Inspiring A New Generation of Iraqi Leaders
For 10 Years and Counting

Since 2007, the Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program (IYLEP) has brought more than 2,500 Iraqi high school and undergraduate students to the United States for four weeks each summer to learn about leadership, civic engagement, and peacebuilding. The Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program is sponsored by the U.S. Embassy Baghdad and the U.S. Department of State with funding provided by the U.S. Government and administered by World Learning.

Read on to learn about our alumni and their visions for Iraq’s future.

Jump to: 2007 | 2008 | 2009 | 2010 | 2011 | 2012 | 2013 | 2014 | 2015 | 2016 | 2017 | 2018

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IYLEP Launches

IYLEP launched with a plan to send 200 high school and undergraduate students to the U.S. over a two-year period. But recruitment proved to be a challenge in that first year due to a worsening security situation, according to Mayada Alsafi, World Learning’s country program director for Iraq.

Ultimately, seven undergraduate students—out of about 130 applicants—took part in IYLEP’s first cohort. “It was a lifetime opportunity for them, an eye-opening opportunity,” Alsafi says. “It changed their thoughts, changed their ideas about the community.”

Read a Q&A with Alsafi 2007
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Aysar Alaidi, 28, Baghdad: IYLEP High School

Aysar Alaidi had never been out of Baghdad—let alone Iraq—when he applied to join IYLEP. When he returned home, he couldn’t wait to start working in his community. He’s been involved with humanitarian campaigns and is now a project assistant for the International Organization for Migration, where he builds relationships between Iraqi police and the communities they serve.

Read Aysar’s story 2008
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Expansion

By 2009, as the security situation improved in Iraq, IYLEP staff began visiting high schools and colleges in safe areas of the country to recruit students.

Diversity remained a challenge, however. Country Director Mayada Alsafi says she still couldn’t safely travel to major areas such as the Anbar province, and she couldn’t reach girls who lived in religious cities like Karbala’a or Najaf either. “But year by year, that was changing,” Alsafi says. “IYLEPers started affecting their community. When you see someone who went [to the U.S.] and came back with no harm but with many positive things, then you think about doing the same for your girl or boy.”

2009
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Shan Sherwan, 28, Sulaymaniyah: IYLEP Undergrad

Shan Sherwan has been advocating for women’s rights since she was 16 years old, when she witnessed boys in her school harassing girls and read news reports about women being murdered in honor killings.

“I found out I’m in a society where I don’t own the body that I’m in,” she says. “That was the minute I started to open my eyes and say, ‘Why shouldn’t I take ownership of my own self?” She began researching how girls could protect themselves from harassment and shared that knowledge with her classmates.

Four years later, Shan received an application to IYLEP Undergrad. Some of her family members warned her against applying—believing the opportunity was wasted on a girl—but she was intrigued by the opportunity to become a more effective advocate. “I really thought IYLEP would open that door for me,” she says. “And it did. I gained way more than I had ever hoped.”

Shan’s time in the U.S. gave her confidence in her leadership abilities and the tools she needed to take action. She completed a bachelor’s degree in economics and a master’s degree in business administration, then went on to work as a women’s economic empowerment officer for organizations such as the International Refugee Commission and Women for Women International. Shan trains women in entrepreneurship skills, with a particular focus on helping domestic violence victims gain economic independence from their abusers.

Now, the same family members who had discouraged Shan from applying to IYLEP are proud of the work she’s doing. Though there’s still much work to be done to empower women in Iraq, Shan says she has seen a shift in attitudes, noting, “I think it really has changed for the better.”

2010
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Lourd Hanna, 23, Erbil: IYLEP High School

Lourd Hanna saw that things needed to change in her community. In 2011, Iraqi sectarian violence was at a high between Arab and Kurdish people in Iraq. Her native Erbil—the largest city in northern Iraq and capital of Iraqi Kurdistan—was seeing an influx of refugees from the southern part of the country and Baghdad. “They needed help,” she says.

Sixteen-year-old Lourd took that responsibility upon herself. She began volunteering with her father’s civil society organization, eventually put in charge of caring for 60 displaced Iraqi families. But she wanted to do more. “Why not work on something beyond the outcome of the conflict?” she asked. “Let’s go deep into the root of the conflict.”

Drawing on her experience in IYLEP—which emphasizes diversity and tolerance among its participants—Lourd and two colleagues launched the Middle East Sustainable Peace Organization. The nonprofit works to build cultural bridges between the various religious and ethnic communities in Iraq through workshops, dialogues, and visits to religious sites. “It was the baby steps of peacebuilding,” she says.

