By Hasan Talib Chichan
“Iraq is a country that is always misjudged by the mass media,” reports an Iraqi newspaper in reference to research statistics from The University of Babylon. In order to address the problem, a cultural exchange program between Iraqi and US students was founded in 2007 and has since gone from strength to strength.
IYLEP, standing for Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program, is a six week summer exchange programme for students from Iraq to visit a number of US universities. The main goals are to create a new Iraqi generation of young open-minded leaders, to help the American people know more about Iraqi culture and to change their false prejudices and perspectives about Iraq.
Abdullah is an electrical engineering student who participated in the program: “Since I set foot on American soil I realized that there are so many things American don’t know about Iraqis. We were given the chance to draw the truthful picture about our people, and we will keep doing it in every step of our lives.”
Of course an idea of an exchange is that learning goes both ways. US students and a diverse group of Iraqi Christians, Muslims, Arabs and Kurds engage together through team building workshops, leadership training and community service projects.
“I noticed that Iraqi students are completely different from the preconceived image that I had in mind from the mass media,” comments a 21-year-old American participant. “They are intelligent, sophisticated people. They indeed reflect the truthful image of Iraq.”
“In America I learned how to get out of my comfort zone by being open minded and talkative,” said one Iraqi participant. “In the workshops and classes we had for 5 weeks we talked about almost everything and shared our feelings and experiences. In Pingree Park I literally got out of my comfort zone and tried many new things like bungee jumping and hiking.”
“I was amazed by the diversity I saw in America and how anyone can live there no matter what race he belongs to or what language he speaks,” adds another Iraqi student. “All occupations are respected. Americans are so friendly, they don’t hate Arabs and they definitely don’t think we are terrorists.”
The figures support the participants’ claims of a successful exchange program. The first year in 2007 involved just 7 Iraqi students, however participants are now topping 100, and this number is likely to only grow; a further 500 were unfortunately unsuccessful in their applications.
Sara was one of the lucky ones to be accepted: “Even the simplest of values she observed in the US like being on time, for example, could help her country to function more smoothly. I was shocked to find out that all the US citizens know about Iraqis comes from media, which rarely shows the bright side of my country.” And there you can see the benefit of cultural exchange programs in which people’s ideas and expectations are corrected. “I will now dedicate myself to teach and learn in America,” she declares.
The IYLEP exchange program is funded by the US rather than the Iraqi state. Although the results have been positive so far, for many Iraqi students it is a stark reminder that not enough projects are being supported within their own country. There is a call for opportunities involving voluntary work, for example. In America the Iraqis had this chance when they worked with the local habitat and built houses to those who need it. “It was a splendid feeling to know that you built a roof for others,” continued Abdulla. “That has motivated some of us to start our own projects back in Iraq, to involve other young people in helping other Iraqis who are in desperate need of help.”
The opportunity offered by the IYLEP exchange program has clearly had an effect on the students’ personalities and perspectives for the better. The next generation of Iraqi leaders promise to stay united back at home; after all, in the US they have seen a country of many working better together as one.
Hasan Talib Chichan, born in 1989 in Babylon, Hilla, Iraq, studies General Medicine at The University of Babylon College of Medicine. He also studied Leadership Skills, Social Media, Public Policy and Conflict Resolutions at Colorado State University. Hasan enjoys cultural exchanges and reporting about international, social and environmental issues. He’s also interested in photography, politics and social problematics.
This article was originally published in International Reporters, October 10, 2012.