Editor’s note: In order to ensure the safety of Iraqi students, the Collegian is using pseudonyms for the Iraqi students mentioned throughout this article. Photographs will not be published.
It’s not the lofty Pikes Peak of Colorado Springs, or the towering skyscrapers in Denver, or even the hiking paths of Estes Park that first come to Iraqi student Sara’s mind when she describes her fascination with Colorado.
It’s the CSU Student Recreation Center, and more specifically, it’s the freedom to be able to go swimming at any time she pleases.
She is not allowed to partake in sporting activities at home.
Sara is one of 16 college-aged Iraqis who traveled from their homes to CSU this past June with the Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program.
Over the summer, six universities nationwide hosted groups of 15 to 20 students, many with different religious backgrounds, with the goal of giving them new perspectives on each other and on the western world.
“We’re looking for rising leaders. The one unifying factor for us is leadership capability. So these students already come with a desire to make a difference,” said Goli Ameri, assistant secretary of state for Educational and Cultural Affairs, in an e-mail interview.
IYLEP is in its second year of existence after being introduced by President Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in June 2006. This is the first year CSU has sought participation.
When the students left the U.S. three weeks ago, IYLEP academic leaders asked the Collegian to hold news publication on their visit in order to avoid media speculation while the students were within state boundaries.
Now in the midst of the Democratic National Convention and on the heels of al-Maliki’s announcement urging U.S. troops to withdraw from Iraq by the year 2011, these students’ story is just as relevant as ever.
Bringing Iraq to CSU
CSU was a marketable location for housing 16 program participants. The northern Colorado proximity allowed for students to meet with representatives from two state capitals, Cheyenne and Denver.
The program also aligns with the university’s goal of internationalization and bringing as much diversity to campus as possible.
“We have a tremendous talent pool at this university to be able to draw on,” said James Ross, IYLEP academic director.
In addition, Ross said, CSU’s multiple green initiatives were a great way to teach the students about the importance of the environment.
“CSU is really on the cutting edge of this new energy economy, and that’s really where we’re heading in the future,” Ross said.
CSU program leaders avidly pursued university involvement in the IYLEP and drafted many proposals and syllabi to allow for the program to happen.
According to Ross, the program is of utmost importance because “the more students that you can expose to how things work (in the U.S.), the more mechanisms you can expose them to from the inside . the more you are creating a very positive message.”
“This type of diplomacy is key in winning the hearts and minds of people,” he said. “We can run these types of programs for a very tiny fraction of what we spend on military (in Iraq).”
Ross and his team — Martha Denney, IYLEP director in international education, and Lynne Warner, program director — were granted approval 15 months ago.
Keeping a secret
The exchange program operates largely under the radar of the general Iraqi public to protect its participants.
The students learn about the program through word of mouth because of the fear of drawing any connection to the western world, students interviewed said. A friend of Sara’s father provided her with printed information on the program but told her to keep the information quiet.
“You can’t expect what the militia will do (to) you when they hear that you have any relation to the U.S.,” Sara said.
Because of the long, well-documented history of political strife in Iraq, signing up with the program was risky. The continued U.S. occupation of Iraq makes involvement with America taboo at best, according to the students.
“(The violence in Iraq) isn’t arbitrary,” Ross said. “It’s a very selective process. People are kidnapped and killed for a reason. Some groups don’t like the fact that the U.S. is over there, and if you’re sending students over here, they could view (the students) as agents of the U.S. . They could see it as (the students) being on the wrong side,” Ross said.
The IYLEP was approved and funded by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and implemented by World Learning, an international company catering to educational exchange programs.
The initiative focuses on public policy and leadership training but is “really in the spirit of sharing, not in the spirit of imposing,” Ross said.
In total, the program lasts six weeks. Six weeks is time enough for a rent payment and a half for an American college student. It’s a menial summer job. It’s a carefree road trip.
But six weeks can also be a short visit that provides the chance to remove 140 students from the pain of living within a war-torn country whose citizens breathe their own frustrations daily.