Though sectarianism remains a serious problem in Iraq, Lourd was thrilled to see the diversity of participants at the 2018 IYLEP reunion conference in Baghdad. “I feel like the promises that we made back when we were in IYLEP is coming into reality,” she says. “We’re achieving what we promised that we would do, which is coming back and making change.”

2011
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Stephanie Greene, Chicago: IYLEP High School

IYLEP isn’t just for Iraqi youth. Each year, select students from U.S. schools join the program to explore more of their own country and create bonds with their Iraqi counterparts. Stephanie Greene, a Chicago native, took part in IYLEP the summer before her senior year, traveling to Brattleboro, Vermont; Bozeman, Montana; and Washington, DC. It was a powerful experience.

“My experience in IYLEP really shaped everything I did afterwards, in terms of how I interacted with people and my curiosity for the world,” she says. “I think if everyone was able to have that experience, and go into it with an open mind, the world would be a better place as we begin to understand people.”

Read Stephanie’s story 2012
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Yousuf Alrawai, 25, Baghdad: IYLEP Undergrad

He founded: Debate 4 Peace, a club that aims to introduce Iraqi youths to professional debate as a tool for dialogue and reconciliation.

His inspiration: IYLEP’s conflict resolution workshops were Yousuf’s first exposure to the concept of debate. He wanted to introduce other young Iraqis to debate so that they, too, could strengthen their communication skills and learn how to engage in their communities. “This is one way to make youth realize they are contributing and their opinions are being heard by decisionmakers.”

Why it matters: “Diversity is important, but it can be a dangerous thing if not practiced in a healthy way. Debate can offer a way to exchange ideas peacefully with dialogue rather than with fighting.”

His perspective on IYLEP’s legacy: “IYLEP was the start of many great things that encourage people to make social change in our community.”

2013
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Zain Mohammed, 29, Baghdad: IYLEP Adult Mentor

He founded: the Al-Faisaliya Café, a live music café in Baghdad.

His inspiration: noticing the lack of gathering places for young Iraqis. “I found a need of community,” he says.

IYLEP helped by: teaching Zain about the principles of social entrepreneurship. He says there weren’t really any youth initiatives in Iraq before IYLEP launched in 2007. Most young people aspired to secure jobs with the Iraqi government rather than venturing into the private sector. “After 10 years of exchange programs, now there is a different mentality,” he says. “This is the future of Iraq. Not by government, but by youth business.”

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Raya Al-Lataifei, 20, Basra: IYLEP High School

Raya Al-Lataifei is a community organizer and an architectural engineering student at the University of Basra. She’s been an active member of the Basra is Your Home campaign, which works to support families who have been displaced by ISIS, as well as the White Helmet Team, an organization that offers trainings for engineering students.

2014
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Doa’a Czar, 23, Wasit: IYLEP Undergrad

Doa’a Czar is a medical student and a humanitarian who works independently and with NGOs to support and empower women, focusing on issues such as violence, child marriage, and healthcare. She studied at the University of Texas at Austin during her IYLEP Undergraduate exchange, where she fondly remembers one professor who taught her how to be a better listener.

2015
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Thamir Elias Khidir, 27, Duhok: IYLEP Undergrad

Thamir Elias Khidir was already making a difference in his community when he joined IYLEP Undergrad in 2015. The year before his exchange program, the 27-year-old Duhok native founded the civil society organization Humanity, which seeks to help the most vulnerable people of Iraq, particularly women and children.

Humanity was Thamir’s response to the inhumanity he witnessed that year as ISIS attacked the city of Sinjar, forcing thousands of Yazidis—a Kurdish-speaking religious minority—to flee to Duhok. Being Yazidi himself, Thamir briefly fled with his family to Turkey. But upon his return the following month, he was alarmed. “I saw thousands and thousands of people, people who have been on the mountain for days,” he says. “I wanted to do something for these people.”

Over the weeks that followed, Thamir began coordinating with his friends and acquaintances on social media to collect toys and other essentials to donate, even receiving shipments of donations from Europe. Soon, he registered Humanity as an official NGO, partnered with the Danish relief organization Mission East and, in June 2015, opened a community support center.

