December 17, 2018

Students from across Iraq and the United States are getting ready to lead the way in their communities when it comes to peacebuilding, women’s empowerment, and cross-cultural exchange.

In December, World Learning awarded Digital Young Leaders Exchange Program (DYLEP) Fellowships to three students from Iraq and the U.S. to create innovative action projects in their home communities. The DYLEP Fellowship aims to empower program alumni to serve their communities by providing up to $5,000 (USD) each to three project teams: two based in Iraq and one based in the U.S. The fellowship is funded with the help of the Putnam Foundation and World Learning board member Rosamond Delori.

The three teams are comprised of DYLEP alumni from the past two years. World Learning’s DYLEP, which was funded by the Stevens Initiative, is a virtual exchange program for high school students in Iraq and the U.S. Participants develop their leadership skills, interest in civic engagement, and respect for diversity. Since its inception in 2016, DYLEP has reached more than 300 youth from all over the world.

Here’s a look at the three awarded projects:

Filmshakers Festival

2017 DYLEP alumna Mia

The Filmshakers Festival, led by 2017 DYLEP alumna Mia, seeks to build peace and combat bigotry through film. The festival will feature work from high school and college students, and will take place in Charlottesville, Virginia, a city with a strong history of filmmaking. Charlottesville also was the site of white supremacy riots in August 2017. Students across Virginia will submit short films and gather in fall 2019 for a one-day festival featuring film screenings, dialogues with the filmmakers, and open discussions on the themes of peacebuilding and anti-bigotry. The submissions will be archived on the Filmshakers Festival website, with the long-term goal of making this an annual event.

Mia is a high school junior in Blacksburg, Virginia, and an experienced filmmaker, having participated in film festivals across the country along with her sister, Ava, since middle school. She was inspired to start the Filmshakers Festival by her own meaningful experiences as a film festival participant as well as her DYLEP exchange. “The people I met during the program continue to inspire me to do what I love and work to help others,” she says, “I hope that the Filmshakers will be effective in starting a discussion among young filmmakers, the Charlottesville community, and beyond.”

The Woman Voice Program

The Woman Voice Program, led by DYLEP 2016 alumna Fatimah, is focused on empowering women between the ages of 15 to 26 through workshops relating to leadership, sexism, self-defense, women’s rights, and mental health. The workshops will take place in March 2019 in Hilla, Iraq, in partnership with the British Language Institute. The project is particularly aimed at teaching women how to defend themselves against emotional, physical, and sexual abuse.

Fatimah said that the idea came to her because of her own experiences with sexism, an issue which she sees as commonplace in Iraq. Rather than accept sexism as a part of life, she decided to act. “I decided to break up the circle of silence and speak the truth,” Fatimah says. She hopes that the impact of this project will extend beyond its participants, noting that sexism is at the root of other challenges the country faces such as poverty, lack of education, and an increase in female suicides. “This issue is important because [it] affects everyone,” she says.

Fatimah is collaborating with fellow DYLEP alumni as well as alumni from the Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program (IYLEP) to complete this project. The team is excited to use the leadership skills they learned on DYLEP and IYLEP to empower young women in Hilla and beyond.

Leaders of Tomorrow

Leaders of Tomorrow, led by DYLEP 2017 alumna Areej, is a digital exchange project that aims to connect high school students from Iraq, the U.S., and Mexico. The two-month virtual exchange will focus on conflict resolution and will include dialogue sessions, video calls, virtual workshops, social media discussions, and community service. The project team will recruit 65 participants from across the three countries to join the program, with the goal of having participants build their own community action project at the end of the two months.

Areej is an alumna of both DYLEP and IYLEP. She is collaborating with fellow IYLEP and DYLEP alumni as well as alumni from Jóvenes en Acción, a U.S.-Mexico youth program administered by World Learning, whom she met during her IYLEP exchange. Areej says she was inspired by her experience in DYLEP; she wanted other youth to have similar opportunities to interact with people from around the world and learn to create change in their communities. “There are some youth who have energy and want to make their community a better place, but they don’t know how,” Areej says. The Leaders of Tomorrow team hopes that by the end of the exchange, youth will have the tools they need to do just that.

Written by Lydia Grossman, Program Associate, Global Exchange