Young Iraqi Professionals Find Their Direction through Bawsala Career Mentorship Program

Participants of World Learning’s Bawsala Career Mentorship Program in southern Iraq have significantly higher rates of employment than alumni of another U.S.-funded career program in the region and college-educated young adults who didn’t go through a program at all, according to a recent tracer study.

Bawsala Career Mentorship Program is an approach to youth workforce development created by World Learning for the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. In addition to teaching job-seeking skills, it offers an experience of self-discovery that can ultimately lead young workers to a more fulfilling career.

“World Learning’s Bawsala Career Mentorship Program is a proven, scalable, and replicable model that we have successfully implemented in a number of different contexts to help connect young women and men to professional opportunities,” says Catherine Honeyman, World Learning’s senior youth workforce specialist, who led the study.

The program started in 2015 to build job-preparation skills for college students in southern Iraq, an important economic center rich in oil, gas, and agriculture.

To date, 177 students have completed the program, funded by the U.S. Department of State, despite challenging circumstances.

Since the program was launched, southern Iraq has been hit hard by anti-government corruptions protests and a wave of violence that shuttered the U.S. consulate in Basra; high youth unemployment following years of ISIS activity and recruitment in the area; and more recently, the global COVID-19 pandemic.

Despite these monumental hurdles, the Bawsala Career Mentorship Program not only has endured but has even expanded to three neighboring areas in the south: Dhi Qar, Maysan and Muthanna.

“Our combination of periodic online or in-person meetings with a mentor, self-study guides, and the support generated within the group have been powerfully effective with our participants and have adapted to difficult situations and needs,” says Honeyman.

Today, Bawsala­ — Arabic for “compass” — helps college-educated youth find their way in the region’s private-sector job market. Adult mentors working in a variety of industries act as a kind of compass, helping young people navigate their career path.

This is no small task, given high unemployment throughout the country.

Youth Unemployment Rates Soar

In 2020, Iraq’s official unemployment was reported at 12.83 percent despite a bloated state sector. Youth unemployment is estimated to be much higher, at over 25 percent.

Youth with higher education degrees don’t seem to fare much better. World Learning’s recent tracer study noted that well-educated youth face particularly “high levels of unemployment and social discontent.”

According to the UN, Iraq has one of the youngest populations in the world. More than 60 percent of the population is under the age of 25.

World Learning supports several comprehensive workforce preparedness programs in Iraq, including Southern Iraq Job Skills Development ProgramBasrah Employability and Entrepreneurship Program, and English Language Investment and Training for Economic Success (ELITES) virtual program

Tracer Study Findings Support Bawsala Method’s Effectiveness

A tracer study tracks participants after they complete a program to find out how the program impacted their lives.

“In this case, we could compare our participants’ employment outcomes to the employment rates found among Iraqi youth using university career centers — and we found that our participants had about a two times higher rate of employment despite the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Honeyman.

Despite a tough job market in southern Iraq’s Basra Governate, Bawsala Career Mentorship Program also compared “very favorably” to employment rates of a similar group — university graduates who accessed Career Development Center (CDC) services under the U.S. Iraq Higher Education Partnership Program (HEPP).

The tracer study found World Learning’s Bawsala Program demonstrated a higher rate of employment both during COVID-impacted closures (36 percent versus 22 percent) as well as longer-term pre-COVID employment (52 percent versus 26 percent) than CDC services.

“We were surprised and pleased to learn through this tracer study that our participants have attained significantly higher employment rates than comparable motivated youth who have accessed university career services in Iraq,” says Honeyman, an expert in education quality, employment, and entrepreneurship with extensive experience leading research and policy analysis.

“This shows that our mentorship model offers important added benefits,” she adds, pointing out that young women in a socially conservative region are able to fully participate in the Bawsala Career Mentorship program.

Skills Sought by Private Sector Employers

A pre-pandemic survey of private-sector employers in Iraq revealed that recent college graduate job candidates lacked skills such as critical thinking, time management, and flexibility — the soft skills needed to succeed in the workplace.

The program coordinator for Bawsala Career Mentorship Program in Iraq [World Learning also runs a Bawsala Career Mentorship Program for young women in Algeria], says the aim of the mentorship program is to develop a range of interpersonal communication and life skills required by Iraq’s private sector and international employers.

“Bawsala is different from other programs in that it focuses on the actual needs of the job market,” she says.

In 2019, World Learning conducted a labor market study and a follow-up in 2021 in the Basra area. . The program integrated the most needed skills by the employers in the southern region.

“English language skills are the number one thing employers are looking for,” says the coordinator, who previously worked as a translator at the U.S. consulate in Basra.

Bawsala Career Mentorship Curriculum

The Bawsala curriculum spans eight months — approximately four hours of material a month for a total of 32 contact hours — and includes business English.

The current cohort started this spring and is made up of 80 students and 12 mentors from four provinces in southern Iraq who meet virtually due to the pandemic.

The program aims for parity between young men and women, as well as diversity based on religious and sectarian affiliation, including minority groups and students with disabilities.

Throughout the mentorship program, students work with a group of nine other students and a mentor in activities aimed at building relationships.

Mentors meet regularly online with their groups to introduce each module, and in between meetings, mentees work on individual exercises and receive feedback and guidance from peers.

The program covers eight themes including understanding personal strengths and weaknesses, conducting an effective job search, preparing and acing a job interview, public speaking, creating a virtual professional footprint, entrepreneurship, and problem-solving in the workplace.

The program coordinator says the virtual meetings go twice as long as they did in person because there’s more discussion and students are eager to participate. They are given two weeks to complete a self-guided activity online before the module wraps up with another meeting and lots of discussion.

It turns out, “the virtual choice was excellent for us,” she says. “What we find is that participants and mentors connect more easily via Zoom.”

Participant and Alumni Feedback

Bawsala Career Mentorship Program participants are 18- to 22-years-old, in university and chosen based on personality and motivation.

The program coordinator says applicants are chosen based on their vision for the future and for themselves.

Participant feedback from the tracer study indicates that participants appreciated the positive impact that the Bawsala program had in their lives.­

The program coordinator says students tell her the program has changed both their career and life perspectives.

“Some of them are still in college and say their studying has improved, their grades have improved, and the relationship with the people around them has also improved,” she says.

Mentors work in the private sector, often in their company’s HR or recruitment departments, speak English well, and have experience working or training youth.

They are paid a small stipend for their volunteer work.

“It’s a win-win situation,” says the program coordinator. “It helps a company find the perfect candidate.”

