A love that crosses countries and cultures

A love that crosses countries and cultures

A group of young Kurdish Iraqis who came to Windham County in an exchange program get a visit from their group leader — their ‘American mom’

WESTMINSTER — In 2017, I fell in love for the first time - with a group of Iraqi and American youth.

I was working with the Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program (IYLEP), a program run by World Learning in Brattleboro and funded by the U.S. State Department. It offered a month-long experience to 29 Iraqi and 10 American students and three staff the chance to live and learn for a month together in the United States.

I served as a teacher, travel agent, therapist, translator, and coach, and as time went on, I felt like a mother to many of the students. We delved into topics such as gender roles, sexual orientation, and racism. I cheered them on as we crossed treetops at the High 5 Adventure Learning Center.

I introduced them to my then-3-year-old granddaughter, a Vermonter born in a farmhouse in Windham, and watched as she climbed into the lap of 15-year-old Amani, one of our girls who wore a hijab.

Around a campfire, I sang along to music with them while my husband strummed his guitar, and we joined in for Kurdish and Arab dancing along with plenty of heart-felt conversation.

I quickly grew to love these kids. I heard students say “I love you” to one another and to me more times than I could count. I was their “leader” and “teacher,” but their openness and generosity were constantly inspiring and teaching me.

One day in the fall, I sent a birthday message to Ahmed: “Happy birthday to one of my favorite people on the planet.” He responded, “I send thanks to one of my favorite people in the universe.”

That illustrates my experience with Iraqis: Over and over, I would give or share a little, and those efforts would come back to me tenfold.

I said goodbye to them on a bright August day in Washington, D.C. They had just delivered ”I have a dream” speeches on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, sharing their own hopes for a peaceful future in Iraq and for the world, for the elimination of poverty and discrimination.

One of the students asked me what my dream was. I replied that my dream was to see them again, in their homeland - Iraq.

* * *

This September, after two summers working with Iraqis, my dream came true: I went to reconnect with students in the far north of their country and with Karwan, Gulabagh, and Lenaz, three young-adult mentors from the program who had also been part of the summer groups, who would be my hosts for much of my visit.

My visa permitted me to travel only within the Kurdish region, so I couldn't visit my kids all over Iraq. But I knew more than 20 young people in the Kurdish region, and many of them felt like my sons and daughters.

After 40 hours in transit, I stepped off the plane in Erbil, the capital city of the Kurdish region. I looked around at dozens of very fit, buff, crew-cut-topped men from many nations. I saw a few older men in suits, a couple of Western women who appeared to be married to local men, and me, a 51-year-old grandmother from Vermont on vacation.

It is fair to say there are not a lot of people coming in on a tourist visa.

A short, flamboyant German man who did not look like anyone else in the visa line looked me over and asked, “What are you doing here?”

I looked him over and asked, “What are you doing here?”

He turned out to be a flight attendant who had been to 100 other countries but never Iraq. I told him I was visiting students from a summer peace-building program.

We stood out as two people who didn't look like they had a reason to be in Iraq.

* * *

It was nearing 3 a.m. when I stepped out into the welcome area of the Erbil airport and saw dear Gul in flannel pants and a T-shirt, looking sleepy but excited to see me. We both squealed and hugged each other, and then I had a polite handshake from her boyfriend, Rasan.

I arrived during the Kurdish elections and a political presence was everywhere. As we drove through the city, I found Erbil covered in colorful flags of the different parties: yellow, blue, green, and orange. Giant plastic banners from people running for political office covered the medians in the road and hung overhead.

The next morning, I got my first daylight glimpse of Erbil. As Gul drove me to meet our students, we passed hundreds of people marching, waving yellow flags, yelling, cheering, honking, people hanging out of trucks waving their fists.

I had not been expecting this. It was peaceful, but the energy level was on the edge of riotous. It turned out the Kurdish prime minister, who was up for reelection, was speaking a half a mile from the restaurant where I was meeting my students.

As thousands of supporters marched and drove by, the reunion began: Amani, Blnd, Soma, Julian, Ban. Christians, Muslims, Kurds, Assyrians. The labels were not important, but being together was.

We ate dolma (stuffed vegetables), drank mast-o (yogurt from a bowl, diluted with ice water) and tore off giant chunks of delicious bread baked in a wood-fired oven. We hugged, we talked, and we laughed, then we went to the mall. We bought drinks with pomegranate and tamarind. (I did, actually; my students had Coke and Sprite.)

As the sun set, we made our way to the central park, a place that in Saddam Hussein's time had been a torture-and-execution ground but now served as a site for dozens of picnicking Kurds, ponies, green grass, flowers, and trees - and for five Kurdish kids and their American “mom” to take a stroll on manicured paths.

Mahmood joined us, and he, Amani, and Blnd told me about the Kurdistan Food Bank, the nonprofit organization they had started shortly after returning from the U.S. in 2017. They provided food to the poor in their city, many of whom were refugees from Syria and people who had been displaced fleeing ISIS.

These students had distributed more than 900 bags of food, each enough to feed a family of five for a week, in the previous year. A few days later, I helped them pack 55 bags of rice, lentils, and other staples to distribute.

