Iraqi Youth Leadership Exchange Program #IYLEP19

For two weeks this summer, I was the Program Coordinator for a summer program called the Iraqi Young Leadership Exchange Program (IYLEP).  This is the second year I have been in this role and I have been very fortunate to be able to be a part of this program. IYLEP is a program that brings a group of Iraqi students to the US for 4 weeks. The first week is in Vermont, then the next two are in one of four host cities, and then the students travel to Washington DC for the last week. 

Iraqi teens choose to apply to be part of this program. From what the students have shared with me, it’s a highly selective process, and a spot in the program is very sought after. I wanted to share a few things that have really impressed me about these students(and families) that I have worked with over the last two years. 

First, as a parent, it’s difficult for me to wrap my brain around how hard it must be to send your child to another country, let alone a country that has been at the center of so much controversy, tension and, simply put, war. I really don’t know how I would react if my teenage child approached me to ask to travel to Iraq. The courage they need to have to travel from their home in Iraq, to the US, for four weeks is no small thing . The  students arrive here with an open-mind and an accepting nature of the kids.  They stay with host families for two weeks, and with that comes getting used to a new home, new people, new foods, new routines, a language barrier (a few students shared that their primary English teacher was YouTube). Having New York as a destination brings excitement, until they realize that Rochester, New York and New York City are two very different things and that the famous NYC from movies and television is unreachable for a quick day trip.

As our busy two weeks began, I especially enjoyed observing how quickly the US and Iraqi students bonded and came together as a group. This is something we work on and teach, but the cool part is how this happens genuinely and organically. There is a real sense of connection, love, and caring for each other that occurs during our two weeks together.

During our time together, we covered a lot of ground through the city and beyond, to immerse ourselves in a variety of different cultural and skill building experiences.

We ended our time together with a day trip to Niagara Falls and an exposition where we shared our experiences and learning with the community.

I am grateful to have had the opportunity, to work with and to get to know the students who have been a part of this program. I applaud their bravery, and willingness to travel so many miles to learn, grow and share their culture and perspective. I can only speak for myself, but I know that I am forever changed by this experience and I hope that it has left a similar mark on each of the individuals who were able to be a part of this unique program.

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