The program also incorporates preparedness and networking for budding entrepreneurs. The tracer study indicated that 6 percent of Bawsala alumni were planning to start a business.

In a previous cohort, an IT specialist found two partners to join him in creating a business — an IT center servicing other small businesses.

Other alumni have gotten jobs in the oil and gas industries, energy and power sectors, international organizations, and diplomatic missions.

One tracer study participant writes: “The experience of the career mentorship program was exceptional. I developed my skills a lot.”

He reports getting a pre-graduation job offer, which he accepted. Since then, he reports, he has continued to build his skills: “Now, I am 25 years old and became the director of a health, environment, and safety department of an oil company in Basra.”

The success of the program goes well beyond landing a job. “It made me understand the nature of work, how to write a CV, and other skills,” writes another Bawsala student.

Honeyman says World Learning is already working with some career centers in Iraq.

“I hope we can continue helping them to strengthen their offerings to achieve even greater impact for their students,” she says.

“It’s exciting to have such a consistent chain of programing serving youth in Iraq so that we can really see their successes and support them further over time.”

Celebrating the Importance of Virtual Exchanges on National STEM Day

By World Learning Program Associate Katya Murillo and Intern Taieb Cherif

Climate change, food security and sanitation, healthcare, and gender equality are just a few of the many grand challenges countries across the globe face today, and in an increasingly global world we recognize that we must work together to solve them creatively. But how?

On this National STEM Day, World Learning recognizes the power of STEM education as a driving force of change. In SyriaEthiopia, and Algeria among others, our STEM programs have transformed the lives of young people by exposing them to new career opportunities and experiences. Last month, World Learning launched a new program that will continue to use STEM education as a driving force of change: The NextGen Coders Network (NGCN).

This virtual exchange program will bring together university students and young professionals from Iraq, the Palestinian Territories, and the United States through “hackathons.” From the comfort of their own homes, local libraries, or university campuses, participants will use coding skills to design solutions to their countries’ grand challenges. This format fosters greater cultural understanding between U.S. and international participants as they work both individually and in groups and collaborate across borders and professional backgrounds. At the end of each of the program’s four cycles, participants will have an opportunity to showcase their prototypes in a virtual “Ideas Festival.” NGCN is funded by the Stevens Initiative, which is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, with funding from the U.S. government, and administered by the Aspen Institute.

Through NGCN, World Learning aims to highlight the importance of STEM education in finding innovative solutions to our world’s complex problems. The NGCN curriculum spans over 10 weeks and introduces participants to coding languages and concepts like project management and design thinking. It comprises 15 modules that cater to the different needs of participants, while developing and strengthening hard skills that will give participants the confidence to thrive in a technological age. This curriculum allows students to not only gain knowledge in STEM areas, but to think critically and resourcefully about the change they can create in the world.

World Learning knows the world’s grand challenges require diverse perspectives and backgrounds to work together and learn from each other’s successes and failures. It might even be that a solution already exists, and the next challenge is figuring out how to scale the solutions for all to benefit. That is why NGCN emphasizes the multidisciplinary nature of the virtual exchange, bringing together an international cohort of students and young professionals who do not exclusively come from a computer science background, as the name of the program might suggest. Thus, participants can benefit from the multiplicity of perspectives and areas of expertise.

Solving global issues necessitates a deep intercultural understanding among people across the world. With more than 86 years of experience running international exchange programs, World Learning, through NGCN, aims to promote virtual exchange as a way to create a generation of globally and culturally aware citizens. Such programs have the capacity to empower young people and give them a new window to the world at low economic and social costs.

Reflecting on what drew him to this program, Aryan Wadhwani, a participant from Indiana University, expressed that he is fascinated by the idea of a virtual exchange and sees in it as an opportunity to “learn about the experiences of people from different cultures” and “come up with ideas to solve real-world problems.”

World Learning looks forward to seeing how Aryan and his peers will go on to drive change in their communities, countries, and beyond.

How a Partnership is Paving the Way to STEM Education in Kurdistan

Some partnerships were meant to be.

For years, kids all over the world have been learning how to program computers and build robots as part of the global movement toward STEM education. But it took a bit longer for STEM to take root in Kurdistan, the autonomous northern region of Iraq.

Kurdistan Save the Children was eager to change that. Founded in 1991, the Iraqi nonprofit organization works to ensure protection, health, and education for all children. Over the years, it has developed a wide network and an excellent track record for educational youth programming.

Still, the idea of launching its own STEM initiative was daunting.

“When something is untouched like this in your region, you are kind of hesitant,” says Sara Rashid, a senior officer at Kurdistan Save the Children. “Do we have the capacity? Do we have the skills? Do we have the knowledge?”

Partnering with an organization with experience in STEM education seemed like the best solution — and, two years ago, they decided World Learning was the ideal partner.

Several staff members at Kurdistan Save the Children are alumni of the Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program(IYLEP), a U.S. Department of State-funded international exchange program that World Learning has facilitated for more than 10 years. They informed the organization’s leaders that World Learning was seeking a partner, too, for a new program called Kids Can Code.

Funded by the Catalyst Foundation for Universal Education — and using computer kits and a STEM curriculum provided by the technology company Kano — Kids Can Code was designed to teach basic coding and English language skills to Syrian children living in refugee camps in Iraq. Based in Washington, DC, World Learning needed a partner on the ground that could train teachers and deal with issues as they arise.

Kurdistan Save the Children was a perfect candidate for that job. Not only did it have a depth of experience in educational programs for children, but the nonprofit also operates a youth activity center in the Arbat refugee camp in Sulaymaniyah province.

“They’re an organization that has deep roots in the community,” says Dr. Kara McBride, senior education and research specialist at World Learning. “Kurdistan Save the Children has been there ever since the first families in Arbat arrived. They have the community’s trust, and they understand their needs.”

For Kurdistan Save the Children, the partnership also held possibilities beyond developing their capacity in STEM. Rashid says World Learning’s commitment to experiential learning set it apart from other NGOs. “With World Learning, we knew it would be a different experience because they are very much education-oriented,” she says. “We were hoping to have that door open to a different approach to education.”

Training the Trainers

That door opened with the training of trainers in September 2018.

As Kurdistan Save the Children would be responsible for hiring and training the Kids Can Code teachers, it was important for key staff members to gain a deep understanding of the STEM and English curriculum first. And so, that fall, McBride traveled to Kurdistan to offer training alongside Kano’s education community manager, Taylor Chustz.

“What we learned from World Learning in a month takes three years to learn independently.”

