Al-Nasir Bellah Al-Nasiry knows it could have gone either way.
After being shot in the leg at 17 during an attack outside his Baghdad home, Dr. Al-Nasiry is fully aware that the normal response for a youth who was raised in a country mired in violence would be to want to exact revenge.
But by nature, nurture, or just pure chance, it wasn’t for him. Instead, the incident set Al-Nasiry on a mission of ensuring that this generation of Iraqis has systems and role models in place so they are less susceptible to joining the ranks of ISIS and other violent extremist groups.
The 26-year-old doctor, who is from Baghdad and is half Kurdish, half Arab, remembers the immense pressure he felt to retaliate against his attackers. “I still remember people telling me, ‘Do something about it. Take revenge. Kill the other guy,’” he says. Friends would say “Prove your manhood, preserve your dignity.”
But the teenage Al-Nasiry had other ideas about how to react. “I remembered this saying from Martin Luther King [Jr.], ‘Violence begets violence, and hate begets hate,’” he says. “So I thought … if I go out and shoot people because of this, I would probably shoot another innocent bystander. I would fuel this idiotic cycle of violence.”
Today, Al-Nasiry wears many hats and holds an impressive list of titles. He is a resident at the Sulaimaniyah Teaching Hospital, a coordinator at TEDxBaghdad, a member of the Iraqi Youth Parliament, and is on the Global Advisory Council of World Learning, alongside ambassadors, CEOs, and NGO presidents. He frequently gives talks on youth empowerment and is a tireless activist when he is not on the speaker’s podium or within hospital walls.
The grandson of a famous Iraqi poet, and the son of liberal thinkers, Al-Nasiry transcends the worlds of medicine and peacemaking, the divisions between East and West, and the supposed fate of a young Arab male born into a world of conflict.
Beyond the day he was shot, his road to activism was cemented in 2010 with the Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program, which is facilitated by the NGO World Learning and funded by the US Department of State and the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.
The program brings young Iraqis to the United States for a month-long leadership exchange. For most of the students involved, it is their first exposure to the US outside the context of war. “Where I come from, at that time, the United States was conveyed as this big demon,” he recalls.
But during his four weeks in the US, where he was based in Evansville, Ind., Al-Nasiry could feel himself transforming. He encountered a veteran on the street who was once based in Mosul and Fallujah in Iraq – the first non-Arab American he had really ever spoken to. He met “good-hearted people” nearly every step of the way.
“The ideology, or education and teachings that we are used to having – the words we kept hearing at that time – about Americans in general was vanishing second by second,” he says.
In February 2015, Al-Nasiry was invited to attend the Summit on Countering Violent Extremism at the White House. When asked what he would say to President Obama about ways to prevent or mitigate the swarms of youths in Iraq becoming involved in violent groups, Al-Nasiry did not hesitate.
“In my opinion, anyone is susceptible to embracing violence,” he says. “Even me, nine years ago: I was susceptible to taking a gun and firing it. I could’ve been a leader in ISIS right now.”
According to Al-Nasiry, the key to developing a generation of peacemakers is encouraging and promoting role models for Iraqi youths.
“I believe it’s by creating a peaceful, educated environment – creating those strong role models, rather than the person who has an AK-47 on his back, promising to give him money or women in the afterlife,” he says.
Through his work with TEDxBaghdad, Al-Nasiry has provided a platform for young people to deliver their thoughts about peace, innovation, and leadership that do justice to the TED motto, “Ideas worth spreading.”
For Al-Nasiry, these efforts are concrete and sustainable ways to combat the expanding terror group ISIS, and others like it. “In my community in Iraq, internationals represent 40 percent of fighters within ISIS, and Iraqis represent 60 percent. So working in my community is even bigger than working internationally.”
Al-Nasiry knows that creating role models for youths at risk of taking up arms is not an endeavor of instant gratification; it may take years before his efforts yield results that may change the landscape of Iraq.
But he does not believe Iraq is too far gone.
“Even though we are being ruled by a corrupt government, I believe one of us will emerge to control Iraq and stabilize the country and provide a better future for our children. It’s a very long shot, but I’ll try,” he says.
When asked how he plans to change the world, Al-Nasiry replies with a knowing humility that seems to define him: “Baby steps – baby turtle steps. Not even that.
"Change begins one life at a time.”
• Rose Foran is a freelance journalist and researcher based in Washington, DC. She is also currently a consultant for World Learning, a nonprofit organization advancing leadership through education, exchange, and development programs in more than 60 countries.. She has lived in Amman, Jordan; Jerusalem; and Paris and covered issues ranging from the Syrian refugee crisis to French identity politics. She holds degrees from Johns Hopkins University and L'Institut d'études politiques de Paris.