And in another six weeks, the lasting effects of the experience may have all but ended. When the students return, all newly formed connections with the U.S. will be cut off.
Behind the risk
At home, Sara is well-acquainted with apprehension and disrespect, she said. In addition to being a student, Sara is a Christian female.
Because of the fear of rebel militia groups, women and student-aged Iraqis are not permitted out alone; nor, Sara said, are they allowed to drive.
Although Sara has not faced blatant violence because of her beliefs, she struggles with her peers’ tendency to see equality as a function of similarity. Those who dress, speak or believe outside the majority lifestyle are often seen as people to be treated differently.
“Even my friends make comments and ask me why I don’t cover my hair or why I don’t wear their costume,” she said.
“On Christmas, my teachers put me on exams and don’t allow me to postpone them.”
Her schedule is the same everyday.
“Every morning, we go to classes, we return home, we help our parents, we study, and we go to bed,” said Sara.
It was this tedious routine, combined with her exasperation at the lack of respect she finds at home, which Sara said encouraged to apply for the IYLEP program.
Because many of the Iraqi students are interested in health education, they were given the opportunity to visit hospitals throughout the state. In addition to attending lectures focused on civilian control of military, they also participated in deliberative forums.
These forums, Sara said, were largely responsible for the students’ newfound respect for each other, regardless of the religious diversity that prominently divides Iraq.
Time was also specifically dedicated to visits with American students.
“Everyone really came together,” said Taylor Smoot, student government president, who spent a large amount of time interacting with the students. “They’re all really just pro-Iraq and pro-freedom.”
The students attended dinners with their “new international friends,” Ross said, and they were invited into American homes.
The Iraqi students left with new ideas about what America is and about how they might improve their own country.
Many students, both Ross and Smoot said, were interested in creating their own form of student government in their schools.
“Many students were interested in the idea of holding their government accountable,” Ross said.
However, protection in Iraq is limited, as the IYLEP directors are not present to ensure student safety once they leave the program.
There is no plan coming from U.S. officials as to how these students can form their own student government and spread new ideas without planting the question about where those plans came from.
Neither World Learning nor the U.S. Department of State have detailed how the students will be protected if they choose to share their experiences when they travel home.
“It has to become apparent pretty quickly amongst their colleagues when (the students) go home,” said Jim Cooney, political science professor and associate provost of International Programs.
“I think (their colleagues) will be aware that something special happened to afford them all of these new insights.”
Cooney said he believes that the returning students’ peers will soon become aware that their ideas came from an outside source. This could draw hostile reaction from anti-American groups, according to the students.
Cooney, who has been actively involved with the students, is not aware of any written guideline mandating a quiet visit, though the program’s directors insist that media was not to report on the students’ visit.
“I’ve never seen . those guidelines from the state,” Cooney said. “It’s curious that the state didn’t have a model syllabus developed.”
While the process of creating change is risky at best, Cooney said he admires the students’ courage to proceed with it anyway.
A long-term plan for peace
One of the goals of IYLEP was to change not only the views of Iraqis, but also those of Americans.
Smoot said his view of the U.S. occupation of Iraq shifted.
“In the last month, from spending time with (the students), my entire outlook on the war and on the Iraq occupation has changed,” Smoot said. “You always hear the media bull****, but it’s important to hear about what’s really going on from the other point of view.”
Many Iraqi students felt that should the U.S. military presence end now, Iraq would delve into chaos, according to Smoot.
“I had a woman tell me that she felt that George Bush is Iraq’s face of liberty,” Smoot said. “She said she never thought she’d see the day that Saddam was brought to justice.”
This shift in perspective is what many in the program cited as most beneficial.
Shawn, another student in IYLEP, said that regardless of possible danger stemming from his newfound connections, change is what he continues to hope for.
“Before freedom, we need peace and equality for humanity,” he said.
“I love my country so much,” Sara said, “but I don’t recommend that anyone live there right now.”
News Editor Elyse Jarvis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.