This Teen Is Transforming How His Peers See the Middle East

Fifteen-year-old Turner Payne didn’t know very much about the Middle East before last summer. Though he was interested in the world, Payne didn’t have much opportunity to learn about the region’s history or culture as a high school freshman in Maryland. What he knew about it was what he’d learned from social media and TV news stories, which portrayed the Middle East as a place of conflict full of terror attacks and refugees.

But that changed when Payne joined the Digital Young Leaders Exchange Program (DYLEP), a virtual exchange program run by World Learning that connects teenagers from the U.S. and Iraq. In addition to getting to know peers from another country, it’s designed to help them develop leadership skills, while fostering civic engagement and respect for diversity. Payne spent almost every day of the four-month program chatting online with Iraqi teenagers — his virtual “family” — learning about their culture and sharing his experiences with them.

“I learned through DYLEP about how rich the Middle East is and how many different cultures and religions it has,” Payne says. He was surprised to find out, too, how much he had in common with his Iraqi family. “We connected on a very personal level because we shared the same interests and values like the love of travel, learning different languages, watching sports, eating good meals, and hanging out with family and friends. And that’s something I didn’t think would [happen with] someone from such a different area than me.”

Now in his sophomore year of high school, Payne is working to help other teens dispel misconceptions about the world. DYLEP participants are encouraged to launch projects addressing challenges in their communities, so Payne founded an initiative called Binding Borders. The digital cross-cultural project features video interviews with students from the Middle East and North Africa talking about how their cultures are perceived in the U.S.

“My experience at DYLEP really opened my eyes to the many different stereotypes that existed in the U.S. about the Middle East,” Payne says. “I wanted to come up with an idea that would address this problem.” He thought video interviews would be a powerful way to help American teens understand how their peers from the Middle East feel about how their culture is portrayed.

Turner (left) with his partner and classmate Abdullah.

Payne turned to his DYLEP family for advice on developing Binding Borders, as some of them already had experience in launching community projects. They suggested their American friend partner with a classmate to help promote Binding Borders more widely.

Payne found that partner in his classmate Abdelrahman Abdullah, whose family had moved to the U.S. from Egypt a few years earlier. Abdullah enthusiastically signed on to be Binding Border

s’ director.

In his own video, Abdullah explains the cross-cultural challenges he faced when his family moved to the U.S. Most students associated his native country with camels and pyramids rather than facets of modern Egyptian society — and the media didn’t help. “[My culture is] always portrayed negatively,” he says in the video. “Sometimes people think everyone is a terrorist because you’re a Muslim or just from the Middle East.”

Payne says this message is a common theme throughout the seven or eight video interviews he has recorded for the project. “They want us to go beyond the news and actually learn [about their culture],” he says.

So far, these messages are helping. Payne says the classmates who have watched the videos are surprised by what they’ve learned about Middle Eastern culture. “After they see these videos they have a moment where they realize, ‘Oh my gosh, I’ve totally been stereotyping Middle Eastern students,’” he says. “I hope that will help them change.”

Payne and Abdullah plan to continue spreading Binding Borders’ message. They’ve presented the project to their school’s International Club and Payne has posted information about it on DYLEP’s Facebook page for alumni. They’re also planning to launch a Binding Borders club at their school next year, which Payne says will raise money to fund DYLEP scholarships as well as support the International Rescue Committee’s office in Silver Spring, Maryland. He’s excited to see how Binding Borders can help Middle Eastern and American students in his community overcome their differences and find a common ground.

“I think it’s important for us to learn as much as we can about other cultures and world views,” he says. “We need to welcome diversity.”

World Learning to Receive Grant from the Aspen Institute Stevens Initiative to Administer Virtual Exchange Between High School Youth in Iraq and the United States

The Aspen Institute Stevens Initiative today announced the award of a two-year grant to World Learning, one of 10 new projects funded through a national competition to use virtual exchange to increase cross-cultural understanding and equip young people to participate in a global economy.