Later that summer, Thamir joined IYLEP and traveled to the U.S., where he studied entrepreneurship at Ball State University in Indiana. He says the experience there helped him become a better leader—one who is as determined as ever to serve his community. “If we don’t learn, if we don’t do it for our community and ourselves, we will never be able to develop,” he says. “That’s why I’m staying—I want to become a better person in order to provide better services.”

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DYLEP Launches

In 2016, World Learning built on IYLEP’s success with the Digital Young Leaders Exchange Program (DYLEP). This two-year online program connected Iraqi and American students in virtual host families; together, they watched lectures, played games, and discussed digital citizenship. Students were able to access DYLEP anywhere and at any time. “It helped us reach those who typically may not have the opportunity to do an in-person exchange, including refugees, IDPs (internally displaced persons), and people with disabilities,” says World Learning Program Officer Jennifer Chen.

DYLEP has helped U.S. teens like Turner Payne learn about the Middle East and shatter stereotypes.

Read Turner's story' 2016
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Sajjad Mohammed, 23, Baghdad: IYLEP Undergrad

He founded: Care-Iraq, an online database and booking system connecting Iraqis with healthcare professionals.

His inspiration was: In early 2016, Sajjad woke up with a toothache, but discovered that his family dentist was away on vacation. He didn’t know where to find another dentist and began to wonder why there wasn’t a way to search for that online.

How IYLEP helped: That summer, Sajjad traveled to the U.S. to study social entrepreneurship at Ball State University through IYLEP Undergrad. Consultations with his professors as well as medical professionals at Ball State helped Sajjad come up with a business plan for Care-Iraq, which he launched in November 2016.

What’s next: Sajjad plans to continue developing the Care-Iraq database and doing everything he can to help rebuild his country. “If there’s change coming,” he says, “it’s coming from young, motivated Iraqis.”

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Fatima Khamasi, 18, Diwaniyah: IYLEP High School

Fatima Khamasi is an 18-year-old high school student from Diwaniyah, Iraq. She’s headed to university soon to study medicine and, eventually, international social work and community development. In the meantime, she hopes to continue working on projects like the Diwaniyah City of Peace Carnival, a festival she founded to promote peace in her city.

Read Fatima’s story
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Mohammed Obaid, 18, Kirkuk: IYLEP High School

He founded: Iraq’s first Model United Nations club.

His inspiration: Mohammed learned about Model UN during his IYLEP exchange program in D.C. His roommate–who hails from Stowe, Vermont–told him about the organization. Intrigued, they decided to work together to launch Iraq’s first-ever chapter. “I saw how Model UN is not about solving world issues but having the opportunity to learn the skills that could lead you to becoming a leader, a diplomat, or a politician,” Mohammed says.

Why it matters for Iraq’s future: “Why is Model UN important? It builds a generation of politically and civic-minded individuals.”

Why he’s taking action: “Before going on IYLEP, I was like, ‘This is my lifetime opportunity. I should not come back empty-handed.’”

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IYLEP Arabic Launches

In hopes of reaching even more Iraqi youth–many of whom may not have the English language skills required to join IYLEP–World Learning organizes a cohort group conducted entirely in Arabic. By its second year, IYLEP Arabic boasted a class that was 53 percent female, spread across Iraq’s four regions: North: 16 percent; Central: 24 percent; South Central: 31 percent; South: 29 percent.

“By bringing in students who are Arabic speakers only and providing them that opportunity [to participate in the program], it creates more diversity. We’re always looking for new ways to do that.”–Christienne Carroll, Cultural Affairs Officer, U.S. Embassy

Read about IYLEP Arabic’s first class 2017
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A Decade of IYLEP

To celebrate the 10th anniversary of IYLEP—and all the change that alumni have gone on to create in their communities and their country—World Learning hosted a reunion conference in Baghdad on March 31, 2018. More than 250 young adults from provinces across the country gathered together alongside distinguished guests, including U.S. Ambassador Douglas Silliman and World Learning President and CEO Carol Jenkins.

“We have learned that these programs enable people from different walks of life to find their voices, transform, and lead. Through these programs, we are together building bridges across the world, making our communities better places in which to live.”–Carol Jenkins

Read more about the conference 2018
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The Future of IYLEP

Over the last decade, IYLEP has given more than 2,300 young Iraqi citizens an opportunity to explore the world and instilled in them a desire to serve their communities. Already part of Iraq’s broader transformation, these alumni–like Thamir Elias Khidir in the video above–are determined to continue their work as leaders and change-makers. World Learning has been honored to work with these promising young people, and we look forward to the next 10 years.