It is hard to keep the energy flowing when you are exhausted after completing a tight, four-week academic program, but the excitement and restlessness of being in a city that is considered the power center of the world, doesn’t allow you the time or the space to rest! You chose to keep the buzz going to explore what is so special about this place and what is waiting for you in this epicenter of the United States. The thrill doubles when the subconscious keeps reminding you that you are in Washington DC where the Office of the U.S. President is located just a mile away from your hotel. All you can think of in this whole scenario is to visit all these amazing places, take pictures, and post them on social media and let everyone know that you made it. “We have to make the most of the two days,” was the general philosophy of IYLEP 2015.
Just five weeks ago, 99 undergraduate Iraqi students, who started their journey from New York, were as just excited to begin their Academic Institutes at one of four U.S. universities throughout the country. These amazing students are the participants of Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program (IYLEP), a unique initiative implemented by Meridian International Center in collaboration with the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. Apart from being exposed to American culture, values and traditions over the past four weeks, these students attended four different U.S. universities – Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond; Ball State University, Muncie; University of Massachusetts, Amherst; and University of Texas, Austin – to study short-term courses on public policy; leadership, law and social justice; entrepreneurship and community development; and information technology and media.
For them, a month passed like a snap of the finger, now, IYLEP arrived in DC for their closing conference, dedicated to discussing topics such as the importance of volunteerism civic engagement and how to make a difference in their home communities. It was quite obvious from the confidence and expressions that most of the participants learned a lot and took full advantage of the program. For instance, when asked about project ideas that could be implemented in Iraq, many students came up with innovative ideas such as the introduction of mobile dental units, establishing of a modern bookstore, advocacy for institutionalizing education for children with down syndrome and creating the biggest community of hackers.
When sharing their views about attitudes of people in Iraq towards volunteerism, a student explained that it is considered very positive but it needs to be institutionalized. “We must make volunteerism systematic and effective. People in Iraq love volunteering, and it is our job to make it that way.” The students were also keen to learn about the federalism system of government in the United States and key differences between federalism and centralism. Many were surprised to know that the U.S. has no national police, and the governors are heads of the states and state laws vary in all 50 states in so many ways. One student was very impressed to see the local government in action in Springfield and commended the way an emergency was responded.
At the closing ceremony that was held at George Washington University which offers breathtaking views of the National Mall and the Washington Monument, Iraqi Ambassador to the U.S. Lukman Faily felicitated the IYLEP participants and termed them lucky enough to be part of the most amazing emerging leaders of Iraq. He urged them to utilize their experiences for contributing to the development and progress of their homeland, and take advantage of this diverse group of future leaders and network. Meridian International Center President and CEO Ambassador Stuart Holiday congratulated the IYLEP participants and hoped that this program had instilled innovation and creativity among each participant. A selection of Iraqi, Kurdish, Arabic and American music along with amazing Lebanese food gripped everyone and the energy of students could not be contained when one student performed a rap he had written for the IYLEP.
The next day was for departures and it witnessed a mix of tearful goodbyes and genuine excitement to go back to home. It was evident that the month had been quite fruitful for students to form deep and meaningful friendships and ties that will not only enrich their personal lives, but ones that will be stepping stone to a brighter and more unified version of their beloved country. It was a brilliant experience sharing for IYLEP student Koraw Aziz, who thinks he discovered hidden talents and reflected on heated debates such as the freedom of religion. Susan realized that she has 98 supporters and she can get their help when she is back in Iraq. Another student believed that everyone had studied humanity, and what it means to be a human.