World Learning’s is among the first wave of virtual exchange programs to be funded by the Stevens Initiative, a public-private partnership designed to increase people-to-people exchange between youth in the United States and the Middle East and North Africa as a lasting tribute to the legacy of Ambassador Chris Stevens.

Virtual exchange uses technology for sustained, people-to-people education programs. The Initiative aims to increase mutual understanding between youth in middle school through post-secondary and equip a generation of globally minded youth with the skills they need to succeed in an increasingly interdependent world.

The announcement marks the first major step in the Stevens Initiative’s plan to scale up people-to-people exchanges between youth in the United States and the Middle East and North Africa. The Initiative provided $5 million to support online programs that will bring more than 20,000 young people together to engage in cross-cultural learning experiences. The programs reach 17 countries in the Middle East and North Africa and 25 American states.

Under the Stevens Initiative, World Learning will implement the Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program – Virtual (IYLEP Virtual). With this program, World Learning will build upon its implementation of the U.S. Department of State Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program (IYLEP) by using innovative technology platforms to conduct an exchange and leadership development training entirely online for a diverse cadre of future Iraqi and American youth leaders. IYLEP Virtual’s curriculum will emphasize global leadership, education, and engagement.

Other examples of the work to be undertaken include:

  • Arabic, English and Kurdish language exchange programs between students in California and their peers in Morocco, Iraq and Saudi Arabia;
  • Storytelling through virtual reality for middle and high school students in Kentucky, New York, and Jordan, including Syrian refugees;
  • A collaborative anthropological project between high school students in Morocco and Chicago;
  • Global leadership activities for students in Iraq, Illinois, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Washington, and Wisconsin.
  • An online program exploring how the media portrays people in the United Arab Emirates and various states across the United States.

Most programs will launch in Spring 2016 and continue for a period of two years.

“This is the beginning of a global classroom. World Learning will be a pioneer in an exciting and dynamic field,” said Elliot Gerson, Executive Vice President of the Aspen Institute. “Our vision is to spark conversations between young people in countries around the world—to exchange ideas and information and to work together on addressing important issues. We look forward to working with World Learning to achieve this vision.”

The first Stevens Initiative award competition was open to U.S. non-profit organizations. In addition to holding future rounds of the award competition, the Initiative will share best practices and support research to address which methods have a measurable impact and have the potential to reach all young people as the field grows.

“World Learning is proud to work with the Aspen Institute on this important and innovative project,” said Carol Jenkins, President for Global Development and Exchange at World Learning. “We have implemented the Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program for many years and look forward to applying that experience to use new technology to build and strengthen relationships between American and Iraqi youth.”

The other Stevens Initiative grantees announced today are:

  • Chicago Sister Cities International
  • Eurasia Foundation
  • Global Nomads Group
  • National Democratic Institute
  • Soliya
  • State University of New York – Center for Collaborative Online International Learning
  • University of California Berkeley
  • Wofford College
  • World Learning

World Learning is a nonprofit organization that works globally to enhance the capacity and commitment of individuals, institutions, and communities to create a more sustainable, peaceful, and just world. The organization empowers people and strengthens institutions through education, development, and exchange programs.

The Stevens Initiative is a public-private partnership designed to increase people-to-people exchange between youth in the United States and the Middle East and North Africa as a lasting tribute to the legacy of Ambassador Chris Stevens. By fostering structured online engagements between young people in secondary through post-secondary education, the Stevens Initiative aims to increase mutual understanding and equip a generation of globally minded youth with the skills they need to succeed in the 21st century.

Housed at the Aspen Institute, the Stevens Initiative is a collaboration between the family of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, the U.S. Department of State, the Bezos Family Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, the governments of the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Algeria, and Morocco, and Microsoft, Mozilla, Twitter, and GoPro. Visit the Stevens Initiative at

Iraqi Students Lead New Efforts to Aid Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons

In late July, just weeks after government forces liberated Mosul from ISIS control, a group of Iraqi high school students met with officials from the U.S. State Department, Iraq’s Ministry of the Interior, and various NGOs. They weren’t there to network: The students were presenting comprehensive plans to provide displaced Iraqis access to education, psychosocial support, healthcare, and more.

