Young leaders in Iraq and U.S. want to bridge the cultural gap

Aysar Alaidi had never left his native Baghdad — let alone Iraq — when he traveled halfway across the world ten years ago.

Eager to improve his English, learn about other ways of life, and share his own culture with Americans, the 18-year-old applied to join the Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program (IYLEP), a fully funded four-week trip to the United States.

“The whole process of applying, my heart was beating to be accepted,” he says.

The U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad launched IYLEP to expose Iraqi youth to U.S. culture and values and promote better understanding between the people of the two countries. During the program, Iraqi students live with American families and participate in community service activities and leadership workshops.

IYLEP, which celebrated its 10th anniversary at an event in Baghdad earlier this year, has been a life-changing experience for young Iraqis who have gone on to become leaders in their own communities.

Alaidi is one of them.

Smiling portrait of man with plants Alaidi had never left his native Baghdad before he came to the U.S. for the first time ten years ago. (Photo: World Learning)

World Learning, one of the program’s founding partners, selected him to join the class of 2008. That summer, he visited World Learning’s headquarters in Vermont and Washington, DC, to study U.S. democracy and the importance of inclusion, cross-cultural communication, and civic engagement. He also stayed with a local family in Louisville, Kentucky, where he prepared and served meals at a homeless shelter and designed a service project to carry out in his own community.

Alaidi, now 28, says IYLEP taught him that he wanted to pursue this kind of work.

“This idea stuck in my mind,” Alaidi says. “I was talking to myself, ‘What about doing such things here in Baghdad?’ I started looking for campaigns and other people like me to work with them to enhance our community.”

In 2011, he helped organize the Baghdad City of Peace Carnival, a celebration now attended by thousands of Iraqis across the country. Along with two friends, Alaidi also launched the Al-Mansour University Youth Initiative for Cancer Children, which raised money to build a playground and provide toys to an Iraqi children’s hospital. Alaidi also joined community service campaigns to clean Iraq’s historic sites and collect money and food for people displaced by ISIS attacks.

Group of Iraqi youth outside building IYLEP gave Alaidi and hundreds of other young Iraqis the opportunity to express their thoughts about the world. (Photo: World Learning)

Alaidi’s memories of IYLEP also reverberated powerfully in personally trying times.

One day in 2014, a few months after graduating with a degree in software engineering, Alaidi left home to pick up dinner for his sick mother when a bomb went off under his bus seat.

“There was smoke and sparks all around me,” he says. “I didn’t feel anything, but I saw the driver jump out from the car. After that, I felt some pain in my leg and my back. I stood up and tried to walk but my leg was crushed.”

Bystanders rushed to help Alaidi and take him to the hospital, where doctors found that 15 centimeters of his leg had shattered. They amputated twice, first below the knee and then above it, due to blood poisoning. Over the months that followed, Alaidi was in constant pain as he sought a decent prosthetic leg — which were expensive and in short supply in Iraq — and learned how to walk again.

Though he had survived the bombing, Alaidi feared that his life was over in every other way. He faced discrimination at work, where his boss at an IT company told him he had "no right" to ask for more money or complain about his work conditions, since the company had done enough by hiring a person with a disability. Alaidi spent months questioning whether he would ever be able to achieve his dreams.

In those times, Alaidi thought of the children he had met a few years earlier in Louisville. World Learning had arranged a visit to a school for blind children, where Alaidi was amazed to discover they were getting a quality education, with music classes and resources that he didn’t have in Iraq. These children walked to school by themselves and lived normal lives.

“Each time I am about to lose it and give up, I remember those kids who are really my heroes,” he says. “I have to be like them and be a hero to myself.”

Alaidi has become a hero — to himself and to his community.

Alaidi speaks at an event. Alaidi credits IYLEP for being a catalyst in his public service career. (Photo: World Learning)

In the years since the bombing, Alaidi left the IT field to pursue a career in public service. As a project manager for the Italian humanitarian NGO Un Ponte Per, he supported women's rights defenders, arranging workshops to help them better advocate for women’s rights and offering a legal clinic for women experiencing domestic violence.

Now at the International Organization for Migration, Alaidi is working on a community police project that builds relationships between Iraqi police and the communities they serve, with an aim to resolve potential conflicts before they escalate. “We create space for both sides to meet up and discuss problems in the community and make a plan to solve them,” he says.

Alaidi credits IYLEP as one catalyst for the changes in his life — as well as the ongoing transformation of Iraqi society. The program gave him and hundreds of other young Iraqis the opportunity to express their thoughts about the world and understand the new challenges of the 21st century. It prepared them to tackle those challenges, too.

“IYLEPers now have this knowledge of volunteering, of working together to achieve a goal,” Alaidi says. “It is time for us to step in and take the lead.”

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