On a recent weekday in July, nearly 30 young Iraqi college students sat quietly in the City Council chambers at Fayetteville City Hall, listening carefully as Mayor Lioneld Jordan talked about the challenges and triumphs of running a mid-size, southern city in the United States.
Jordan passionately summed up his goals: He wants to improve the quality of life for all of his constituents, especially those who are most vulnerable. He believes in "open door government." He is a "huge proponent of social justice."
"I've spent my life fighting for the rights of everybody else," he said at one point, to widespread applause in the chamber.
The visitors listened raptly. When Jordan opened up the floor for questions, hands flew up in the air. The questions were thoughtful and varied: How does the federal government interact with city government? What's the most challenging part of your job? What are the things you want to change but have no power over? If the applause that greeted most of his answers wasn't clue enough the students were impressed with Jordan, the last question certainly was: Will you run for president?
The students were in the United States as part of the Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program, a five-week program for Iraqi high school and undergraduate students funded and sponsored by the United States embassy in Baghdad and the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, and administered by World Learning. The 11-year-old program has given about 2,300 Iraqi students the opportunity to visit and learn in the United States.
"These programs work to support the goals of the U.S.--Iraq Strategic Framework Agreement to enhance mutual understanding and strengthen the connections between the people of the United States and Iraq and have created a cadre of young Iraqi leaders who are inspiring and impacting their communities," reads the U.S. Embassy and Consulates in Iraq website. The visiting students are sent to varying locations across the country; the students who visited the University of Arkansas stopped in Detroit before Northwest Arkansas and traveled to Washington, D.C., after they left.
This is the third year the University of Arkansas hosted Iraqi students in the program.
"The agencies and the State Department have refined it over the years, and I think what they request or require from the program has gotten easier for the host university to fulfill," said Alannah Massey, the UA coordinator for the program. It's her job to make sure that the visiting students are exposed to professors and students in their particular fields of study. One of the more challenging aspects of her job occurs when not all students are studying the same subject area.
"The goal is to mix up the regions of Iraq and their backgrounds. When you're running a program based on that kind of diversity, and then you add in this other filtering agent of their majors, it's difficult to get perfect placement each time," Massey said. "This year, all of the engineering majors took tours of the labs and classrooms, saw the biomedical robots and met with professors. The medical students met with Dr. Deborah Deere and other doctors at the Pat Walker Health Center. Other students got to meet with professors in their particular departments."
But it's not all work: Massey took the students on a camping and floating trip on the Buffalo River.
"It was so awesome," she said. "It puts all of these leadership skills we've been talking about into practice."
Although the program has a goal similar to a traditional exchange program -- to expose the visiting students to the culture and people of the host country -- it also aims to encourage communication between different groups within their own country.
"One of our themes was getting them to work together and think of themselves all as Iraqis," Massey noted. "They're so quick to segment themselves -- you're either Kurdish, Arab, Sunni, Shia, Yazidi, Christian, Muslim ... from the north or from the south. It was important to me that they see themselves as a single cohort and family and see themselves as Iraqis. I start with a workshop that's a personality inventory, a modified Meyers Briggs [Personality Type Indicator] -- it divides them into one of four colors. From the get go, I want them to start thinking of themselves as 'I am a blue, and it means I'm a very caring relationship person,' or 'I'm an orange. I'm a risk taker.' It's a new way to identify themselves and get them to see what [they have] in common."
Fati Al-Rashidani, a student from the Duhok province of Iraq, said learning more about her fellow country members was a prime motivator for her participation in the program.
"I came here to develop myself, for sure," she said. "But, after that, to learn more about the other minorities and ethnic groups of Iraq. I think that will make me more compassionate and develop my leadership skills, help me develop my goals. I have an idea for a goal in my country. If I can learn more about the other religions and other ethnic groups in Iraq, I will have a wider look about the Iraqi people that will help me be a more effective person in my society."
Al-Rashidani said her ultimate goal is to start an organization that will help support young Yazidi women who survived being kidnapped by ISIS. "These girls came back from ISIS as survivors," she said. "I want to help them. If I start that here, I will continue it in my country."
Many of the students cited increasing their leadership skills, with their eyes toward making positive change in their home country, as the main reason they joined the program.
"This program can help us develop ourselves to build up our community," said Dhurgham AlShayea, who works as a translator back home in Basrah. "Our community is facing a lot of problems and a lot of issues, so we're here to develop ourselves and try to get back there and convey all of this experience to our peers and our classmates."
"The goal of this program is to create leaders or build leaders," agreed Alaa Al-Asadi, who is from Baghdad. "Then these leaders can go back home and start a community that can improve a situation there. For me, I've already started working on creating communication. I'm interested in the tech field, and, with my network, we've already started some things.
"Our generation is different from the previous generation -- the previous generation suffered from conflict, but we are the youth and young people. We love life. We want the quality of life to improve in our country, so this is what we are hoping to learn from this experience."
It's not all about the Iraqis learning from the Americans, however -- the visiting students noted they were happy to educate the people they're meeting about their home country. Tara Shwani is from Sulaimani, and she said she's noticed some common misconceptions Americans have about Iraq.
"From the daily interactions we've had with Americans, not a lot of Americans know a lot about Iraq," she said. "And if they do, all they know about is the war and the bad side of us. It's not like that. I believe what the world should know about Iraqis is the difference and diversity in our culture is what makes us beautiful and what makes us strong. It's not the same as the media and social media portray us."
Dhurgham said Americans were often shocked by the similarities in the two cultures.
"We have malls," he said. "We go and hang out. We play football, soccer. We have video games. We do a lot of activities, just like the activities here. Last year, I participated in a Shakespeare festival that happened in Basra. The students here were shocked -- 'Do you have colleges? Do you have universities?' They were shocked! They were imagining Basra City or Iraq as a desert, with small houses, and all of us riding horses."
"Someone asked, 'Are there nachos in Iraq?'" Shwani said with exasperation. "I think people think we're really backward and don't have much development in our country, but it's not like that. We have a lot of talented people, a lot of creative people, that the world doesn't know about yet.
"And, we do have nachos," she added.
"One of my host families asked me if we have cake in Iraq," said Ahmed Al-Baghdadi, from Baghdad. "I was like, 'Yeah, of course!' They said, 'What does it look like?'" He paused for effect. "'Like cake,' I said. 'It looks like cake.'"
Several of the students suggested one reason for the lack of understanding was the incomplete -- or in some cases, nonexistent -- reporting that comes out of their country. Yusur Shareef is from Baghdad, and he said he had been getting reports from friends and family back in Iraq about a protest against government corruption that erupted July 8 in Basra. Security forces were using water cannons and tear gas to try and control the crowds, and Al Jazeera reported that at least 14 people died in the protests. Shareef was frustrated to see the event wasn't receiving wide coverage in the United States.
"The government cut off the Internet," said Shareef, who added that it was rumored the government was directly responsible for the deaths. "Outside of Iraq, no one knows everything there is to know about this protest. Since we're here, it's our duty to talk about this and make sure the world knows about it."
It remains to be seen how the seeds planted in July will bloom when these students are back in their home country, but the eloquence, enthusiasm and creativity with which they talk of their future plans is certainly promising. And it seems clear that, before they even leave the United States, they have already reaped many benefits of IYLEP.
"We all have different backgrounds and different cultures, and we had our disagreements and agreements, but in the end, we all agreed that we're all from one country, and the differences are what make us beautiful," Shwani said.
NAN Our Town on 09/13/2018
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