Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program Broadens Global Connections in Rochester this Summer by Shadi Kafi

Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program Broadens Global Connections in Rochester this Summer by Shadi Kafi
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My meeting with Ariane (to the left) and Cecelia (to the right) at Starry Nights Café, Rochester, NY.

Rochester’s Cecelia Hencke, Executive Director of Rochester Global Connections, and Ariane Baer-Harper of the Allendale Columbia School partner with World Learning’s Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program (IYLEP) this summer allowing 12 Iraqi high school students, local students and Rochester host families to connect. The program shows incredible cultural humility and global mindedness on behalf of our city.

The Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program is in its 10th year and celebrates having over 2,000 alumni in the U.S and Iraq combined. The Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs of the U.S. Department of State and The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad fund the program. Cecelia Hencke became interested in IYLEP and submited a proposal to bring the program to Rochester. Rochester became a grant recipient and host community partner for the first time this year.

Ariane says:

Rochester high school students can be anyone with a flare for something international. Students receive accreditation showing they have leadership training hours to help them with college scholarships. Any student interested should reach out to us as soon as possible!

For more information, contact Ariane Baer-Harper at [email protected].

All students will learn leadership and global skills through a series of activities, workshops and talks. Focus area themes on the agenda include: teambuilding, peacebuilding, interfaith dialogue, civic engagement, human and civil rights, social entrepreneurship, diversity and inclusion and leadership. A few highlighted venues students will visit are the M.K. Gandhi Institute, the Center for Teen Empowerment, the Temple B’rith Kodesh, the Islamic Center of Rochester, City Hall, Susan B. Anthony House and the Seneca Art & Cultural Center. The program is a full cultural immersion from August 1-15th.  Iraqi students will present a final project on leadership to the host families, members and staff of RGC and Allendale Columbia.

As Cecelia Hencke says:

There are hopes that Rochester high school students will be inspired to tackle community issues in the long-term future while continuing to cultivate the global mindset.

From the perspective of one of our local Rochester high school students, Emily Atieh, 11th grader at Allendale Columbia and Global Engagement Scholar:

It is one the most enriching experiences I have had. I am amazed at the deep connections people can make even when they are so different.

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Emily at a Foreign Exchange School in Beijing, China performing a Chinese Tea Ceremony, May 24, 2017.

Host families will provide transportation to and from Allendale Columbia, meals and have free time to collaborate with other host families in activities that help students get the most out of their experience.

Suzanne Strauber, 8th summer as a foreign exchange student host family member and participating in IYLEP this summer, describes her experience:

As a host family, you fall in love with the students. They come and live with you and you love it even more. We just can’t not do it. When you share the stories and open up yourself, you open up the world in your own kitchen. If you do it, you won’t believe how well you can do it and the results of you doing it are you have worldwide relationships and open invitations to visit them and have them come back, to continue communicating, be invited to weddings… everyone should do it, it’s sort of a global duty. If you have a small piece of your heart to share, there’s no reason why everyone shouldn’t experience that and to make your world bigger than your own. We are trying to understand the world by experiencing it and not just reading about it in the newspaper. I don’t know how to explain what it’s like to laugh at yourself as you try to be silly in the eyes of a 15 year old from another world because they are laughing too. It’s a global language of the heart. You have to be kind, smile, it’s not a production. They don’t expect trips to N.Y.C. A lot comes from normal life—us learning from them and them learning from us.

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Suzanne and Bary Strauber from Rochester, NY with daughter Natalie welcoming Sandy, an exchange student from Madrid, Spain, June 27, 2016.

To fill out an application to be a Rochester host family for the IYLEP visit

As explained by Christina Longman, Program Officer at World Learning, centrally located in D.C.:

Our staff in Iraq are nationals who begin recruiting in the fall by giving talks to high schools in different cities and provinces around the country, recruiting from schools they have been to and schools they haven’t been to in efforts of expanding. They develop great relationships with schools and families through informational sessions knowing it can be tough for a family to send their Iraqi student to the U.S. Of 4,000 Iraqi student applicants, 174 are being accepted this year as part of four U.S. exchange groups that come to the U.S. for one month. Students grow just in the application process on what they want to do to support their community whether or not they are in the program.

