Three years ago, I was looking for a new job when a former student told me she knew of positions for teachers in Iraq. I thought, “Iraq — why would anyone want to go there?”
Iraq was a place I had no interest in going. It felt dangerous. As an educator who has spent most of my life providing and delivering cross-cultural learning opportunities, helping young Americans broaden their understanding and build connections with the other residents on our planet, I had nonetheless jumped ignorantly into an uninformed opinion based on limited understanding.
I have learned that when I find myself saying “Why would anyone do x” the universe often sends me the answer. In the fall of 2014, I couldn’t imagine going to Iraq for any reason. Now there is no place I would rather go.
After an intensive four weeks facilitating a World Learning program this summer and numerous emails, video calls and Facebook messages later, I have had more Iraqis than people from any other country tell me they love me.
I have never met a kinder, more generous, or more motivated group of people of any age or nationality. These are people who wouldn’t be deciding if a glass was half empty or half full but would be looking at an inch of water in the bottom of a glass and wondering how many people they could share it with.
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The program where I met these amazing young people is called IYLEP (International Youth Leadership Exchange Program). The program is run by the Department of State’s Educational and Cultural Affairs office and the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.
My program had 29 Iraqis and 10 American high school students. My Iraqi kids had suffered so much and yet remained committed to figuring out how to make the world better for all. My American students were also passionate, and I learned much from them, too, but I am going to focus here on the Iraqis.
IYLEP programs give Iraqis the chance to come to the U.S. to live, learn and connect with Americans through home stays, service work, and project development that benefits their community when they get back home.
Our program aims to increase mutual understanding between Iraq and the U.S. and to build leadership skills for the emerging generation of Iraqis (and some lucky American youth, too).
Before IYLEP, I never knew an Iraqi. Though I have taught media literacy and know well that the media give an incomplete, and often an inaccurate, story, I had no idea how one-sided and distorted the reporting on Iraq can be.
What does the average person from this country know about the diverse country of Iraq and Iraqi people? We think of terrorists and Saddam Hussein and probably roadside bombs. (My students have been on roads in many parts of Iraq and said roadside bombs are not an issue in most places anymore.)
Iraq hosts the oldest civilization in the world. Why do we never hear about the cultural trait of kindness that is so prominent in Iraqi people?
My country has been at war with boots or bombs on the ground in Iraq one way or another for much of my adult life, yet until this summer I was woefully ignorant about this complex, amazing place and its people.
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Our program began in rural Vermont, on the School for International Training campus in Brattleboro. There were four IYLEP programs that started in Brattleboro this summer. You may have seen IYLEPers marching in the July 4th parade or sampling items at the Farmers’ Market.
I spent a little time with the first group, but I spent a month with the second group, who won my heart.
The students and staff climbed across tree tops in a high-ropes course, canoed and swam in the West River, shared stories and music and dancing, and had intimate cross-cultural dialogue sessions during 12 days together in Vermont.
My dialogue kids were the first IYLEP students I came to love: for their sincerity, their willingness to be vulnerable, their compassionate wisdom, their determination to find common ground and to create understanding in our too-often-divided world.
In my group, with 12 students and an Iraqi co-facilitator, we developed a safe space to share deeply with one another, and the result was a profound connection between people who often in our 21st-century world (without knowing one another) are considered enemies.
My group discussed our mutual perceptions, religious beliefs, gender. We talked about how/when families treat sons differently from daughters.
One American student talked about “choice,” and the Iraqis were alarmed to find that meant (in their words) “killing your baby.” Everyone spoke from the heart and listened respectfully, seeking to understand.
I had girls in hijabs holding hands in a circle with people from Oklahoma and Maryland. I had devout Muslims and devout Christians sharing their ideas and realizing how much they were the same.
At the end of our second session, some of my girls wanted to preserve and record the intimacy we had uncovered amidst our differences by taking a selfie. In the photo were Kurds, Arabs, and Americans, with our arms around each other, smiling, all looking in the same direction.
With my dialogue group, I could believe that peace is possible in our country and on our planet.
* * *
After Vermont, our group divided, and I headed to Portland with 12 students and Yasir, a 25-year-old Iraqi petroleum engineer and adult mentor. My travel group had 10 Iraqis and three Americans.
We had students who identified as Christian and also as Muslim (Americans and Iraqis in both categories), and we had some students who were not religious. We had two Iraqi girls who wore hijabs and two who didn’t. We had three Kurds and seven Arabs.
Our group was diverse — ethnically, religiously, racially, and geographically.
For our first outing in Oregon, our host, the World Affairs Council, took us to the Pacific. Most of my students did not swim and had never been to the ocean. I asked about packing towels and swimsuits but was told we wouldn’t need them, as lots of international groups had gone and everyone found the water “far too cold to swim.”
