From life under conflict in Iraq, to new tech skills and connecting to the future of work

In the first in a series of stories from graduates of EMPACT — the World Food Programme innovation project connecting students at risk of hunger to the global digital economy — Layth, 21, talks of his dreams of being an actor and taking centre stage.

By Gulia Rakhimova

Layth’s education was disrupted as militants took over Mosul and schools were destroyed. Photo: WFP/WVI/Mustafa Ali.

More than half the world’s 690 million people facing acute hunger live in countries affected by conflict. By the young age of 21, Layth had experienced love and loss, and life under the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Now he’s building new tech skills and looking to the future of work.

Layth grew up with his four sisters and three brothers in Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, 400 km northwest of Baghdad. As a child, he loved watching movies and dreamt of becoming an actor and screenplay writer. “I lost my mum many years ago,” he says. “Before she died, I promised her I would follow my dreams and become a famous actor like [Robert] De Niro or Al Pacino.”

However, Layth’s life, and that of thousands of others, was turned upside down when ISIS fighters took over Mosul in 2014. “Living in an ISIS-controlled area was terrible,” says Layth, who was only 14 when his hometown became a conflict zone.

Watch Layth’s story narrated by himself and filmed by his friend Mustafa who shares Layth’s passion for visual production. Both Layth and Mustafa attended WFP’s EMPACT classes in Mosul, Iraq.

Layth and many other children couldn’t continue attending school during this time; in fact, many schools were destroyed in attacks. “I lost three long years of studies,” he says, “I would have been at university by now.”

Instead, Layth was forced into casual work to make ends meet. He got a job as a dishwasher in a falafel restaurant. “I worked from early morning at 6:30 am until 7:30 pm,” he says.

After his shifts, Layth would burn movies and TV shows onto CDs to then sell on. “I did it in secret,” he says — the distribution of music and films was forbidden under ISIS. He adds that he once “was almost captured by militants” and feared for his life.

“I lost three long years of studies; I would have been at university by now.”

By the time the Iraqi forces retook Mosul in 2017, Layth’s family home in the western part of the city had been reduced to ruins. While the city is being rebuilt, some damage can never be undone, however. The memories of violence, hunger, and loss are still painful to Layth years later. “I lost many friends, including the love of my life,” he says. “We knew each other from school since I was eight.”

The EMPACT project of the World Food Programme (WFP), in partnership with World Vision and the University of Mosul, gave Layth hope for a new future. “It is a tremendous project. I learned so many things,” says Layth. EMPACT is a WFP innovation project that connects young people at risk of hunger to the global digital economy, enabling them to move towards a future powered by their own skills and talents. In Iraq, EMPACT supports young refugees, displaced youth, and disadvantaged young people from host communities.

Layth and his friend Mustafa are graduates of EMPACT in Iraq. Their newfound skills will inspire young people to keep following their dreams and gain employment, while Mosul is being rebuilt. Photo: WFP/WVI/Mustafa Ali.

Along with other EMPACT students in Mosul, Layth took classes in web development such as Javascript, CSS and HTML, English-language training, and workshops in soft skills such as business communication and resume writing. “Not only did I learn to code, but I now know how to manage my professional career and business,” he says.

After graduating from EMPACT in 2020, Layth is now working as a mobile software developer. In his free time, he creates short films and hopes that his new skills will lead him towards his dream of working in film production one day.

“Not only did I learn to code, but I now know how to manage my professional career and business.”

Through EMPACT, Layth met like-minded people and made long-lasting friendships. He believes that for every story of struggle and sorrow, there is also one of healing and joy.

“I met beautiful people and found new friends with whom I cried and laughed, thinking about the challenging days behind us and the brighter ones that will come,” he says.

About EMPACT

Operational in Iraq, Lebanon, Kenya and Turkey, EMPACT supports displaced and food-insecure youths to unlock their true potential and kickstart careers in the technology sector. Through partnerships with the private sector, EMPACT provides short, focused practical training in digital, soft and language skills and connects the students with online, remote and local IT jobs. Globally, around 10,000 refugees and food-insecure youth gained access to online work opportunities and built viable livelihoods through EMPACT.

Read more about WFP’s EMPACT innovation project.

The WFP Innovation Accelerator sources, supports and scales high-potential solutions to end hunger worldwide. We provide WFP staff, entrepreneurs, start-ups, companies and non-governmental organizations with access to funding, mentorship, hands-on support and WFP operations.

Find out more about us: http://innovation.wfp.org. Subscribe to our e-newsletter. Follow us on Twitter and LinkedIn and watch our videos on YouTube.

Sourcing, supporting and scaling high-impact innovations to disrupt hunger.