Over the course of a couple weeks, McBride and Chustz worked with the four Kurdistan Save the Children staff members — all long-serving employees — who had been designated as the program trainers to ensure its sustainability. Using Kano’s innovative kits, they learned how to teach children to build a computer and then program it to make art, games, and music. McBride also demonstrated how to incorporate experiential learning — which engages children in hands-on activities and encourages them to reflect on and learn from those experiences — into a classroom. Rashid says this flexible, child-friendly style of teaching is new to Iraq, which traditionally takes a more rigid approach to education. “It really hit home,” Rashid says.

It was clear to Rashid that her colleagues had absorbed what they’d learned when they hosted a five-day training for the new Kids Can Code teachers. That training went like clockwork: all the materials were ready and organized without any need for further adaptation.

“What we learned from World Learning in a month takes three years to learn independently,” Rashid says. “The benefits are endless.”

Flexibility and Feedback

No matter how thorough the training, though, challenges are sure to arise in a classroom. During the first cohort of Kids Can Code, World Learning remained in close touch with Kurdistan Save the Children in order to help them navigate those obstacles.

“World Learning is very flexible in giving you a lot of feedback with every report you send. Your partner is committed from beginning to end.”

Each week, Kurdistan Save the Children submitted monitoring reports that noted issues the teachers were facing such as a lack of self-confidence among the children or divisions between the boys and the girls in the class. McBride responded to each report, offering suggestions on how to adapt the curriculum to meet those challenges.

“The difference in working with World Learning is that there isn’t a rigid format that you stick to from the beginning of a project until the end of a project,” Rashid says. “World Learning is very flexible in giving you a lot of feedback with every report you send. Your partner is committed from beginning to end.”

That made a difference when it came time to train a new set of teachers for this year’s Kids can Code cohort. Kurdistan Save the Children incorporated the lessons learned from the previous cohort directly into the teacher training. Not only did it ensure that teachers had the tools to deal with problems as they arose, but it also has helped prevent some problems from occurring. It’s an encouraging sign that Kurdistan Save the Children is now ready to step up its education programming.

Building a More Sustainable Future

In fact, Kurdistan Save the Children is already transforming its approach to education using the knowledge gained from the Kids Can Code partnership.

Having witnessed the value of experiential learning, many of the teachers hired for Kids Can Code have already been able to use the new techniques and activities they learned from McBride in the other courses they teach at Arbat.

“For World Learning to come in and train Kurdistan Save the Children in such a sustainable way, that will resonate for a long, long time.”

Meanwhile, the nonprofit has also built experiential learning into all its teacher trainings. Rashid says the impact of that decision cannot be underestimated given the organization’s broad reach in the region, including its role training public school teachers.

“For World Learning to come in and train Kurdistan Save the Children in such a sustainable way, that will resonate for a long, long time,” Rashid says.

Collaborating with World Learning has also given Kurdistan Save the Children the confidence it needed to venture further into the STEM education field.

Later this year, the organization plans to roll out a STEM curriculum adapted from Kids Can Code at its six other cultural activity centers — meaning that, soon, even more kids across Kurdistan will be part of the global movement toward STEM education.

That’s truly the power of partnership.

In Iraq, a Mentorship Program Gives Young People New Job Opportunities

Sarah was just hoping for a job — any job — when she joined a workforce readiness and mentorship program last year in Basrah, a southern Iraqi city known for its vast oil reserves.

Having just entered her fourth year of college, Sarah, now 23, knew the challenges young people face finding work in her country. As the World Bank reports, Iraq’s labor market is particularly difficult for women and youth, more than a fifth of whom are neither employed nor in education or training.

In Sarah’s experience, there seemed to be few avenues to help young people prepare for the working world beyond the technical knowledge they gain in school. Internships are rare in many fields, while universities seldom train students in soft skills such as communication skills and critical thinking. Many of Sarah’s friends didn’t even know how to apply for a job let alone excel at one.

Eager to gain those skills, Sarah applied to join the Basrah Employability and Entrepreneurship Program. Funded by the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and implemented by World Learning, the seven-month program connects young people with professional mentors and provides them with hands-on job readiness training.

The program exceeded her expectations: Within two months of graduating, Sarah received seven job offers. And she didn’t need to settle for just any job — she’s now working in her chosen field, the oil and gas industry, as a document control officer.

“I was blown away,” Sarah says. “It was crazy. [The program materials] were really, really useful.”

Sarah’s story is one of this innovative program’s many successes.Originally launched in 2015 as the Maharat Mentorship Program, the Basrah Employability and Entrepreneurship Program takes a comprehensive and contextual approach to preparing youth to join the workforce. World Learning drew on its extensive experience in youth workforce development to create the curriculum, while also tapping into the local knowledge and networks that staff have developed over 10 years implementing the Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program.

Guided by their mentors in monthly meetings, participants explore various career pathways, identify their strengths, discover how to overcome their weaknesses, and learn best practices for job-seekers. Then, they put their knowledge into action through mock interviews, networking events, building profiles on professional social networks like LinkedIn, and more.

In Basrah, this mentorship program fills a vital need.

“I believe Basrah [is lacking access to] the skills required to seek for a job and enter the market,” says Mohaned, 30, an engineering and IT supervisor for a major oil and gas company.

As the Basrah native explains, the region lacks job-training programs that help young people get a foothold in the working world. As a result, his company tends to hire people from the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, where there’s greater access to soft skills trainings.

In 2017, Mohaned became a mentor in the Basrah Employability and Entrepreneurship Program to help local youth overcome these challenges. He believes the program is particularly effective due to its experiential nature, noting that this is the first opportunity for many students to experience a learning style that is hands-on rather than lecture-based.

Sarah affirms that practicing interviewing, resume-writing, and networking in real-world scenarios made it easier to apply those skills in her job search. But she also says that mentors like Mohaned help set this youth workforce development program apart.

In fact, mentorship has made a difference in Sarah’s life even beyond her career. She recalls how one of her mentors suggested that she had a talent for training others. With a little guidance, Sarah decided to pursue extracurricular opportunities as a peace education trainer — and she now works as a trainer with the United Nations Development Programme.

“If the mentors see somebody who has more to give, they work on it,” Sarah says. “They opened the door for me. I didn’t know I could do that.”

In fact, participants overwhelmingly report that the Basrah Employability and Entrepreneurship Program has made a difference for them. Since its inception, the mentorship program has trained 85 Iraqi participants — 90 percent of whom report coming away with clearer career goals as well as increased confidence in writing CVs and interviewing for jobs. In 2018, 95 percent reported satisfaction with their monthly mentor sessions, while 100 percent felt more comfortable working in teams.