When we got to Cannon Beach about half my students took off their shoes, rolled up their pants, and immediately ran into the ocean. They stood knee-deep in the water (all we were allowed, as most of the students were non-swimmers).
They laughed as the waves splashed over their legs, and soon the water was splashing between students as well.
Within minutes, the initial student waders had dropped to the ground, fully clothed, and were rolling in the waves and body surfing. Suddenly, everyone was in the waves, dropping onto the sandy, wet beach, frolicking in the surf, soaked in knee-deep — or, perhaps I should say, shoulder-high — water, as often only heads and shoulders were visible above the ocean froth.
Amani and Mariam, my two girls in hijabs, were laughing in the waves, along with every other student, and I could not resist joining, too.
In that moment on the beach, we were not Iraqis and Americans, or Kurds or Christians or Muslims — we were just people, experiencing joy together. We became a family. We were soggy and salty but basking in sun and fun.
This wet day in the waves grew my love for my Portland group. They were brave, not self-conscious, determined to have a maximal experience despite restrictions. They knew how to seize a moment and make it a celebration.
I had so much to learn from these kids, and we had two weeks more to go before we would rejoin the rest of our program group in D.C.
* * *
IYLEP was designed to build leadership skills and relationships between young Iraqis and the Americans, through study, workshops, and service learning. Our program had a theme of learning about serving refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs).
We visited and volunteered in a number of programs serving the homeless in Oregon, including Dignity Village, (the oldest tiny-house community in the U.S., for homeless individuals).
Tina, one of my Kurdish students, asked what we could do to help homeless people we met on the streets, and our host at Dignity answered that the best thing we could do would be to show respect.
“People don’t look us in the eye,” our host said. “They don’t treat us like people. Look at us, greet us, give us dignity that all people deserve.”
The day after that visit, we were getting off our bus heading to a museum exhibit about hate and discrimination in Oregon. I stationed myself next to the bus door as students disembarked, and I counted as our group passed. Three homeless men were watching us, and one of them, a man about 30 years old with a blond crew cut, asked me, “Is this a church group?”
I couldn’t tell if he was being serious or sarcastic, as our group didn’t look like my idea of a church group, but the goal of our program was citizen diplomacy. We wanted Americans to learn from and about our students.
I replied that our group was not a church group, it was a student group, with students mostly from Iraq.
“I have been to Iraq,” the man responded, as my last student, Hevar, a Kurdish IDP, stepped off the bus.
Hevar looked directly at the man and asked, “Why did you go to Iraq, sir?”
The man said he had been in the Navy.
“Thank you for your service,” Hevar answered with a nod that was almost a bow, touching his hand to his heart in a near-salute to the homeless veteran.
On the way to learn about hate, my heart filled with love as I witnessed the respect Hevar gave to the man on the street.
My students were learning from us, and we were learning from them.
* * *
Each of my students had special moments where I witnessed them sharing their souls, connecting with others.
Blnd would do it through music, playing his saz, an ancient stringed instrument much like a lute. Tina and Mariam would confidently raise their hands to share their insights and opinions in any group.
Amani would do so only if the group was very small. Yet every time Amani was in a small group, people were drawn to her like a magnet. Her quiet gentle spirit drew children to her arms and made strangers comfortable striking up conversations with this thoughtful young woman in a hijab. Amani often wore an owl necklace, which was appropriate — to me, it represented her wisdom and power of observation.
Meem had long beautiful curly hair and loved to take selfies, but she also loved to talk to people. She cried the hardest on the day we said goodbye as she described “feeling as close to people in IYLEP as to my own family.”
Aloosh and Saif always had a smile and connected quickly with anyone we would meet. Yasir supported the students as a teacher and a friend.
All the students loved to move to Iraqi Middle Eastern music while we were in (and occasionally out) of our seats on the minibus that shuttled us around town.
The IYLEP kids became my family. The students told me I was their American mother, and I felt like it. I couldn’t have felt closer to these lovely humans if I had given birth to them.
My Iraqi kids looked ahead to the future with optimism, despite personally facing challenges that are almost unimaginable. Their optimism was appealing and contagious and fed my soul.
One of my students, Ahmed, a young man with a robust physique and a compassionate heart, would tell me in one breath about his recollections of his home city, Baghdad, being bombed by the Americans (years ago) and by ISIS and Al Qaeda more recently.
In the next breath, he would talk about a project he wanted to start in Iraq to support trauma victims. He didn’t look at himself as a victim; rather, he channeled his attention into how he could help others.
Ahmed is an ardent feminist and a Muslim who had gone to mosques to ask imams to address equality and respect for women in their weekly addresses. I told Ahmed that when he gets invited to Oslo to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, I will want an invitation.
