"I became a peacebuilder because I had an urgent need for peace"

“I had to go through many different levels of personal peacebuilding to get to where I am today,” says Noor Ghazi, “Coming from a background full of uncertainty and conflict, I have always looked for peace in my life.”

Noor is an international peace activist. Born in Baghdad months before the Gulf War, she lived through sanctions and poverty in her home country. As a teen, Noor survived the US-led invasion of Iraq. As mass murder and sectarian violence engulfed her home, she was forced to flee her country.

Yet, Noor never gave up on the idea of going home. After more than a decade away, she returned to Iraq as a peacebuilder. Despite many challenges, Noor was able to reconcile her own past with her desire to contribute to a more peaceful and just society – and bring these ideas to Iraq.

“I had to learn how to de-escalate and process my own conflict and emotions,” Noor reflects, “So I became a peacebuilder because I had an urgent need for peace.”

Now, the practitioner is working on building bridges between the US and Iraqi students and peace activists; and she is helping youth in her home country recover from war trauma.

Growing up as war rages on

Noor’s childhood in Baghdad was marked by scarcity. Iraq was hit with some of the toughest sanctions in the world due to its unprovoked invasion of Kuwait. While perpetrators remained in power, the civilian population struggled to make ends meet.

“Back in my childhood, we didn’t have any pencils to do our homework,” Noor remembers, “My siblings and I shared a little pencil to do our school exercises, and we’d fight over it.”

“So, to this day, I have an obsession with pencils and pens,” she adds, “I can’t leave the house without a couple of pencils or pens in my purse. I guess it is my peaceful weapon!”

The poverty she experienced in the nineties was soon overtaken by another disaster. In 2003, Iraq was invaded by foreign forces led by the US. In less than two months, Noor’s home city of Baghdad fell.

“On 1 May 2003, George W. Bush announced the end of major combat operations,” the activist recalls, “I remember some people celebrating the end of the dictatorship of Saddam [Hussein] while others showed no emotions. I was wondering about my friends and if they all managed to survive this war.”

The announcement, however, did not stop the hostilities. Iraq descended into a terrible bloodbath, as militias from Sunni and Shia Muslim factions fought each other. Sectarian violence, culminating into the Iraqi Civil War, reached its peak in 2006; at that time, religious extremists were targeting civilians simply because of their faith.

Noor’s family was mixed, which made them more vulnerable; Noor’s mother was Shia, and her father was Sunni. The family stayed in Baghdad until 2006, when a relative was kidnapped and killed, and they decided to flee.

Leaving war-torn Iraq was not easy for them. They were stopped at various checkpoints where gunned militias were checking IDs. At one checkpoint, Noor’s father showed his ID while Noor’s mother hid hers – she was Shia, and the militias were Sunnis.

“The armed men allowed us to pass but we were stuck in traffic,” Noor says, “They motioned the car behind us to approach the checkpoint and asked the same questions. When they heard that the names were Shia, they murdered the entire family, including the little child, in the car.”

Rising from the trauma

Noor spent two years in Syria as a refugee; and then, at 18, she arrived to the United States. Starting a new life in the US was tough; she felt anger toward her new home, and she missed Iraq dearly.

But she was able to reconcile her Iraqi and American identities by working to bring peace and understanding between the two cultures. Noor embarked on a journey to study peace, and she surrounded herself with people who shared her vision and hopes. After getting a Master’s degree in Peace and Conflict Studies, Noor became a Professor of Practice at the Department of Peace, War and Defense at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“I also serve as a visiting lecturer at Mosul University, where I carry out peacebuilding projects,” Noor adds, “Together with my university in the US, we’re organising virtual exchanges between students in America and Iraq to build bridges and to help them share and learn together. We’re discussing important topics related to peacebuilding, war, and trauma. I believe that through, and with, education we can make the world a better place.”

A poster inciting students to write letters for peace to Mosul university students.

"I believe that through, and with, education we can make the world a better place."

In Iraq, Noor is supporting local solutions for a war-affected society. Back in 2018, soon after Mosul was liberated from ISIS, she travelled to the city for the first time since her escape. In Mosul, Noor met with the local community to talk about their experiences of living under ISIS occupation. The peacebuilder produced a documentary that shed light on life during that dark period and helped preserve the collective memory.

“I am involved in many projects in Iraq and in the US,” the activist explains, “I connect the two worlds to change perspectives and take action. Together with Al Amala Association in Baghdad, I translated ‘Preparing for Peace’ by John Paul Lederach into Arabic. This is a part of larger efforts to implement peace studies in Iraq.”

An important part of Noor’s work is leading Archive Iraq, an international network of scholars that maintains a free digital collection of data about Iraq’s history. Through this project, Noor and her team aim to preserve collective memory and help others learn and contribute to an understanding of Iraq. They organise lectures and conferences on Iraq and its recent past.

“I believe that I am living my dream every day by making a difference in people’s lives,” the activist concludes, “I can’t change the world in one day, but I believe I can change the world by taking small steps daily.”