Ahmad Soofe was one of these young Iraqis. He has seen the refugee crisis firsthand. In June 2014, when he was in the ninth grade, his family was forced from their home in Mosul. Though his father found work and resettled the family in Erbil, Soofe knows he was lucky. He has visited the refugee camps outside of Erbil and witnessed the hardship. “I want to solve it,” Soofe says

Finding innovative solutions to Iraq’s refugee crisis was the focus of this year’s Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program (IYLEP), a State Department-funded and World Learning-operated scholarship program. For 10 years, IYLEP has brought Iraqi teenagers to the U.S. for leadership training and cross-cultural exchange through homestays and community service. However, this particular IYLEP group was the first conducted in Arabic to reach those without English language skills.

Maitham Sarhan, an IYLEP mentor, outlined his plan to launch a similar leadership-building program within Iraq.

Throughout the morning, students and their interpreters presented initiatives ranging from providing medical care for displaced people to collecting furniture and other household conveniences for those who are finally able to return to liberated cities like Mosul. Soofe and his student partners outlined an Education, Training, and Online project (ETO) to teach internally displaced children how to read and write, as well as provide job and life skills training to young adults, particularly women.

Soofe’s team had conceived of the project earlier in the IYLEP program. Before arriving in D.C., the group spent a couple of weeks in San Diego where they stayed with families and visited nonprofits to learn about community service. One of those nonprofits offered to give Soofe’s group computers for trainings via Skype, while another agreed to conduct those trainings.

Altogether, IYLEP was an important experience for Soofe. “It’s the best chance in the world to improve your abilities,” he says. “To be a leader. To serve your community.”

Not all projects are likely to be successful. Some may struggle to find funding or the volunteer support. But at least one student group is already well on its way to realizing its vision.

One team worked on a project called Touch, which aims to clean and beautify a liberated Mosul.

Hamsa Ahmed and Ghuroob Alsheikh Gumar presented a detailed plan to host an arts festival in Baghdad to help internally displaced children heal the psychological wounds of war. The festival would offer workshops teaching basic drawing skills and handicrafts, as well as a bevy of entertainment and snacks, all run by volunteers. “This is their moment,” Ahmed says. “Forget about the past.” Gumar agrees. “Wherever there is art, there is peace,” she says. After the one-day festival, the young women plan to give children drawing pads to practice and teach others how to use art as therapy.

Their plan impressed one official from Iraq’s Ministry of the Interior. Fadhil Salih, director of contract verification in the Office of the Inspector General, decided that the project was so well-organized — and realistic — that he immediately offered the two young women a traditional Iraq tent in which to host the festival. He also volunteered his own children to work at the event. “I saw powerful students having goals to help displaced students,” Salih says.

Salih — who was visiting World Learning’s offices in Washington, DC as part of the International Visitor Leadership Program — touted the importance of the IYLEP program in fostering civic engagement among Iraqi youth. “We as leaders in the Ministry of Interior will do our best to help the students we have seen,” he adds.

Ahmed is encouraged by the support from a member of the Iraqi government and is determined to return to Iraq and exercise her new leadership skills for the good of her community. “Every human has a goal, but sometimes we just need a chance to show our abilities,” she explains. “Now I’m a leader. Now I’m a strong female. I can face everything in the world.”

Alumni Thematic International Exchange Seminars

Participant Profile

Participants are alumni of U.S. government-sponsored exchange programs and vary in age and level of expertise, but all will be engaged in the seminar topic and highly motivated to create change in their communities.

Please consult the list of U.S. government-sponsored exchange programs below.

Participant Selection

Alumni TIES participants who are not U.S. citizens are nominated by the U.S. Embassies or Consulates in their countries. Please contact the U.S. Embassy or Consulate in your country to learn how you can participate in Alumni TIES. Potential Alumni TIES participants who are living in the United States can apply for specific seminars managed by World Learning. The web link to the online application will be distributed widely by the Office of Alumni Affairs of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.

All participants for Alumni TIES seminars are selected by the U.S. Department of State.

