Iraqi students visit Utah for leadership program

Participants in leadership program create a video about changing the world.
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Lamaa Abdullatt came to Utah to learn about cooperation and leadership. But the Iraqi high-school student also wanted to learn something else.

"I wanted to learn how to ride a bike," said Abdullatt, one of nine students spending two weeks in Salt Lake City as part of the U.S. State Department's Iraqi Youth Leadership Exchange Program.

Now in its second year, the program helps to "bridge the gap between the Iraqi people and the people in the United States, specifically in Utah," said Allison James Garcia, program officer for the Utah Council for Citizen Diplomacy, the sponsor.

During their time in Utah, the students participated in leadership-building activities and community events and created a digital media project called "Be the Change." In it, the students discuss the role of youths in the world and how they can bring about change in their communities. A free showing of the project takes place Saturday at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art. (See information box.)

In addition to all those activities, Abdullatt learned to ride a bike, with the help of her host family. Abdullatt, who lives in the city of Nasiriyah, the capital of the Dhi Qar, a province in southern Iraq, thinks there are a lot of differences between the two cultures.

"We are different in a lot of areas," she said . "I don't think there are a lot of similarities between Iraq and the United States."

The students were selected for the program by the United States embassy in Iraq based on their leadership potential and current roles in their communities. The group visited Washington, D.C., and the Global Youth Village in Virginia before arriving in Utah. They will go to New York before returning home.

The students will then take what they learned in America and develop projects to better their communities.

In addition to the nine students from Iraq, one Utah student from Skyline High School participated. Afras Crsial, who has an interest in international affairs, heard about the program through the Utah Council for Citizen Diplomacy. He applied and was accepted in the same manner as the Iraqi students.

"It seemed like an interesting opportunity," said Crsial, who added that the experience has been worthwhile.

"We learned a lot about leadership skills, listening skills, dialogue versus debate, and how to cooperate instead of compete," he said. "I learned a lot of things about the Iraqi culture and life in Iraq, and I would have never learned those things otherwise."

He believes that kind of understanding is important for those who will eventually be leaders in the United States.

"The United States has been heavily involved in Iraq in the recent decade, so it's important for us Americans to know things about Iraq and what the situation actually is," he said.

One of the main things Hussein Taher Faisel, who is also from Nasiriyah, noticed during the Utah trip was the difference in how people greet one another.

"I noticed that a lot of people were nice to me and always had a smile on their face," he said. "In Iraq when someone meets you, he asks you to come to his home and eat with him."

Beyond the greetings, Taher Faisel found few differences between the two cultures.

"I wanted to participate in this program to know more about the American culture, to meet new people, to make new friends and to see the country that I've been hearing about since I was young," he said, noting that he wanted to learn "how [Americans] think about my religion, my nationality." —

Be the Change

A free presentation of "Be the Change," a digital media project created by nine Iraqi high school students who have traveled to Utah as participants of the U.S. Department of State's Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program. The program is administered locally by the Utah Council for Citizen Diplomacy.

When • Saturday, July 20, 4 p.m.

Where • Utah Museum of Contemporary Art, 20 S. West Temple, Salt Lake City