Alumni of the 2013 Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program (IYLEP) reconnected this past February in Erbil. Alums from both the High School and Undergraduate programs gathered to reflect on their experiences and participate in workshops and panel discussions that built upon the skills students developed last summer in the United States. Meridian invited IYLEP alumni to submit a blog post describing their personal experience and growth with the program. We selected the winning entries to post on The LEAD. Sara A. was selected as the winner for the IYLEP High School group.
“For those who dare to dream, there is the whole world to live.”
I am one of those people that believes in fulfilling their dreams of life through intellectual rigor and hard work. Though belonging to a small city, I never restricted myself to the close boundaries.
Living away from home on the other side of the world has impacted me in ways that will stick with me forever. IYLEP changed my life in every way. I have become more independent and confident in myself. I am now looking at things from a broader point of view. My world has been expanded, and with it, I have expanded as a person. I learned not to judge things by their first impression, which I used to do before IYLEP. Living in a different culture and meeting people from all around the world entrenched in me confidence to approach strangers and find it easy to form new friendships. Before this program, I was limited with my own culture, but now I love diversity. I want to explore the world and know about different cultures, how people celebrate their different festivals, their marriages. I also enjoy Halloween and Thanksgiving because I understand their culture more.
IYLEP also changed my stereotypes about Americans. They are literally very nice and friendly. They love humanity. They will greet you if they do not know you. Most of them are very interested in other cultures and they do respect it. They love their pets. Once I asked from my host mother, why most of the American people have pets. She explained it to me very well “Can you live on the road without food and shelter”. This explanation impressed me. Now I love pets and can make friendships with them easily. I have to mention we had an amazing time with amazing people and did the impossible together.
My mission in the United States was to polish my skills and represent the real Iraq. I acted as a bridge to connect two nations. I tried my best to share my culture and to quell stereotypes on Iraq and on how they treat women in general. My host family and my friends liked my cultural dress and my headscarf. I talked about stereotypes and also discussed the beauty of Iraq and Kurdistan, cultural diversity, cultural heritage, food, weddings, and religion. I also talked about my experience back home in Iraq; I’m so glad I went there.
When I returned to Iraq, my task was to share my U.S. experience and bring the change to society. I want to outline two activities which I did when I came back from Iraq.
I worked with my school and we made a community service club and our first plan for the projects was to collect notebooks, erasers, sharpeners, coloring pencils, pens…etc., whatever anyone would need for school beside clothing, for a poor primary school (Al-Ertiqaa) in Hai Al-Askari. We asked our school to donate money and extra school stuff and thankfully we could give every child in the school 4 notebooks, an art book and a pencil case, and for 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th classes we gave them coloring pencils too.
And right now we are collecting money with our school so that we can buy coats for the same school.