Program Design

Alumni TIES seminars take place in six world regions and the U.S.; each seminar is three to four days for small groups of alumni. The seminars include speakers, capacity development trainings, and alumni networking activities. Through the small grants initiative, alumni have the opportunity to take action and make a positive difference in their communities.

Learn More

Watch more videos about the Alumni TIES program.

Read stories from past participants about their experiences at the seminars or with their small grant projects on the Alumni TIES blog.

For information on programs for U.S. government-sponsored exchange program alumni visit the International Exchange Alumni website.

Alumni TIES is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State with funding provided by the U.S. Government and supported in its implementation by World Learning, in partnership with the Office of Alumni Affairs of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA).  

EducationUSA Academy

For further information: [email protected]

“Through EducationUSA Academy, I made new friends from all over the world, I learned about the American education system and requirements for getting accepted to an American university, and I visited one of the most interesting places in the United States in a friendly and helpful group.” -2017 EducationUSA Academy participant

Student Eligibility

Participants must:

  • Be students (currently enrolled or recently graduated), ages 15-18 at the time of the summer program;
  • Have at least three years of middle to high school English language study (language requirements may vary slightly by institution);
  • Be mature and self-disciplined, with a commitment to active participation in the Academy and its programming;
  • Aspire to pursue a portion of their higher education in the U.S.; and
  • Have sufficient personal funds to cover program fees and international airfare.

More information is available from your local EducationUSA adviser. To find your local EducationUSA advising center, please visit the EducationUSA website.

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EducationUSA Academy is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State with funding provided by the U.S. Government and administered by World Learning.

International Visitor Leadership Program

End of Year Report

Chosen by U.S. embassies worldwide to participate, distinguished professionals include:

  • parliamentarians
  • government officials
  • entrepreneurs
  • NGO leaders
  • journalists
  • academics
  • arts administrators
  • mid-career professionals

Programs focus on policy issues in areas such as:

  • government
  • international security
  • foreign policy
  • entrepreneurship
  • economics and trade
  • media
  • women’s leadership
  • education
  • public health
  • arts
  • agriculture
  • disability rights and inclusion

World Learning staff members design national itineraries, arrange logistics, set up meetings in Washington, DC, and coordinate the collaboration of U.S. Department of State program officers, interpreters and International Visitor Liaisons, and more than 85 community-based member organizations from the Global Ties U.S. Network who arrange local programs nationwide.


Most participants are mid-career professionals and emerging leaders, and for many, this is their first visit to the U.S. Groups are of varying sizes, from single visitors to groups of 25 or more. World Learning program staff work closely with their State Department counterparts to design a program customized to the project objectives and the visitors’ interests.


Participant Selection

IVLP candidates are selected solely by U.S. embassy personnel in each country. There is no application form. World Learning is a private sector partner of the U.S. Department of State; our role is limited to designing programs for participants once they arrive in the U.S. For further information regarding the program, please consult the U.S. Department of State’s website.

Program Design

A typical project includes up to a week of meetings in Washington, DC, to provide an orientation and overview of the theme and to introduce visitors to federal officials and agencies, national organizations, academics and think tanks, nonprofits and NGOs, and professionals in their specific field of interest. All projects include a briefing on the US federal system of government. Meetings may include panel discussions, site visits, workshops, individual interlocutors, job shadowing, or service opportunities. Visitors typically travel to an additional three or four cities in geographically diverse regions of the country; the itinerary may include a state capital and a small town to provide first-hand exposure to the great diversity that exists in the U.S. Also included in the program design are hospitality dinners, school visits, community service activities, and cultural events such as rodeos, state fairs, festivals, visits to national parks, or events that highlight some unique aspect of the region visited.

Participant Experience

“My recent experience in the IVLP program is so far the deepest ever for me to see and understand the full picture of what America as a country is like. I strongly believe this program will have a very long-term impact on my views about America and the world and to some extent it has already helped me to understand many long-time questions.” – Journalist from China

The International Visitor Leadership Program is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State with funding provided by the U.S. Government and administered by World Learning.