Many Americans have difficulty understanding the Muslim culture in the Middle East. With the recent publishing of a video mocking the Muslim prophet Muhammad by an American extremist group, relationships between Americans and Muslims in the Middle East have been particularly unstable. Fortunately, students from both Iraq and the United States are reaching out to strengthen ties between Iraq and U.S. by engaging in peaceful cultural exchange programs. OES student, Sam L., was selected to participate in the Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program, a program working to cultivate leadership skills in young Americans and Iraqi’s and ultimately a stronger future for Iraq. The program is put on by the U.S. Department of State, but also has funding from the Iraq government through the U.S. embassy in Baghdad.
For four weeks over the summer, Sam and other selected teenagers from Iraq and the United States participated in cultural exchange and personal development of leadership skills. In the program, the students learned about each other’s cultures while immersing the Iraqi students in American culture by seeing drive in movies, going canoeing and visiting monuments. Surprising stereotypes were unveiled, such as the Iraqi’s belief that there are lots of car chases and planes crashes happening in America—like what they see in the American movies. Before leaving, students came up with action plans for continuing volunteer work in their local communities. Sam believes the U.S. should have a “positive” relationship with Iraq in the future, Although the United States treatment of Iraqi civilians has at times been far from positive, Sam says the majority of teens at the cultural exchange program felt that the American presence in Iraq had a positive influence on their country.
One experience Sam remembers most from the program is writing down the commonalities and differences between the daily lives of the U.S. and Iraqi students, and seeing many more entries in the commonalities column than in the differences. Americans might assume that with all the political turmoil and violence in Iraq, the Iraqi students would have greater issues to worry about than American students, but in fact both groups share worries over school work and the primary concern of adults is for their families. Other OES students have talked about moments in video conferences when they realize that, as different as Iraqi and American cultures are, individuals in both countries share many similar experiences and have similar dreams. Sam says he formed friendships in the four weeks he spent with Iraqi students that will last for a long time. Hopefully the political state between the U.S. and Iraq will allow these friendships to last a lifetime.