Iraqi Youth Gather in Baghdad to Celebrate 10 Years of International Exchange

Participants pose for a group selfie at the 10 year anniversary celebration of IYLEP in Baghdad.

On a recent morning in Baghdad, more than 250 young adults from provinces across Iraq gathered at the Al Rasheed Hotel with a common goal: to celebrate the 10th anniversary of an international exchange program that has transformed them into leaders in their communities and their country.

Over the last decade, the Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program (IYLEP) — funded by the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs — has brought more than 2,300 Iraqi high school and undergraduate students to the United States for four-week exchanges focusing on leadership, peacebuilding, and civic engagement. Upon their return to Iraq, participants lead projects such as organizing peace festivals or providing relief to refugees.

World Learning President and CEO Carol Jenkins makes her opening remarks at the 10th anniversary celebration of IYLEP.

In her opening remarks, World Learning President and CEO Carol Jenkins noted that the international nonprofit — which has run IYLEP since its inception — has implemented exchange programs for more than 85 years. “We have learned that these programs enable people from different walks of life to find their voices, transform, and lead,” she said. “Through these programs, we are together building bridges across the world, making our communities better places in which to live.”

World Learning organized the conference to recognize the many accomplishments of IYLEP alumni and provide them new opportunities for collaboration. Distinguished guests included U.S. Ambassador Douglas Silliman, Iraq Minister of Education Mohammed Iqbal, and several members of the Iraqi ministry and diplomatic corps.

Ambassador Silliman welcomed the gathering and noted that each year IYLEP receives more applications from young Iraqis than it can accommodate — sometimes as many as 4,500 applicants for a few hundred spaces. “So you really are the cream of the crop, the best and the brightest of Iraq,” he said. “You learn in this program how to develop your communities, how to help your families, how to think the big thoughts, and how to make Iraq a better place in the future.”

IYLEP alums discuss the results of their exchange programs during a panel discussion.

Throughout the day, IYLEPers continued to discuss their country’s potential in a diverse series of breakout sessions led by select alumni. Shan Sherwan, a 2010 IYLEP alumna, spoke about the imperative to break the cycle of gender-based violence in Iraq. 2013 alumnus and restaurateur Zain Mohammed offered advice to budding entrepreneurs seeking to rebuild Iraq’s private sector. And 2008 alumna and community organizer Raya Al-Lataifei discussed her nonprofit organization Basrah is Your Home, which is working to revitalize the war-torn Iraqi city.

“[IYLEP] is a limitless experience,” Al-Lataifei said during a morning panel discussion. IYLEP not only showed her how to work with her peers to welcome internally displaced people into Basrah but it also introduced her to a network of alumni who are all pursuing humanitarian and entrepreneurial paths.

“I think it’s a real testimony to the program that today you have so many alumni of the program who are still interested, still engaged, still want to meet each other, and are still working on exciting community-based projects,” said Christienne Carroll, Cultural Affairs Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. “I think that’s the legacy of the program.”

For many of the VIP guests, the IYLEP reunion conference also underscored the importance of international exchange programs.

An IYLEP alumna performs for her fellow participants.

“Programs like IYLEP are a great opportunity to allow young Iraqis who are potential future leaders to travel outside of Iraq and have a new vision,” said Daniel Lousada, Deputy Chief of Mission at the Embassy of Spain in Baghdad. He further explained that visiting the U.S. gives IYLEP participants an opportunity to see how a country composed of diverse cultures can achieve harmony and stability.

Dr. Victoria Lindsay, Country Director of the British Council Iraq, agreed, noting that some of the alumni she met told her that the U.S. exchange was the first time they had ever met a Kurdish person. “Exchange programs are really valuable, she said. “You see participants grow in confidence but also in knowledge. It challenges some views. This had actually been not just an experience learning about American culture, but also an opportunity to learn about other cultures within Iraq.”

IYLEP participants work together to strategize for the future

Now, IYLEP is building on its decade of experience to create even more of those opportunities. In recent years, the program has expanded to include an exchange conducted entirely in Arabic to give non-English-speaking students the opportunity to travel and learn as well. World Learning and the J. Christopher Stevens Virtual Exchange Initiative partnered to launch the Digital Young Leaders Exchange Program, which connects Iraqi and U.S. teenagers remotely through an online platform. And World Learning is bringing another 275 IYLEP participants to the U.S. this summer.

Soon they too will join a network of inspiring young leaders who are reenvisioning what the future might hold for Iraq. “IYLEP didn’t end at those four weeks in the U.S.,” said 2016 alumna Ranya Shabeeb. “It’s like a flame that never goes out. We’re all people who are trying to spark something in our community.”

Watch what Iraqi news channels had to say about the IYLEP reunion below:

— Amy McKeever

Amy McKeever is the writer/editor at World Learning