The program’s success has extended to Algeria, too. In 2017, World Learning partnered with the U.S. Embassy in Algiers on another iteration of the Maharat Mentorship Program tailored to Algeria. It, too, has shown results: In 2018, 70 percent of participants had secured employment or internship opportunities during the program.

Employers can see the difference in job applicants.

Schlumberger, a global oil company with projects in Iraq, has hired two graduates of the Basrah Employability and Entrepreneurship Program, Zainab and Haneen. Their supervisor noted in an email to World Learning that both women “start every day ready for any problems [they] may face. A very important skill that both had was their ability to effectively communicate topics that [are] very complex. They have used this ability over the past months to successfully solve several problems and the company has benefited a lot.”

Mohaned recently saw that when his employer held an all-day job interview for entry-level engineers. Throughout the day’s activities, which tested both technical knowledge plus teamwork and leadership abilities, three candidates stood out to the hiring committee — all alumni from the Basrah Employability and Entrepreneurship Program. They were all hired.

“I was really happy and proud,” he says. “I could see the practical impact of [the program] on their skills.”

For Children in a Syrian Refugee Camp, Coding Is More Than a Skill

Kids across the world are learning how to code. In recent years, coding has come to be seen as one of the many skills that can prepare children for a rapidly changing economy.

But learning to code has taken on special meaning for the children of Arbat, a Syrian refugee camp in northern Iraq. Here, a new coding club is helping kids make friends, learn English, and rediscover passions they had to leave behind when they were forced from their homes.

It’s also an opportunity to resume an interrupted education. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCHR), four million refugee children don’t attend school — let alone have access to competitive science and technology skills like coding. For Syrian refugees, the challenge is especially dire with two-fifths of school-aged children out of school.

Last year, World Learning teamed up with three forward-thinking partners in the private and civil sectors to address that challenge by launching Syrian Refugee Kids Can Code. Held five days a week in the Arbat activity center, this club offers children the opportunity to build and program computers using coding kits provided by the technology company KanoKurdistan Save the Children (KSC), a local NGO, runs the club’s daily operations, which are funded by the Catalyst Foundation for Universal Education, an organization that supports projects that encourage kids to pursue education.

Kids Can Code is deliberate about offering that encouragement. World Learning’s global education team adapted Kano’s coding curriculum to make it accessible for students in the camp by developing English vocabulary and grammar games to help the students — most of whom speak little to no English — use commands on their computers. Knowing that children need to feel safe and comfortable in order to learn, the team also trained KSC teachers to provide psychosocial support.

It’s already making a difference. Read on to find out how Kids Can Code has impacted the lives of Laila, Berivan, and twin sisters Nasrin and Rozhin.


Laila grew up in Syria with her parents, a younger sister, and two younger brothers. She loved visiting her uncle, an artist, to watch him paint. “I spent hours looking at my uncle’s hands to see what he drew,” she says. “I never got bored.” At age five, she began to paint, too. Her uncle encouraged her to keep going and so she started painting every day. Art become her favorite subject at school.

But when Syria’s civil war broke out, Laila’s family had to leave everything behind. They fled to the Arbat refugee camp in Kurdistan, the northern region of Iraq, where life was more difficult than Laila had expected. “I was excited to start a peaceful life, but at the same time I was so sad to leave all my paintings and painting equipment [in Syria],” Laila says. Struggling to provide for their family, her parents couldn’t afford to buy new painting supplies. Laila had to give up painting entirely.

That changed in 2016. Kurdistan Save the Children opened an activity center — which had its own art department — inside the Arbat camp. Laila began visiting the activity center daily to practice painting once again. In 2018, she even had the opportunity to showcase her work at KSC’s Annual Kaziwa Exhibition.

Kids Can Code helped further ignite Laila’s passion for creativity. She loved learning how to code — especially using the Make Art app, which uses coding to creating drawings — and discovered she was quite good at it. She became a regular in the class.

Laila is determined to keep going in her art education so that someday she can grow up to become an artist — just like her uncle.


Berivan’s life started out quite ordinary: She lived happily in a small house in Damascus with her parents, younger brother, and younger sister. But in 2014, when she was 6, things changed. Her father had to go away for work, traveling during a time when Syria was engulfed in violent conflict. He never came back.

Not long after, the Syrian army destroyed Berivan’s house, forcing the family to move in with an uncle. Though Berivan was sad to lose her little pink room and her neighborhood friends, she got used to her new life. Playing with her cousins helped her forget some of the pain that she had suffered. Her family lived there for three years.

In 2017, though, the family decided to leave for Kurdistan. “All we wanted at that time was freedom,” Berivan says. Though it was difficult to once again leave everything behind, they knew they could live in peace in the Arbat refugee camp.

Now Berivan has a stable life. Her mother got a job cleaning the Arbat activity center, where Berivan participates regularly in Kids Can Code. She loves how it has improved her English language skills and taught her how to draw through coding. She works hard at her studies so that she can someday become a successful teacher and help her mother care for the family. “My mother is my hero,” Berivan says. “She never made us feel that we don’t have a father.”


Nasrin and Rozhin never got to know their parents. Just weeks after the twin sisters were born in Syria, their father was killed in a demonstration. Shortly afterward, their mother remarried and traveled abroad, leaving her daughters behind. They never heard from her again.

Fortunately, an aunt took in the twins, deciding to raise them like her own children. Since then, she has done everything she can to be like a mother for her nieces — including fleeing to Kurdistan when they were 5 years old for their protection from the unrest in Syria.

Still, things were difficult upon arrival at the Arbat refugee camp. Their aunt struggled to find employment, resorting to collecting leftover bread to re-sell so she could pay the electricity bill. And while the girls started attending school every day, they didn’t have any friends and never went out to play.

That changed when they joined Kids Can Code. During the coding classes, Nasrin and Rozhin started to come out of their shells, making friends with other children at the camp. Their grades in their English class have improved through the course, too — and they even taught their aunt some of the English words and phrases that they’ve learned.

Life remains difficult for Nasrin and Rozhin. While the girls have always felt like they do have a mother — they call their aunt “mom” — they still mourn their father. “When we see children holding their fathers’ hands it breaks our heart, because we will never know how it feels to have a father to protect you,” Rozhin says. Yet, in spite of that sorrow, the twins remain full of life and dreams of a better future.