Mahmood, Amani, and Blnd are all devout Muslims. They believe that helping those in need is God's will - and just the right thing to do. They are among the most benevolent humans of any age I have ever met. My heart was full hearing and seeing their meaningful, important project.

* * *

I connected with IYLEP kids in two other cities. I spent several days south and east of Erbil, close to Iran, in the city of Sulimaniyah with Hevar and his family. We ate multiple feasts on a mat on the floor. We went hiking in the mountains.

One day, Hevar took me to a session of the group he formed: Youth Changemakers, which has hosted more than 100 dialogue and training sessions empowering youth with tools to transform their communities.

In the U.S., Hevar would often call me his “American mother.” He would talk of the day I would come to his home and his mother would feed me dolma and biriyani (mixed rice).

That day came almost exactly as he had promised. His mother, Levan, was an English teacher. We discovered much in common. By the end of the visit I felt as if I had gained a sister, too.

* * *

My third destination in Kurdistan had only one IYLEPer, Karwan, who in the U.S. I had thought of as the King of the Selfie: he had a selfie stick and rarely let an hour pass without gathering us to record the moment: selfie in front of the White House, selfie at the School for International Training, group selfie at the covered bridge in Dummerston, selfie at Green Mountain Orchards with pints of blueberries, ripe and unripe. (The Kurds like the green blueberries better, as they love the sour tanginess.)

Now, two years later, Karwan has finished college and is working for Peace Winds Japan, a non-governmental organization that runs camps for refugees (mostly from Syria) and internally displaced people (mostly from Mosul).

Karwan was born at home in Mosul the same week my twins were born in South Dakota, during the last weeks of Operation Desert Storm.

His mother couldn't get past the bullets shooting by outside her house to get to the hospital when she was in active labor. I had wanted a home birth but had to go to the hospital; my blood pressure went up as the bombing in Iraq intensified, and my twins were born by c-section in a hospital.

Now, 27 years later, my twins live in Vermont, and Karwan works at a camp called Mamilyan. The camp has about 1,800 residents, down from a peak of 17,000 people. The remaining residents have no homes to return to, as half of Mosul was destroyed by bombs: Iraqi bombs, American bombs, so many bombs.

We began to walk the compound, where rows and rows of half-dome-shaped, Carhartt-colored tents lined the dirt roads. The ground was dusty, the tents were dusty, the people were dusty, but Karwan ensured that each tent had access to fresh water.

Some children emerged on the roads and chased one another and occasionally goats and cats. One little girl with an impish smile carried two dolls.

Mokthar, the “head man,” a spokesperson elected by the camp residents, chatted with us for over an hour. Multiple camp residents offered to feed us, but I didn't feel right taking their limited rations, so we nursed long cups of tea instead.

Again and again I found in Iraq, even in the camp, that people were generous, and so hospitable. They literally offered me food to eat when they didn't have enough for themselves. My eyes teared as I was overwhelmed by their kindness.

”I am sorry, but can you help me understand?” Mokthar asked gently. “Your country was involved here, you have a big country, why won't your president let some of us come to make homes in America?”

“You have a lot of room and we can work,” he continued. “We need a real home.”

“This,” he said, gesturing at the rows of tents, “is not a home. Our homes are destroyed.”

I told Mokthar I was so sorry, that I had called the president and urged him to take more refugees but that he didn't listen. (Mokthar was both surprised and pleased to hear that I had called the White House.) I said I hoped my country would invite more people to come but that so far the president didn't listen to me, or apparently to anyone.

I looked up at Mokthar and saw not only his 96-year-old mother and a handful of young men watching us, but a group of close to 20 children. I asked Karwan to help me get the kids in a circle and follow my lead.

First, I took my right arm and put it forward into the circle. Then I pulled it out. The kids did the same. Then the left arm - in and out. Then each leg, then our heads, and finally we jumped with our whole selves.

This is, of course, the hokey pokey - in my experience, a can't-miss favorite with children all over the world.

The kids delighted at the part where they “turn yourself around.” They laughed heartily while twirling around and bumping into one another. I hammed it up, too.

We moved together, we laughed together, and when the first round finished, they immediately cried out in Kurdish “Disa, disa!” (“Again, Again!”)

I don't know if I have ever had more fun in my life.

* * *

Before I went to Iraq, I knew my students were the warmest, most generous, and most thoughtful people I had met anywhere in the world. After spending time in Iraq, I knew they were not exceptions. All the Kurdish people I met were hospitable, respectful, curious, and completely welcoming.

Many Americans, including friends in Vermont, did not understand why I wanted to go to Iraq.

“I love these kids,” I would explain. “I want to see them again and see their homeland, then I want to come back and share my experiences.”

Shortly after my return, I was in Putney sharing stories of my Kurdish Iraqi adventures with 5-to-14-year-olds in the home-school group. I dressed them in the Kurdish clothes that Karwan's mother and Hevar's mother had given me. I fed them Iraqi sweets, and I played a video of the hokey pokey.

When I talked about the camp and the children having no toys, a couple of parents quickly began a drive to send supplies to the camp. Now, a couple months later, one box of balls and stuffed animals and art supplies has been sent, and another will be going later this winter.

In the video, as the children are jumping in and out of the circle and laughing, you can hear Karwan saying, “Fantastic, Michelle.”

That is how I feel about my students. I love them. They give me hope. They are fantastic.

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