Iraq’s New Generation of Leaders

Walking through the Streets of NYC with Yousif, Sara, Saler, and Hussein


By Jessi Pascual, Programs Intern Global Connect Division

When you have a powerful unit of 99 Iraqi Young Leaders together, you can only expect greatness as an outcome. This summer 99 Iraqi students journeyed throughout the United States as part of the Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program (IYLEP). I watched them grow from the moment they trickled into the Grand Hyatt Ballroom to the moment they stood on the curb of P Street in Washington D.C. to say tearful goodbyes. Even before they stepped onto American soil, they were all set to make their mark in the United States and change Americans’ perceptions of Iraqis. They were determined to make their voices heard and discover new ideas for bringing change.

Exploring the Brooklyn Bridge with Sara and Saler

As part of my closing assignment for IYLEP, I was tasked with collecting students’ action plans and the result was simply amazing. I started interviewing people during a workshop at IYLEP’s DC Conference thinking, what better time could be than soon after a session on action planning? Safa Hajjaj, an Atlas Corps Fellow from Morocco serving at Meridian International Center, inspired the students to think about what kind of change they would like to bring in the world after the completion of this program. As they were leaving the room, I pulled aside Sana Al-Khayoon who happily shared her IYLEP experience, background and action plan. Soon, a dozen of IYLEP students were eager to share their experiences with me. It was inspiring to see how passionate they were to tell their stories as to how they want to bring the change. My notebook was torn apart as they were busy writing their plans on pieces of ripped notebook paper. They thought about to each aspect of their plans even though they had limited time. I could not believe the outpouring support for this assignment after they had all turned in their papers.

IYLEP has made a powerful impact on these students to solidify their plans and evaluate their strengths and weaknesses. Each participant learned how to channel his/her background and talents into a well-developed action plan. From medicine to engineering to technology, the students have personally catered their plans to what they can do the best. They incorporated their own university themes into some of their plans and most of them are planning to raise awareness about specific causes through social media platforms, lectures, and leadership workshops. Some students have unique agendas upon their return.

IYLEP exceeded the expectations of Yasameen Al Mashhadani, a materials engineering senior at the University Of Technology in Baghdad. After meeting other Iraqi students from different provinces, Yasameen now has a more open-minded perspective of the possibilities within Iraq. Apart from her colleagues, she is fascinated by 3D printing and prosthetics. Yasameen wants to focus on the issues that Iraq currently faces such as frequent terrorist attacks  that leave many amputees. She wants to address the high cost for prosthetics by providing these amputees with affordable artificial limbs made from 3D printing. She understands that her idea is not new in the world, but in Iraq, it can be the only solution which is new, affordable and innovative.

Interviewing Yasameen on her IYLEP Experience

As an engineering student from Najaf, Mortada Al-Khateeb, took advantage of his IYLEP experience by participating in all discussions and ensuring he voiced his opinions. Unlike other IYLEP participants, he wants to set up a rehabilitation center for fighters who come home after the war to help them return to their normal lives. He says there are far more fighters than citizens in Iraq. . Mortada is determined to make this center a useful resource for the fighters to readjust them into communities by providing them with career services and involving them into mental health programs. He wants the fighters to return to their communities as citizens and not fighters.

As a fourth year sociology student from Duhok, Thamir Khidhir is no stranger to the nonprofit sector. IYLEP has not only been an eye-opening experience for him, but also strengthened his leadership skills that can be very beneficial for expanding the work of his nonprofit back in Iraq. IYLEP inspired him to develop a project for internally displaced people (IDPs) as he learnt skills necessary to network with donors and write a good proposal. He says ISIS captured over 5,000 people on August 3, 2014, in his locality. “ISIS terrorists targeted the Yezidi minority in the southern Iraqi region – Sinjar  and Mosul. Around 1,800 abductees have been rescued, escaped and released. Sadly, all girls were forced to marry those barbarians and treated very badly.” Disheartened by the actions of ISIS, Thamir wants to develop a program to help relieve the trauma for victims as well as provide them with food and other support.

Celebrating at the Closing Reception with Doaa and Saler

Aisha Al-Polisi, a fourth stage dental student from Baghdad, is working with two nonprofit organizations – the International Federation of Medical Students Association and the Friends of the United Nations Children’s Fund. She focuses on public health, IDPs and AIDS, and now she is eager to work with organizations such as PAX, which focuses on minorities in Iraq. This experience inspired her to become a skilled professional leader to pursue her own goals.

Osamah, a fourth-year student from Anbar, is currently majoring in English Language. His family was recently displaced because of ISIS attacks that inspired him to become a great leader for spending a good life. It was brave of him to be consistent in a positive manner throughout the program despite the fact that situation was not good back home. His faith on humanity became stronger when an American woman helped him find his way back to the hotel in New York. After IYLEP, Osamah plans to implement a project for providing medication facilities to the people displaced by fighting.

The list goes on and apart from these outstanding plans, the students believe that IYLEP helped them develop as true leaders. Their positivity and motivation inspire me to go after my goals here in the United States. Just by hearing their stories, taking pictures and collecting action plans, I can say that their future is very bright. With this new generation of Iraqis, the future of Iraq is in the hands of very intelligent and innovative people.