Watch this video from our partner Kano to learn more about Kids Can Code:

Fighting Inhumanity with Humanity: How One Young Iraqi — and the NGO He Founded — Is Driving Change in His Community

Thamir Elias Khidhir has witnessed the inhumanity that stems from intolerance and sectarianism because it has surrounded him his whole life.

Khidhir grew up in Duhok, a city in the autonomous northern region of Iraq known as Kurdistan. As home to many of the country’s ethnic and religious minority communities, Kurdistan has often been a haven for those fleeing violence and persecution. It’s also often caught in the crosshairs of sectarianism. In his young life of 24 years, Khidhir has been forced to leave home — for the city of Mosul or to neighboring Turkey — simply because he’s part of the Yazidi religious community.

Now Khidhir is fighting inhumanity with Humanity, a civil society organization he founded in 2014 that works to protect and empower women and children. “We focus on the most vulnerable people and we try to help them,” Khidhir says.

Seeking to continue the journey he began with Humanity, Khidhir traveled to the U.S. in 2015 as an undergraduate participant in the Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State and implemented by World Learning. Khidhir says the four-week exchange “added a lot of experience, a lot of information, and helped me to become a better leader.” Its impact can be seen not only in his work, but in that of a growing number of young Iraqi leaders.

The Birth of an NGO

In 2007, al-Qaeda bombed the city of Sinjar, near Duhok, injuring or killing hundreds of Yazidi people. Horrified, Khidhir asked his father what he could do to help. His father counseled him to finish his studies before getting involved in humanitarian work.

Seven years later, Sinjar was attacked again, this time by ISIS, who killed thousands and kidnapped hundreds of women and children. According to news reports at the time, as many as 200,000 Yazidis fled their homes, including tens of thousands stranded on the mountain range overlooking the city. This time, Khidhir was compelled to take action. He collected food items and brought them to Sinjar Mountain to distribute. “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.”

Within weeks, ISIS insurgents had gained ground perilously close to Khidhir’s home in Duhok, forcing his family to flee to Turkey. “In Turkey we became refugees,” he says. But while his family decided it was time to leave Iraq for good and seek refuge in Europe, Khidhir wanted to make change in his community. He returned home a month after leaving.

Crossing the border into Duhok, Khidhir saw hundreds of children displaced from their homes, living on the streets without toys. “I knew the feeling,” he says. “It is a feeling that I have had before, so I wanted to do something for these people.” He filled his car with toys and distributed them at shelters and among those living in tents. He posted about these efforts on social media and immediately received messages from friends who wanted to join. That network of volunteers even began receiving donations from followers in Europe.

That’s when Khidhir had the idea to turn this informal network into a professional civil society organization. “We were basically doing what NGOs do, but we weren’t as professional even to know that,” he says. Though he was still just an undergraduate student at the University of Duhok, Khidhir formally registered Humanity as an NGO.

In the months that followed, Humanity grew even stronger through a partnership with the Danish relief organization Mission East. In June 2015, the NGO opened a community support center at the top of Sinjar Mountain, followed shortly by several other community centers that provide supplies, child protection, and psychosocial support. Humanity also formalized its volunteer program, offering young Iraqis access to professional development opportunities in exchange for their help.

Khidhir says it’s important to him to create these opportunities. “When we were establishing the organization, there was no one to go to for support,” he says. “Because we didn’t find someone to help us, we wanted to help [others].”

Becoming a Stronger Leader Through International Exchange

Though he’d managed to launch Humanity without any formal training, Khidhir wanted to become an even better leader. So, in 2015, he applied and was selected to join that year’s IYLEP undergraduate cohort, which took him to Ball State University in Indiana as well as Washington, DC.

IYLEP’s programs provide training in civic engagement, peacebuilding, and leadership, and the undergraduate program also allows participants to specialize in themes relevant to their careers or study. Khidhir pursued IYLEP’s community development and entrepreneurship theme.

Through IYLEP’s workshops and community visits, Khidhir learned how to better network with potential donors and write effective proposals — skills he needed to turn Humanity into an even more robust organization. As Khidhir notes now, “I started leading the volunteers and the employees that were working with me in a better way. It helped me a lot to be a better person, a better leader.”

But the IYLEP experience was eye-opening for Khidhir in other ways as well. Though he had taught himself English by watching hours upon hours of movies, Khidhir soon realized that U.S. culture was not what he had expected. For example, he had thought the whole country was fraught by racial tensions, so was surprised that he was placed with a biracial family for the homestay portion of his exchange.

Khidhir says experiencing such diversity — as well as the diversity within his own cohort — made a difference for him and his fellow IYLEPers. “Going to the United States, we would go as Iraqis,” he says. “We wouldn’t go as Kurds, Arabs, Christians, Yazidis, or Muslims.”

Last year, Khidhir attended a conference World Learning hosted in Baghdad celebrating 10 years of IYLEP exchanges. There, he reflected on how IYLEP and other international exchange programs have spurred a change among Iraqi youth who are engaging in their communities and developing their own small businesses. “[Exchange programs] open our eyes to the outside world to help in giving us the idea to do this work,” he says.

But while Khidhir has had other opportunities to study and live abroad — he was accepted into a master’s degree program in Germany, where his family now resides — he’s decided to stay put. Not only does he want to continue his work with Humanity, but he believes it’s the responsibility of young Iraqis like him to rebuild their country.

“If we don’t do it for our community and ourselves, we will never be able to develop,” he says. “That’s one of the reasons why I want to help the community myself. I want to become a better person in order to provide better services. That’s why I’m staying.”

Watch Thamir Elias Khidhir’s TEDx talk about his life and work below:

World Learning Receives Grant from the Stevens Initiative to Connect Students in the U.S., Middle East, and North Africa through Virtual Exchange

Grantees will create opportunities for U.S. and international students to build global competencies and career readiness skills through virtual exchange.

Today, the Stevens Initiative announced funding for The Experiment Digital and the NextGen Coders Network implemented by World Learning. They are two of six programs selected through an international competition to fund virtual exchange programs in the United States and the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).

World Learning is part of the third round of Stevens Initiative grantees. These exchanges will enable thousands of young people to gain the skills that they need to succeed in today’s economy and society, and to establish new cross-cultural connections.

Under the Stevens Initiative, The Experiment Digital, implemented by World Learning, is a two-month summer virtual exchange program that helps high school aged youth become more civically engaged by empowering them to plan and execute a community service project. Through interactive modules on leadership, community issues, and digital citizenship, participants will gain 21st century global competency skills. Through small group dialogue with participants from different countries, participants will develop mutual understanding and learn how to communicate across cultures and regions.

