By Marguerite Jill Dye
At a time when we may be on the brink of war with a country with which we’ve never had diplomatic relations since its partitioning between Russia and the U.S. after WWII, I am especially aware of the importance of international programs and exchanges that promote friendship and understanding for world peace.
So you may imagine my delight and surprise when I opened my eyes to find myself at my alma mater, the School for International Training Graduate Institute in Brattleboro, Vt. As we walked around the campus and headquarters of the Experiment in International Living, now part of World Learning, we landed in the International Center, where a lively group of Iraqi students were gathered in the cafeteria for lunch. I asked a solitary young man involved with his cell phone if we could join him at his table. His name was Abbas. He was an Iraqi high school in an exchange program to develop his leadership skills. “Asalaam alaikum! Peace be with you!” I said, retrieving a Arabic expression from my rusty linguistic memory.
As we savored a lunch of curried chicken, saffron rice, cauliflower, and green beans, Abbas checked his phone’s translation app and asked, “Are you a couple?” “Yes,” I replied, showing him my wedding ring of 36 years. Then he queried, “Did you marry for love?” I thought he must be picking up on our lack of interaction while devouring our lunch, but Duane realized Abbas was curious because arranged marriages are common in Iraq. With a group of teenage peers exploring diverse cultures and mores, it must have been a topic for debate.
When Duane said, “You’re the first person I’ve ever met from Iraq,” I thought of why the Experiment in International Living was founded in 1932 by a man with a vision, Dr. Donald Watts. He knew that “to foster peace through understanding, communication, and cooperation,” people needed “to share experiences, languages, and customs with those from different traditions, with the goals of broadening horizons, gaining lifelong friends, and advancing peace.” He realized that we couldn’t rely on world leaders to build world peace, but needed citizens to create an inter-cultural, experiential global initiative.
When Abbas’ counselor, Abdulsamad Humaidan, arrived to call him back to their session, he introduced himself as a program facilitator and told us about IYLEP, the Iraqi Youth Leaders Exchange Program. It was established in 2007, is implemented by World Learning, and is funded by the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. With over 2,000 alumni and 173 high school students aged 15-17 participating this year alone, IYLEP has earned an excellent reputation in Iraq. IYLEP’s goal is to develop leadership skills for community engagement and change. It fosters respect and understanding for diverse cultures, religions, and nationalities and between the Iraqi and American people.
IYLEP Arabic, another related program, reaches the lower socioeconomic, non-English-speaking population and community leaders and is conducted entirely in Arabic. Participants (23 this year) study English and learn about the U.S. during two week homestays with families. Program facilitators gain skills to empower and mentor youth and help IYLEP Arabic participants develop confidence and English language skills. Upon their return to Iraq,they join an existing community project or design and launch their own. Participants were about to leave Vermont for two week homestays and studies in California and Washington, D.C.
When I learned that Abbas is the sixth in a family with eight children, his parents are both teachers, and that he hopes to study at Harvard, I asked if I could interview him. Abdulsamad offered to translate, and I invited him to answer several questions, too:
MJD: How did you learn about the Iraqi Youth Leaders Exchange Program?
Abbas: I knew about IYLEP by accident on Facebook and applied.
Abdulsamad: I learned about IYLEP from my friend, Ammar Aqlan, the program officer. He recommended that I consider the Arabic IYLEP program facilitator position and that I apply for that position.
MJD: What are you studying in America?
Abbas: I learned a lot about the American culture and lifestyle. I make the best of my visit from the knowledge I got from the program staff and the organizations that I visited.
Abdulsamad: I am doing a PhD in language, literacies and culture in the School of Education and Human Services at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale. Since I am Yemeni, I am hoping things will get better in Yemen and I can go back home and teach English at any of the Yemeni universities.
MJD: Abbas, what are your favorite subjects in school, extra-curricular activities, passions?
Abbas: My favorite subjects are chemistry and biology. There are two extra-curricular activities that I am involved in. I am a member of an organization that is working on youth issues and I am also a cleaning team member where we go to clean streets. I hope to help other youth be more aware of the value of life and giving them more opportunities to invest their skills to benefit their community.
MJD: Abbas, what and where would you like to study at university?
Abbas: I would like to study medicine and major in cancer treatment. I hope to study at Harvard University.
MJD: What are your impressions of America and what are the biggest differences you have noticed between the U.S. and Iraq?
Abbas: I have a good impression of America and I love your lifestyle. There are many differences between the two countries, but most importantly that the U.S. is stable and Iraq is not.
Abdulsamad: It is a great country where education plays a crucial role in helping people to live together regardless of their ethnicities, races, backgrounds, and religions and the country of law dominance.
MJD: How do you see IYLEP contributing to Iraq and U.S. relations?
Abbas: I can see the positive impact of the program on building stronger relations between our two countries and making program participants aware of the other countries’ cultures and languages.
Abdulsamad: This program is strengthening the mutual relationship between Iraq and the U.S. and helping to open doors for generations to build understanding and trust.
MJD: If you could make a difference in Iraq what would it be?
Abbas: I hope to see Iraq free of bombs and explosions.
Abdulsamad: It would be promoting education and helping kids to go back to school. Education does not only help people acquire new knowledge, but it helps people to live better and understand things differently.
MJD: What would you like to do as an IYLEP participant?
Abbas: I am planning to work on a project that cares for refugees.
Abdulsamad: As an Arabic IYLEP program facilitator, I would love to help youth in my country acquire new leadership skills and be able to contribute to the community.
MJD: What are your hopes for the future of U.S.-Iraqi relations?
Abbas: I hope the relationship between Iraq and the U.S. continues to grow and become stronger in the future. I hope also both countries will fund more projects in Iraq.
Abdulsamad: I hope for more sound U.S.-Iraqi relations. My hope for the future of Iraq is that it become a prosperous country again as it was.
MJD: What would you like the American people to know about Iraq and the Iraqi people?
Abbas: I hope that Americans know about the Iraqi civilization and the Iraqis’ way of life… that Iraq has many great people who can help change the world.
Abdulsamad: Iraq is a country rich in its civilization and human capital that can change the present and the future of the country.
MJD: If you couldchange the world in one way, what would it be?
Abbas: I hope everyone on this earth lives peacefully.
Abdulsamad: It would be gifting peace to everyone on this earth.
In a major address on American foreign policy, the concept of “world order” and American leadership in “a more open and civilized world,” Professor Phillip Zelikow concluded that of all the countries in the Arab and Muslim world, no one should underestimate “the pivotal potential of Bagdad . . . and no one should underestimate what Iraqis have accomplished in the last two terrible years.”
Marguerite Jill Dye is an artist and writer who divides her time between the Green Mountains of Vermont and Florida’s Gulf Coast.