Archive for October, 2015


This past summer I had the special privilege to host two Iraqi high school aged students here in the United States on the Iraqi Youth Leadership Exchange Program. These two boys, Aran and Ali, were two of the most intelligent, funny and socially conscious young men I have had the pleasure of meeting. Not only did we live together for the two weeks that they were in Helena MT, but I spent the days with them as well, traveling around Helena and Western Montana as they learned about environmental protection and nature preservation. The group has since returned to Iraq and several students have started volunteer organizations to mobilize teenagers in their communities to support existing infrastructure and strengthen communities. But I learned a thing or two as well, about Iraq, Arabic and Kurdish culture, and the unifying power of teenagers to cross cultural boundaries and strive for change.

In the mountains of Northern Iraq lies the historic homeland of the Kurds. Numbering at least 30 million worldwide, the Kurds are the largest ethnic group without a territorial country recognized by the U.N. Conflicts between Kurds and their middle-eastern neighbors stretch back into antiquity, and even today, they are bearing a significant brunt of the fight against ISIS/ISIL. Although they have a semi-autonomous government separate from Iraq. Aran, a slim, be speckled youth with groomed black hair and a ruddy complexion explained all this to me, referring to his homeland with glowing praise and harsh criticism. Ali, an ethnic Arab, but the paler of the two, often remained silent on the issue of Kurdistan. Perhaps being from Baghdad, he was too far away from the Northern conflict to feel one way or another. Aran told me that Kurds are an Indo-European ethnic group, descendants of migrants from the Caucuses and Southern Russia. In fact, they have their own Kurdish language, a beautiful mixture of the best parts of Persian and Slavic languages. Additionally, many Kurds are not Muslim and have resisted conversion over the years in order to preserve their own cultural traditions.

What? People in Iraq that aren’t Muslim?? That doesn’t sound like the Iraq that I have learned about from American news and culture in the past 14 years. Yes, Aran identified as non-religious, as do many modern Kurds that he knows, and Ali identified as Muslim, but there was nothing he said or did that would have “given him away”. No one in the Helena group of IYLEP stopped to pray during the day, very few strictly maintained the Muslim Halal dietary restrictions, and several of them identified as non-religious! This was very surprising to me, as I had made preparations to be accommodating to Islam if the boys had showed up asking for a prayer rug and the nearest mosque (“umm…3 hours east of here” would have been my pitiful answer). Our own American cultural biases have equated Arabic with Muslim in almost every news report, movie, and book. Learning this was a welcome wake-up call to the diversity of the Middle East. Ali described to me life in Baghdad and it sounded nothing like the war-torn images that are filtered back to us from Western reporters and writers in the country. It sounded pleasant even “normal” by our standards. However, he did speak about the bombs in the streets, the fear of strangers in ones neighborhood, the reliance on extended family, and the distrust toward outsiders that terrorism brings to all people. So these boys wanted change!!

They talked for hours on end about the problems in their country. Corruption, youth involvement, political ennui, para-military groups and gangs, ISIS, government dependency on oil, salary and living wage, agricultural needs, hunger, and American military presence all made for riveting dinner conversation. These boys had solutions, they had ideas for the best and most effective way to change their country for the better and revitalize their failing economy. They expressed dismay at how little voice they have in their own country and how little it seems that their peers care about these issues. Aran especially was very vocal about demonstrating the power that the people possess through non-violent demonstrations based the methods used by social leaders for the past several decades. Both Ali and Aran returned to Iraq energized by the social climate in the United States which enables individuals and small groups to enact large changes in their communities through volunteerism and contributions to charity organizations that work independently from government agencies. With the energy that young people have, they returned home ready to take on Iraq’s problems and enact change in their country.

Having spent this valuable time with these two wonderful young men, I have come to the conclusion that there are some traits that universally define the teenager. Ali, after a visit to the coffee shop down the street, had turned very red and seemed embarrassed. I asked him what was the matter and he mumbled something about “the coffee girl”. I looked back over my shoulder and saw a cute girl working the counter in the coffee shop. This apparently had caused Ali much strain and embarrassment in the most hilarious way possible. He had struggled to order his drink and had fumbled with his money to pay this cute American girl. He was mortified, stumbling over his English and generally just awkward in the most lovable way. He was clearly self-conscious for the rest of the day, like only a teenage boy who embarrassed himself in front a cute girl could be (it did not help that Aran teased him mercilessly for his struggles). I tried to reassure him that he would never see her again, but he immediately said NO! I want to see her again, she was very pretty! We shared a good laugh. Even months later after this event, he still jokingly asks me how the “coffee-girl” is doing. This is true teenage love at its finest and just goes to show how teenagers can be teenagers no matter where they are from!

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