Under the Stevens Initiative, the NextGen Coders Network, implemented by World Learning, will create a virtual exchange opportunity for university students and young professionals from Iraq, Palestinian Territories, and the United States of America.  These exchanges will take place through “hackathons” involving collaboration to solve grand challenges facing their communities using coding-oriented solutions. World Learning will implement the program in partnership with organizations in the U.S. and abroad.

“World Learning is thrilled to partner with the Stevens Initiative on these innovative virtual exchange programs that connect and empower young people across the world,” said Carol Jenkins, CEO of World Learning. “Building on our decades of experience in international exchange – and leveraging our robust digital platform and expertise in STEM education – we look forward to creating even more opportunities for young people to make a difference at home and globally.”

“I am very pleased with the grants that we are awarding for the next round of Stevens Initiative funded virtual exchange programs,” said Marie Royce, Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs, U.S. Department of State. “As bandwidths increase and platforms get more sophisticated, virtual exchanges open opportunities for international exposure and connection to hundreds of thousands – and potentially millions – of people. Virtual exchanges like those funded by the Stevens Initiative also facilitate cross-cultural experiences and build career readiness skills. I look forward to a great expansion of this innovative program over the next year and continuing to honor this living legacy to Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens.”

Through the work of these six new programs, the Stevens Initiative will expand its reach to nearly 40,000 students in 15 MENA countries and the Palestinian Territories, and in 44 U.S. states, Puerto Rico, and Washington, DC. Programs will begin this April and will continue through the summer of 2021.

Other programs include:

  • Global Nomads Group (GNG): Campfire, GNG’s flagship program, focuses on virtual storytelling – an interdisciplinary and powerful vehicle for youth to build empathy, self-awareness, and global understanding.
  • International Research & Exchanges Board, Inc. (IREX): The Global Solutions Sustainability Challenge (GSSC), implemented by IREX, connects students in the United States, Jordan, and Iraq to virtually collaborate on a sustainable solution to a contemporary business challenge.
  • Soliya: Soliya’s Connect Global will bring together college-aged youth in the United States and in the Middle East and North Africa for online, face-to-face dialogue.
  • William Davidson Institute at the University of Michigan (WDI): Implemented by WDI, Business & Culture: A Virtual Practicum is a classroom-to-classroom, action-learning course on international business cultures that brings together students from Egypt, Lebanon, Libya, and the U.S.

“The Aspen Institute values the open exchange of ideas and the work of the Stevens Initiative allows for just that,” said Elliot Gerson, Executive Vice President of Public & Policy Programs at the Aspen Institute. “Through virtual exchange, youth in the US and MENA region are able to engage with one another, learn together, and become global-minded leaders.”

Created in 2015 by the Stevens family as a living legacy to Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, the Stevens Initiative is a public-private partnership that is building global competencies and 21st century skills for young people in the United States and the Middle East and North Africa. Through virtual exchange, the Initiative connects youth through technology to collaborate and learn together, giving them access to a substantive international exchange.

The Initiative is awarding these six grants to schools and organizations to implement virtual exchange programs, lasting from several weeks to several months, for students from middle schools, high schools, colleges, and universities.

World Learning works globally to enhance the capacity and commitment of individuals, institutions, and communities to create a more peaceful and just world through education, sustainable development, and exchange. Our programs advance leadership in more than 150 countries.

The Experiment Digital and the NextGen Coders Network are funded by the Stevens Initiative, which is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State with funding provided by the U.S. Government and is administered by the Aspen Institute. It is also supported by the Bezos Family Foundation and the governments of Morocco and the United Arab Emirates.

More Information

The U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) builds relations between the people of the United States and the people of other countries through academic, cultural, sports, professional and private exchanges, as well as public-private partnerships and mentoring programs. These exchange programs improve foreign relations and strengthen the national security of the United States, support U.S. international leadership, and provide a broad range of domestic benefits by helping break down barriers that often divide us. Visit

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, DC. Its mission is to foster leadership based on enduring values and to provide a nonpartisan venue for dealing with critical issues. The Institute is based in Washington, D.C.; Aspen, Colorado; and on the Wye River on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. It also has offices in New York City and an international network of partners. For more information, visit

The Bezos Family Foundation supports rigorous, inspired learning environments for young people, from birth through high school, to put their education into action. Through investments in research, public awareness, systems building and programs, the foundation works to elevate the field of education and improve life outcomes for all children.

The Embassy of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in Washington, D.C. is committed to promoting and increasing cross-cultural understanding and educational exchanges. In line with the UAE Government’s values, the Embassy supports educational programming at schools and universities across the U.S. The Embassy works with U.S. institutions to provide unique opportunities for peer-to-peer exchanges and help broaden student’s horizons.

The Kingdom of Morocco has held a longstanding commitment to the promotion of peace, mutual understanding and respect across all fora.  In line with this commitment, the Government of the Kingdom of Morocco is a strong supporter of the Stevens Initiative and is proud to be included in its programs, which foster opportunities for cross-cultural exchanges between youth.

U.S. Flag U.S. Department of State seal  

How Lourd Hanna, IYLEP Alumna, is Building Peace and Understanding in Iraq

Lourd Hanna saw that things needed to change in her native Erbil, Iraq. In 2011, sectarian violence was at a high between Arab and Kurdish Iraqis. 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 Hanna took that responsibility upon herself, diving into volunteer work with charities and NGOs.

She was especially motivated to get involved having just returned from four weeks in the United States through the Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program (IYLEP). Sponsored by the U.S. Embassy Baghdad and the U.S. Department of State and administered by World Learning, IYLEP brings Iraqi high-schoolers and undergraduates to the U.S. to learn about peacebuilding, civic engagement, and leadership.

“It was a beautiful experience,” Hanna says. “It helped in shaping who I am today.”

Before the exchange, Hanna was frustrated by the way young people were shut out of her country’s political system — the way decisions were made for them, but without them. She was curious what life was like for 16-year-old girls in the U.S. Would they be involved in making decisions for their country’s future?

No, she discovered. The teens she met in the U.S. weren’t clamoring for a seat at the table with their country’s decision-makers but were instead more focused on community service and making a difference in other small ways. “They were planting seeds to have the harvest later,” she says.

She realized that perhaps she could do the same: if there was no place at the table for Iraqi youth, maybe they could create their own table. “We can at least express how we feel about small decisions that are connected to our lives,” she says.

Over the next couple of years, Hanna volunteered in her community whenever she had the opportunity — sometimes alongside her father, who ran a civil society organization.

