By Jackie Ogburn
“I was born into conflict,” said Sarhang Hamasaeed MIDP’07.
His parents met when they had become neighbors after their home villages were destroyed. He was four years old when the Iran-Iraq war broke out and he remembers Iranian jets bombing his city. When he was 12, Saddam Hussein was carrying out genocidal attacks against civilians across Iraq. “The world around me felt like it was burning,” he said.
By the time he turned 30, Iraq had been in three wars and he had been displaced twice. Hamasaeed promised himself he would become a professional who worked to create peace.
Hamasaeed came to the Sanford School of Public Policy as a Fulbright Scholar to earn a master’s degree in international development policy. Through case studies and learning about the experiences of other countries, Hamasaeed came to see that Iraq’s experiences with conflict were not unique.
“It gave me the sense that we were not alone in this,” he said.
Becoming a Peace Builder
He also gained the training and the tools to be the professional he vowed to become. Today, Hamasaeed is the director of Middle East programs at the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP). USIP is a nonpartisan national institute created by Congress to support peace, conflict resolution and conflict prevention throughout the world. He is the 2019 Distinguished Alumni Speaker for Sanford’s graduation ceremony for those receiving advanced degrees.
But Hamasaeed says his childhood promise is only partially fulfilled, because “violent conflict continues.”
At USIP, Hamasaeed works on some of the most intractable and complex conflicts in the world. “My journey started in Iraq and I thought that was difficult until I began working on Syria. Then I thought Syria was difficult until I began working on Yemen,” he said.
As program director, Hamasaeed focuses on political and policy analysis, capacity-building, reconciliations and working with both high-level officials and local ethnic and religious minorities in the region.
He regularly writes and speaks to the media, providing analysis and commentary to both U.S. and international outlets such as NPR, Sirius XM, USA Today, The Washington Times, Voice of America, Kurdistan TV, Al-Hurra TV, Al-Arabiya and more. In 2017, he spoke about peace-building at the Passing the Baton conference, a review for incoming Cabinet-level and senior foreign-service officials on the global challenges facing America.
Institutional development is a key element of his work, he said, but “the bottom up approach is very important.” In the Middle East, battles are fought in communities, streets and homes. When people are displaced, vulnerable to crime, and unable to provide for their families, they are more likely to turn to extremist groups, which seem to offer structure and belonging.
“Peace-building is the business of building hope,” Hamasaeed said.
He points to what happened after the Camp Speicher massacre in 2014, when ISIS killed 1,700 air force cadets near Tikrit, Iraq, as a successful conflict prevention. The cadets were from 20 Shia tribes from southern Iraq.
ISIS, or Daesh, tried to implicate local tribes in the massacre, hoping to reignite a revenge cycle of sectarian violence and use the massacre as a recruiting tool. USIP had a team monitoring the situation, which had the potential to spiral out of control. Because USIP had established dialog between Sunni and Shia leaders, the team was able to work out an agreement between them to not seek revenge.
Government forces recaptured Tikrit from ISIS in 2015. The agreement between the leaders then also allowed many displaced people to return to Tikrit.
“Recapturing land is progress, but it is not the end, ending Daesh is not the end,” said Hamasaeed. “More than 1.7 million Iraqis still need to go home.”
Despite the difficulty of peace-building, Hamasaeed remains optimistic.
“When you look at the complexity and volume of conflicts, it paints a bleak picture, but then I contrast that with the people who have chosen to turn from violence. Those people inspire me,” he said.