Landing in New York City for the first time in life and watching extraordinary hustle and bustle on the roads surrounded by high-rise buildings (which require a 90-degree angle to get a sight of the top) not only dazes but also infuses unusual inquisitiveness to explore each corner of the city especially when you have just three days to work on your wish list. It is almost dreams coming true for youngsters to be among the millions of strangers, yellow cabs, and policemen mostly seen through the lens of Hollywood.
These are some of the moments, feelings, and reactions grabbed while welcoming and chatting with 99 students aged between 18 and 24 who reached New York from different regions of Iraq during the first week of July. These undergraduate students arrived as part of the Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program (IYLEP), a unique initiative by Meridian International Center in collaboration with the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. During their four-week stay, these students will attend four different U.S. universities to study short-term courses on public policy; leadership, law and social justice; entrepreneurship and community development; and information technology and media.
For Ali Zalzala, 22, being able to see and interact with people from diverse ethnicities and races such as Latinos, Asians, Europeans and Africans at the same time, was quite fascinating. Soon after roaming around the city, he fell in love with the fact that it has such pleasant weather in the summer. Ali’s best moment was to finally get to sing “Welcome to New York” as now he understands what it actually means.
Being in one of the most famous cities in the world was unbelievable and mesmerizing for twenty-one-year-old Aisha Al-Polisi, who could not sleep on the first day out of excitement. She was happy to see people enjoying each second in a city that never sleeps and when she walked down the street with her friends at 3am, she felt completely safe. The most beautiful feeling for her was to live with people from diverse religions and races and it was a source of peace for her to see everyone getting along with each other. She was overwhelmed to walk in Central Park and termed it the most amazing and beautiful place she had ever visited.
Though subway was confusing for Yasameen Al Mashadani, 21, she loved the boat ride and the moment she saw the Statue of Liberty, she shouted out of excitement “YES, I made it.” For her, it was the most beautiful scene. Hussein Al Asbaai, 19, found people very kind and helpful when he asked for guidance after getting lost on the first day. For him, he has realized the meaning of living in freedom by being in New York. Hussein described his visit to Times Square as very different and interesting: he met a woman looking for her 15-year-old daughter whom he saw moments ago borrowing a cigarette from a woman. He advised that everyone should be ready to accept diversity and cultural shock with respect.
Many students were in awe when they were able to ride the cruise to see the New York Skyline in its entirety, the Statue of Liberty, and passing under the Brooklyn Bridge. Most of them were taking pictures as the cruise continued to offer magnificent views of the city. Taking the subway, interacting with Americans, staying until morning at Times Square, and watching educated people also among the homeless were some of the most exciting experiences for students as they were witnessing all this for the first time.
The IYLEPers were feeling a sense of achievement, accomplishment, freedom, and awesomeness for being able to witness the US culture and values of civic participation, rights, responsibilities, democracy, promoting community engagement, and fostering relationships between people of different religions and ethnic groups. In all, they were taking full advantage of the opportunity to see the world beyond the sectarian tensions between provinces and religious affiliations in Iraq. Though the majority of these students do not interact with other Iraqi citizens due to geographic, religious, and social boundaries, in a foreign land they had no hesitation in mingling with each other to develop mutual trust and understand each other.