By 2014, though, Hanna was ready to take a seat at a bigger table. That summer, ISIS invaded the Nineveh Plains, forcing out the area’s mainly Christian minority population. Many fled to Erbil, where organizations like the one where she volunteered helped them find shelter. Hanna was appointed to oversee one of those shelters, where she cared for 60 displaced Iraqi families. “It was the beginning of me taking responsibility,” she says.

As time passed, she realized she wanted to do even more. She wanted to ensure that Iraqi families would never again have to face persecution or displacement based on their religious beliefs or ethnic identities. “Why not work on something beyond the outcome of the conflict?” she asked. “Let’s go deep into the root of the conflict.”

In 2016, Hanna and two colleagues launched the Middle East Sustainable Peace Organization, a nonprofit working to build cultural bridges between the various religious and ethnic communities in Iraq. The nonprofit brought together people from all different ethnicities, religions, and genders for a series of workshops aimed at understanding one another. The participants visited mosques, churches, and Zoroastrian temples to learn from religious leaders how those faiths contribute to peace, and they visited minority communities to learn about the role of minorities in the peace process. Then the participants came together to reflect on what they learned and practice strategies for dialogue. “It was the baby steps of peacebuilding,” Hanna says.

Hanna has since moved on from Middle East Sustainable Peace Organization, but continues her advocacy work. Heartbroken to discover that ISIS had destroyed religious and cultural heritage sites in the Nineveh Plains, Hanna is now planning a digital storytelling project documenting the traditions, music, and stories of the region.

“My project goes beyond bricks,” she says. “It goes beyond walls. It goes beyond materials. It goes straight to the heart. Storytelling is the most powerful technique right now.”

Throughout all these projects, Hanna has been able to draw on her experience with IYLEP and its emphasis on diversity, tolerance, and driving change in your community. At last year’s IYLEP reunion conference in Baghdad, Hanna was thrilled to see a diverse group of young people who are all working to make the world a better place.

“This is the legacy that IYLEP has left,” she says. “It’s a connection. It’s a community that IYLEP has built. It’s a community that empowers, a community that leads, a community that excels, a community that will make plans for a better future.”

That future, Hanna adds, seems closer than ever before.

“I feel like the promises that we made back when we were in IYLEP are becoming reality,” she says. “We’re achieving what we promised that we would do, which is coming back and making change.”

This Women’s Rights Advocate is Using Entrepreneurship to End Gender-Based Violence in Iraq

Shan Sherwan, Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program (IYLEP) alumna and women’s rights advocate in Iraq.

Shan Sherwan has been advocating for women’s rights since she was 16.

Growing up in Sulaymaniyah, Iraq, Sherwan’s passion for empowerment was inspired by her late mother, a secondary school teacher who wrote articles under a pseudonym for women’s newspapers. Those newspapers — which the family kept hidden as they were taboo at the time — always seemed to bring news of honor killings.

“I found out I’m in a society where I don’t own the body that I’m in,” Sherwan 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 at her school could protect themselves from harassment, sharing that research with her classmates while also encouraging them to finish their education.

Now, at 29, Sherwan is still searching for ways to support and protect other women. As an economic empowerment manager, she helps women develop the resources and skills to gain financial independence through entrepreneurship and other vocational skills.

She was able to turn her passion into a career with the help of the Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program (IYLEP), an international exchange sponsored by the U.S. Department of State and implemented by World Learning. IYLEP offers Iraqi high school and undergraduate students an opportunity to spend four weeks in the United States learning about leadership, civic engagement, peacebuilding, and more.

In 2010, Sherwan heard about IYLEP as an undergraduate student in Iraq. She was intrigued by the opportunity to become a more effective advocate. Even though some of her family members warned her against applying — believing the opportunity was wasted on a girl — she did so anyway. “I really thought IYLEP would open that door for me,” she says. “And it did. I gained way more than I had ever hoped.”

Sherwan credits IYLEP with developing her confidence and leadership abilities and providing her with the tools to take action in her community. For example, during the exchange, Sherwan took part in public speaking exercises and delivered presentations at U.S. universities about the history of Iraq. “It really helped me a lot with my communication,” she says.

After IYLEP, Sherwan returned to Iraq, where she completed her engineering degree and joined an organization that raised awareness about women’s rights. She then earned a scholarship to attend the University of Southern Indiana, where she completed a bachelor’s degree in economics and a master’s degree in business administration. She then returned to Iraq to work on economic empowerment programs for NGOs including the International Rescue Committee and, currently, Women for Women International.

Through that work, Sherwan trains women in entrepreneurship skills, with a focus on helping domestic violence victims gain economic independence from their abusers. She’s already seen the difference it can make. Some of the women in Sherwan’s vocational workshops have gone on to open hair salons or sell clothing in their refugee camp. One woman took lessons from a financial skills course to open a secondhand shop in Sulaymaniyah. Their newfound financial independence means that these women don’t need to rely on an abusive spouse to feed and provide housing for them and their children.

“It’s so important to have your own money,” Sherwan says.

Sherwan notes that these skills are important beyond these immediate successes. “Wherever they go, [these women] can take the skill that they learned,” she says. “So, it’s really important to focus on the basic skills: how to start a business, how to maintain it, how to calculate the cost, the benefit. That skill is very important because it’s transferable.”

Sherwan is always looking for new opportunities to make a difference in women’s lives, and IYLEP has helped her do so. In 2017, she received funding from the U.S. Embassy Baghdad’s Alumni Engagement Innovation Fund to teach handcrafting and English language to women who have escaped honor killings and are now living in a shelter. It was such a success that the Iraqi government ultimately decided to employ the handicraft trainer at the shelter full-time after the project ended.

Sherwan is also working to cultivate leadership among new generations of Iraqi youth. She recently joined World Learning as an Iraq Coordinator on the IYLEP team.

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

IYLEP alumni deserve credit for some of that shift. Sherwan notes that several members from her IYLEP cohort have gone on to become change agents and engaged citizens. “That’s how IYLEP equips us: to become more efficient, to become more productive, and to be more humanitarian,” she says.

Kids Can Code: Teaching Technology in Iraq

A man points at a small commputer while two young girls look on.Five days a week, around 200 school-aged children huddle around U-shaped tables in the activity center at the Arbat refugee camp in northern Iraq. Together, the children build computers and learn basic coding, all while they practice English and develop strategies for coping in a difficult environment.

These lessons are at the heart of Kids Can Code, a club for refugee children born out of an innovative new partnership that World Learning has launched alongside technology company Kano and Kurdistan Save the Children (KSC), with funding from the Catalyst Foundation for Universal Education.

