media, both foreign and domestic, paint a gloomy picture of Iraq, one that is almost exclusively focused on the battlefield. No coverage is given to the likes of the rising youth of Fikra Space. Similarly, the government’s efforts are focused almost exclusively on the battlefield. No funding is given to the likes of the rising youth of Fikra Space. Perhaps it is yet another contrast to add to the country’s many contrasts. Where funding these initiatives should be a priority to create opportunities for youth in a country where the youth has little opportunities. Where youth with no opportunities may feel disenfranchised and may consequently be wooed by people with extremist agendas.
“We want to expand our makerspace” Ali Ismail says. “We want to offer entrepreneurs access to a permanent co-working space, formal mentorship and training. We want to create the leaders of tomorrow’s Iraq. But we need funding. So we have started a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo called help Iraq’s geeks save their country and we hope that the campaign will help us expand”.
Outside Ramz’s DIY talk is a world with an uncertain future for Iraq and its youth. Terrorism and violence plague the country’s western and northern territories. Sporadic car bombs plague its heart, Baghdad. But inside this room, Ahmed Ramz could not be more certain about the future. “The future is DIY” he says.
This group of young Iraqis have even taken the DIY culture a step further. Since there are no opportunities for them in society, they have taken to create their own. Can Iraq’s geeks save their country and become role models for its people?
Support Fikra Space
Today we have 19,000+ members on our Facebook community page. We have organised more than 200 events that have been attended by many enthusiasts. We have also helped young Iraqi entrepreneurs to develop successful start-ups such as S Convert, Mu3amala and d3. The Iraqi government has recognised our impact and asked us to help draft a regulatory framework for technology accelerators, giving us a unique opportunity to shape the industry we will be part of.
We want to grow even more and start offering young entrepreneurs access to a co-working space, formal mentorship and a training program. We want to empower youth to create their own opportunities in a country that has many youth but little opportunities for them. We believe that empowering youth is the way forward for a more peaceful and prosperous Iraq. We want to create success stories that inspire youth. We want to make them hope again.
We are writing to you because we are upset. We are upset that every news article in the media about Iraq is a negative one. We know that our beloved country is going through its most challenging times, but good things are
still happening here. Good things like Fikra Space. We want to highlight that. And we want the world to recognise that. That Iraqi people are young, smart, fun, excited and they love life. They have big ambitions and they
have big dreams.
We are running a crowdfunding campaign called "Help Iraq`s Geeks Save Their Country" on Indiegogo to raise funds and expand. The campaign can be found here: http://indiegogo.com/projects/help-iraq-s-geeks-save-their-country