October 10, 2018

Mayada Alsafi (third from left) with a group of IYLEP 2018 participants.

Over the last 10 years, young people across Iraq have taken the lead in their communities: They host dialogues in their schools, organize city-wide peace festivals, and provide food and shelter for those who have been displaced from their homes.

Many of these young people trace their transformation back to their participation in the Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program (IYLEP), which celebrated its 10th anniversary this year. Funded by the U.S. Embassy and the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, IYLEP has brought more than 2,300 high school and undergraduate students to the U.S. for four-week exchanges focusing on leadership, peacebuilding, and civic engagement. World Learning has implemented IYLEP since its inception.

Mayada Alsafi has also been there since the beginning. This Baghdad native — who is now World Learning’s country program director for Iraq — has been IYLEP’s on-the-ground expert from its very first year when World Learning partnered with her previous employer, the American Development Foundation (ADF), to recruit participants and provide resources on the ground. Alsafi has since watched IYLEP grow from a small exchange that elicited fierce skepticism to one that makes a real difference. In the following interview, she looks back on the early days of IYLEP, its evolution, and her hopes for its future.

How was the program perceived in Iraq when it first launched?
Well, no one believed that it was going to happen, even the people who applied for it, because it is in the mindset of Iraqis that it’s not going to happen to ordinary people. [They believe] such opportunities will be taken by political party members or people in high levels in the government. So no one would believe that any ordinary high school student or college student could really apply freely and get accepted without a connection to someone in a political party.

How did you recruit students in the beginning?
For the first year, for the sake of timing and because of the security situation, ADF relied on their 300 employees all over the country. [We made] an announcement in all of our offices — in Baghdad, Erbil, Hela, and Basra. And we communicated with trusted local NGOs. At that time, we were not able to visit a school or a college to talk about IYLEP. Back in 2007, the situation was so hard, so we had to recruit, but we also had to make sure that we were secure in doing that.

For two years, we adopted this strategy in recruiting. But in 2009, we started visiting high schools and some colleges — in the safe areas. We weren’t able to visit all areas.

Can I ask you to talk a little more about the security situation in the first year? It was fairly dangerous to be involved with IYLEP at the time, right?
Yeah, definitely. Starting in 2005 until around 2008, the security situation was worse. For example, I couldn’t even tell my relatives I was working for an international or American entity. Only my immediate relatives, my siblings, that’s it. I could not say anything about my job to anyone, even my uncle, my cousins. So you can imagine how it was insecure. And, at that time, people’s emotions were against the U.S. so it was not doable to visit a school and talk about a training in the U.S. because you cannot know the background of this headmaster or this professor. You cannot know his beliefs, his ideology.

Now those people that I’m talking about are the minority and, even if I speak to them, I feel safe that I will not be harmed. But at that time, you cannot know.

Alsafi listening as one IYLEP 2018 participant delivered a speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

How did that affect how active the students could be in the community when they returned?
Many students at that time would not tell even relatives that they were in the U.S., so how would they implement a follow-up project after coming back? They tried to do some things as a group without saying that they were IYLEP alumni. Students in medical school would form a group and go to a children’s hospital, for example, bringing gifts and having a joyful time with them without the need to say, “We learned to serve the community in the U.S.”

What feedback did you get from the students in the first year?
It was a lifetime opportunity for them, really an eye-opening opportunity. It changed their ideas about the community. IYLEP is always really redirecting your vision. Instead of being a person who cares about his studies and nothing else, [you become] a person who cares about his community, school, neighborhood. It’s always shifting your vision toward new places. This is always what IYLEP does for students including for the first year.

Alsafi participating in the IYLEP 2018 project presentations.

I know the expansions of IYLEP Arabic and the Digital Young Leaders Exchange Program were all about reaching a more diverse pool of students. Was it difficult in the early years to get much diversity?
Yeah, definitely it was. Until now, I could not go, for example, to Anbar, Diyala, or Tikrit for recruiting. It was impossible at that time. I know NGOs working in those areas from my experience working for international NGOs, but even at that time I couldn’t [speak about IYLEP] freely. I had to trust that person very well. So we tried to have a diverse IYLEP community at that time but it wasn’t as successful as now. For years we didn’t have a student from Mosul or Anbar. We didn’t have female students from religious cities like Karbala’a and Najaf. It was hard for us.

But year by year that changed. IYLEPers started affecting their community. When you see someone who went to the U.S. and came back with no harm but with many positive things, then you think about doing the same for your girl or boy.

How has the perception of IYLEP evolved over the years from when it launched?
Year by year it was getting better among the students and among the community. At the beginning, you cannot touch the result, but [over time] you see students going to the U.S., having the training, and coming back a different person. Now getting accepted to IYLEP means that this is a qualified student coming from a qualified school. School administrations have become proud that they have a larger number of students who are IYLEPers.

This is how the attitude toward IYLEP got shifted from people questioning, “Why are you doing IYLEP?” to people who are proud that their son or their students got accepted. Last year, I was on a school visit and the headmaster remembered that three years ago he had a student who got accepted to IYLEP. He remembered the program even if it was three years ago. And he stood in front of [his current students] and said, “Your colleague three years ago applied and got accepted and he totally changed. He came back a different person. So work hard for this opportunity.”

IYLEP participants often work together when they return to Iraq to make a difference in their communities.

Why do you continue to work for IYLEP?
Well, part of the answer is because I’m seeing the changes. I’m noticing the difference in our communities. I have always believed that it is not necessary to come from the head of the community or society. When you change people, this is the important thing. This is what we are doing in IYLEP. The fresh youth who will really quickly accept and adapt with the change and the new skills and knowledge, this is the sector that we have to work for.

What have you seen as its impact on your community?
Lots of things. I know it is the 10-year anniversary, but the oldest IYLEPer now is maybe 33 to 35. So it is still young, but they’ve done a lot. Starting from helping people who were forced to leave Mosul and Anbar and Tikrit and go to other cities, helping the community through sports, helping the community through spreading the skill of peace. Even the simple dialogue sessions that they implement after coming back, you cannot imagine the impact of this on high school students to sit and express their feelings without the fear of judgment.

So even these simple things are something big to me. If they carry that in their community and year-by-year spread that as a way of interacting with people — to have a dialogue instead of action and maybe violence — this is what the Iraqi community really needs. To sit and talk.

What are you hoping to see for the next 10 years of IYLEP?
For the next 10 years, I would like to see a more diverse IYLEP community. I know that we now have a diverse community from different cities, genders, ethnicities, religions.

I would also like to see those students having the ability to work on a bigger scale. When they come back they have these projects, but I would like to see support from the schools, support from the ministry of education, the ministry of higher education. They come home with the knowledge and the skills and are empowered, but they also need resources here in the field. I would love to see the mindset of the government and the community to change to, “Yeah, let’s jump in and support them.”