“This is a really terrific partnership. We were thrilled to find an organization equipped to put together a program that would use this innovative product, which teaches a valuable skill and gets kids engaged with STEM,” says Emily Daughtry, senior program officer at Catalyst.

Two young girls work at a small orange computer as an adult woman looks on.Kids Can Code builds upon Kano’s intuitive technology and computer coding lessons, which give young people the skills they need to find jobs in the modern workforce and to shape the digital world. World Learning, a leader in global education, adapted that curriculum to make it accessible for students in the camp, most of whom speak little to no English and often struggle with trauma.

Dr. Kara McBride, senior education program specialist at World Learning, led the effort to form that curriculum. She likens her approach to the way Kano teaches kids to “hack” coding by offering easy-to-use lessons and games.

“I ended up taking that concept and hacking English,” she says.

McBride built vocabulary and grammar lessons and games designed to help students progress through the Kano coding lessons, which begin with simple and direct commands but grow more challenging each week. For example, McBride introduced a game called “Move If…,” in which students switch places with one another in response to commands their teacher gives in a combination of English and Kurdish. The game prepares students to use commands to move the cursor around in one of the Kano applications and later to understand “if…then” statements.

A girl types on a small orange keyboard while watching a small computer screen.Though English and technology skills are the main aims of the club, McBride says the curriculum design also builds soft skills — like collaboration and problem solving — and is embedded with psychosocial support elements to help children who are dealing with difficult life circumstances feel safe in the classroom and develop skills for making friends and handling emotions. Kids Can Code teachers are trained to provide the emotional support their students need. “From the very first minute they walk in, you’re greeting them and being interested in their lives,” McBride says.

Kids Can Code’s daily operations will be sustained by KSC, an Iraqi humanitarian organization. World Learning connected with KSC through the extensive alumni network of another World Learning program, the U.S. Department of State-funded Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program (IYLEP). McBride says that partnership was essential.

“It is huge,” she says. “There’s no way we could access the camp without them.”

Catalyst, the funding partner, was also critical to the success of Kids Can Code. Catalyst supports projects that encourage kids to strive for higher education as well as non-formal education projects that help keep them engaged in education no matter their circumstances. Daughtry says the Kids Can Code project perfectly bridges those two pillars.

“It’s an exciting way to engage young people in a 21st century skill that’s really valuable,” she says. “And hopefully it will also spark their interest and keep them engaged with STEM skills in a way that will make it easier for them to stay on a pathway to higher education.”

How an Exchange Helped One U.S. Student See the World—and Her Own Country

In 2012, Stephanie Greene (right) participated in the Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program, where the Chicagoan made many new friends from Iraq while traveling to Vermont, Montana, and Washington, DC.

Stephanie Greene believes international education can change the world.

“I think it’s really important to expand your worldview, to realize the world is so much bigger than my neighborhood, my city, my state, and my country,” she says.

Greene learned this lesson firsthand the summer before her senior year in high school when she traveled around the United States alongside young people from Iraq as a participant in the Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program (IYLEP).

For 10 years, IYLEP has brought Iraqi high school and undergraduate students to the U.S. for four-week exchanges focused on leadership, peacebuilding, and civic engagement. Select students from U.S. schools also join the program, which 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.

In 2012, Greene was one of the U.S. participants, traveling with IYLEP to Brattleboro, Vermont; Bozeman, Montana; and Washington, DC.

IYLEP seemed like a perfect fit for the Chicago native. She was interested in other cultures, having traveled with her family and studied Spanish from an early age. She also attended a diverse high school where she worked to bridge cultural divides, including serving as her high school’s diversity chair, a student government position tasked with planning events to bring their community together.

Stephanie Greene.

“I’d never met anyone from Iraq and I had never been to Montana or Vermont,” she says. “So, I was just really excited to meet new people who weren’t from Chicago and to learn a bit more about the world.”

IYLEP didn’t just teach Greene about the world; it changed the way she saw the world and her own place in it.

When Greene joined IYLEP, she didn’t know much about Iraq aside from the violence she had seen on the news. Through her new friendships with Iraqi high schoolers, she began to understand that their lives were far richer than that — and she also saw how their day-to-day lives were impacted by world events through things like government-imposed curfews. This, she says, was an important discovery.

“Now that I’m an adult, and as I grow in my career, it is important that I have a worldview because I could one day be making decisions that impact people in other countries,” she says.

The international exchange program also helped the teenagers dispel stereotypes as they learned about their differences. Greene notes that most of the students — both Iraqi and American — had never met or interacted with anyone from the other culture. One of the Iraqi students even told Greene that she thought all black Americans were gangsters because that’s how they were portrayed in movies.

“Here I am, a black person, and I’m not a gangster,” Greene says. “Now she has a different idea of what a black American could be or who they are. That’s cool.”

Greene applied this lesson later in life as she studied abroad in Spain and Mexico. As she was often the only black person in the small towns she visited, people would take pictures of her as she walked by them or ask about her braided hair. While she knew from experience that comments about her appearance can be rooted in racism, Greene realized these people were legitimately curious.

“One thing that I learned during IYLEP — and I’m grateful I learned this so young — is to take curiosity for what it is,” she says. “Assuming goodwill was a big thing I took out of IYLEP.”

Greene (third from right) with her IYLEP cohort visiting Yellowstone National Park.

Finally, a homestay in Montana also taught Greene how geography shapes people. She spent two weeks living with a host family in Bozeman, where she and her Iraqi roommate studied sustainability, took bike rides, and even went hiking for the first time together. The experience stood in marked contrast to the urban environments they grew up in.

“For both of us, it was an eye-opening experience in terms of how people live — even in my own country,” Greene says. “Where you live impacts how you live, the things you do, and the interests you have as well.”

International education has continued to play an important role in Greene’s life in the years since IYLEP. As a student at the University of Chicago, she studied abroad twice and volunteered with the Young African Leaders Initiative, an exchange program that brings African civic, business, and community leaders to the U.S. for training. She’s also still in touch with her friends from IYLEP.

Greene and her friend Baraa.

Now a consultant, Greene hopes to find work in the international education field so that she can give other young people the same experiences she had through IYLEP.

“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.”

She recalls a team-building exercise from her IYLEP exchange. The U.S. and Iraqi students were paired up and asked to complete the sentence, “Together, we are … ” Greene and her friend Baraa chose the word “infinite.”

“‘Together we are infinite’ — that kind of sums up what I’ve learned from IYLEP,” she says. “When we all work together, we can literally do anything.”