He said he didn’t know about the Nobel, but he hoped I would be present at his wedding in a decade or so.
I hope so, too.
* * *
Shortly after the program finished, I sent a birthday greeting to Ahmed, saying “Happy Birthday to one of my favorite people on the planet.” He responded, “Thank you to one of my favorite people in the universe.”
This exchange is an example of what I found with my Iraqi students over and over. I would give them a little, and they would return so much more.
On our last day in Portland, it was over 100 degrees. We walked to a park overlooking the Columbia River, where a giant water fountain shot up from the ground, springing forth in rapidly changing directions.
Everyone was in street clothes. A handful of hearty IYLEP souls ran into the spraying fountain right away, and an equal number said they would sit this one out.
But within minutes, as when we had been at the ocean, no students could resist, and we were completely drenched: running, splashing, jumping, and squealing along with a wide range of Portland residents, including old men on bikes and plenty of children. More joy together.
Amani walked into the fountain and soon had a small girl holding her hand. A moment later, she was twirling around with the 3-year-old on her hip, both of them laughing with delight.
The girl’s mother came over to introduce herself and shake Amani’s sopping wet hand, then backed away as the play continued.
That episode makes me recall a time in Brattleboro at the Farmers’ Market. My 4-year-old granddaughter Lydia had hidden all morning when I tried to introduce my students to her, but when we sat beside Amani at lunch, within minutes Lydia was sitting in Amani’s lap, sharing her meal.
Amani was an introvert who always wore a hijab, and she drew people to her with her loving, accepting spirit. Why is it children can be so welcoming and accepting and so many adults cannot?
* * *
During our visit, Portland was still reeling from a hate crime that a couple of months before had left dead two men who had defended a girl in a hijab on the metro. Yet the city showed our group kindness and welcome, again and again.
My students were youth ambassadors, enabling Americans to put a human face, or many human faces, into their understanding of Iraq.
I expected this program would be a meaningful summer job. I had no idea that I would fall in love and learn so much myself.
I have never met such loving, passionate, generous people. The American youth who shared our experience I can see more readily, but I have 29 Iraqi children now whom I may never be with again.
When I see the ocean I think of my kids. When I see a fountain I think of them, too.
When I hear something Islamophobic, I think of them. I remember Mahmood, a solemn young man in my dialogue group. He would challenge people who used the phrase “Islamic terrorists,” reminding all that the Koran clearly speaks out for peace and that those who espouse violence are not acting in the spirit of Islam. He would remind us that all the world’s major religions want peace.
Assuming the White House doesn’t cut the funding, and that civil war does not engulf Iraq, there should be an IYLEP reunion conference next spring. Most past reunions have been in Erbil, Kurdistan, in the north of Iraq. The reunion site is uncertain, as conflict has resumed in Kurdistan/Iraq in recent weeks.
My heart aches with missing my kids. I want to meet the parents who raised these amazing young people, and I want to see the land that is their home. In their presence I feel hope for the future. I seldom feel that in America anymore.
I hope I can go, but don’t know if it will be possible for a variety of reasons.
Tensions have escalated in Iraq, and within our group recently after the Kurdish referendum, especially during the weekend of Oct. 14, when the Iraqi army reclaimed Kirkuk and some 30 Kurdish lives were lost, according to The New York Times. Others estimate much higher losses.
One of our Kurdish participants talked of needing to flee bombs, while the news reported there were no bombs. She described it as “absolutely not peaceful or safe as described in the media.”
It is difficult for the students to know what is real, what is “fake news.” Political events are testing the students’ ability to relate to one another as people and as friends to trust one another. But the group is still supporting one another.
When tempers flared around what happened in Kirkuk, students reached out afterwards to resolve and sooth tensions. American, Kurd, and Arab students connected with one another to heal.
One American student, Milica, a first-generation Serbian American, reminded us: “I love you all, and we all have the potential to do great things and build tolerance and understanding ... who is going to build understanding if we, the future generations in charge of the planet, fight?”
The students are getting real practice in our complicated world: living, working through difficulties, and forgiving. They make me, their “American mom,” proud.
May our world grow in understanding and live in peace.
* * *
On our last day together in Washington, my kids gave “I have a dream” speeches on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
Ahmed began, ”I have a dream that one day women will be equal to men, that they can live without fear of violence or mistreatment at the hands of men.”
Blnd dreamed of a day when Iraq would be at peace within its borders, with its neighbors and with the world.
Others dreamed of an end to poverty, and so much more.
After the speeches were completed, Ahmed asked me, “Michelle, what is your dream”?
“My dream is to see you in Iraq,” I replied as he wrapped his giant arms around me in what I hope was not our final hug.