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Christina Longman in Iraq with IYLEP 2012 alumni who now work with World Learning.

Participants are looking forward to learning more about the U.S. and what is real and what is not real with what they have heard in the media, in movies and in their own definition of what the U.S. is like. Students question how the U.S. deals with gender and race issues in the community and seeks to learn and take it back home. They want to learn U.S. culture from their host family, share about their own culture and correct perceptions people have of Iraq. They know how Iraq is perceived through the media and they want to change that perception.

We have an online application and in it we are looking for gender representation and representation from all over the country so we bring a Kurdish student from the North to learn about another Arab in the South to bring together students who would not otherwise have met. We are looking for students committed to returning to their communities and taking what they learned to make an impact. They develop action plans and they deliver those when they go back home. This last year there was an action plan called Next Phase that is thriving with 11 staff members and 90 consistent weekly members that meet as a youth community. Next Phase brings youth from the Sulaymaniyah and Erbil regions to discuss problems the youth are facing and participate in a charity project once a month. They have had activities such as a festival for internally displaced persons, trash clean-ups, 3-day conflict-resolution workshops and interfaith dialogues modeled after dialogues learned in the IYLEP program.

Before returning to Iraq, students spend a week in D.C. debriefing their experience and writing their own M.L.K. ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.

It’s one of my favorites because they share what they dream for their country and for their world. It makes me tear up every time. There is a lot of love in them. One participant shared her dream was to someday host a U.S. student in Iraq.

In 2016, we stayed with alumni families in Iraq, had amazing meals, great conversations and saw beautiful parts of the country we never experienced in our lives. The dolma is amazing and our students’ favorite, too!

We have been to the north Kurdish region. The hospitality is so meaningful to us. Just seeing families open their homes and students talk about what they learned and how proud their families are is so beautiful.

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Kurdish region in Iraq, Christina Longman of World Learning (center), her colleague (far left) and two IYLEP alumni touring the region, 2013.

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Incredible Iraqi homemade meal from an IYLEP alumni’s family for Christina Longman and colleagues. Delicious Dolma (far left).

Thank you to World Learning for being Rochester’s collaborating partner on this exchange and to Christina for sharing the treasures from her experiences in Iraq and in coordinating this program across the country.

Thank you to Cecelia and Ariane for broadening our global connections in Rochester and creating seeds for everlasting friendships that will uplift communities on both sides of the globe.


Rochester urban youth answering opportunity knocking by Shadi Kafi

Celebrating 1396 and the University of Rochester’s Persian Club

About The Author

Welcome to Talker of the Town! My name is David Kramer. I have a Ph.D in English and teach at Keuka College. I am a former and still active Fellow at the Nazareth College Center for Public History and a Storyteller in Residence at the SmallMatters Institute. Over the years, I have taught at Monroe Community College, the Rochester Institute of Technology and St. John Fisher College. I have published numerous Guest Essays, Letters, Book Reviews and Opinion pieces in The New York Times, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, the Buffalo News, the Rochester Patriot, the Providence Journal, the Providence Business News, the Brown Alumni Magazine, the New London Day, the Boston Herald, the Messenger Post Newspapers, the Wedge, the Empty Closet, the CITY, Lake Affect Magazine and Brighton Connections. My poetry appears in The Criterion: An International Journal in English and Rundenalia and my academic writing in War, Literature and the Arts and Twentieth Century Literary Criticism. Starting in February 2013, I wrote for three Democratic and Chronicle  blogs, "Make City Schools Better," "Unite Rochester," and the "Editorial Board." When my tenure at the D & C  ended, I wanted to continue conversations first begun there. And start new ones.  So we created this new space, Talker of the Town, where all are invited to join. I don’t like to say these posts are “mine.” Very few of them are the sole product of my sometimes overheated imagination. Instead, I call them partnerships and collaborations. Or as they say in education, “peer group work.” Talker of the Town might better be Talkers of the Town. The blog won’t thrive without your leads, text, pictures, ideas, facebook shares, tweets, comments and criticisms.


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