Iraqi Teens Get Up-Close Look at U.S. in Effort to Improve Relations

For the 17-year-old Baghdad girl, it's all so new: The sight of the lush green mountains, the smell of cow manure on a working dairy farm, the safety of the streets.

Before her monthlong visit to the United States is over, she'll experience a lot more, too — moving in with a Kentucky family, learning about U.S. community service agencies and spending a week in Washington, D.C., where she hopes to visit the White House.

It's a long way from Iraq's war-torn capital to Vermont's serene landscape.

"It's a new thing — from the war to the peace," she said. "In America, it's beautiful, ... they are comfortable," she said.

An aspiring engineer, she is among 36 Iraqi teenagers participating in a "citizen diplomacy" program underwritten by the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad in which they're trained in leadership, cross-cultural communication and community-building.

In the process, they're introduced to an America largely unseen from their war-scarred homeland.

The goal: to groom a new generation of Iraqi leaders, using personal visits and face-to-face interactions to improve relations between the U.S. and Iraq, one handshake at a time.

The training takes place at the School for International Training, a 75-year-old institute that inspired the creation of the Peace Corps and trained its first volunteers.

Now in its third year, the Iraq Young Leader Exchange Program has new importance this time around as Iraq takes the lead on its security in the wake of the U.S. military's recent withdrawal of combat forces from Iraqi cities, organizers said.

"Now more than ever, it's a chance for Iraqis to get to know the U.S. outside of its foreign policy, to get to know Americans on a face-to face, person-to-person basis, dispelling the myths that they have about the U.S. and what they see in media," said Christina Thomas, youth visitor exchange program coordinator for World Learning, which runs SIT.

"But it's also a chance for the students to be youth ambassadors of Iraq, and to educate Americans as well about what's going on in Iraq. It's a two-way street. But there's no better way of doing that than doing it through citizen diplomacy, which is what these students are doing, face to face, working together side by side, interacting on cultural programs, outdoor exchanges, leadership activities," Thomas said.

The State Department bars publication of the Iraqi teenagers' names, citing concerns for their security once they return home.

"The Iraq Young Leaders' Exchange Program exposes talented young Iraqis — we do programs for secondary school and university students — to the United States," said Baghdad Embassy cultural affairs officer Helen LaFave, in an e-mail message. "Most Iraqis, especially young Iraqis, have no firsthand knowledge of America and American values. This program offers a unique opportunity to foster mutual understanding, youth leadership and democratic values."

The monthlong sojourn for the participants, funded under a $1.5 million grant for programs involving about 100 students, begins at SIT's picturesque 200-acre (80-hectare) hillside campus overlooking the Connecticut River valley. It's where they eat, sleep and attend classes, venturing out for team-building exercises — including a canoe trip, a night at the circus, and a "sunset worship" session on a hillside.

While international diplomacy is the underlying premise, the day-to-day activities focus more on up-close visits with people and institutions than saving the world.

"This organization is a good organization, since it will lead us to change and to change old culture and make ourselves understand each other more, between the American student and the Iraqi student and our cultures," said another student, an 18-year-old aspiring statesman from Erbil, Iraq.

"Maybe there are many students that have another idea about the United States of America and when they visited, they change their opinion," he said.

On Thursday, the two toured a youth horticulture program run by the University of Vermont Extension Service before being whisked to the Robb family dairy farm, for a tour of the cow barn and a dormant sugarhouse where maple syrup is made in the spring.

During the horticulture program visit, a leader asked the participants to tell what they'd learned on the short tour. "This is a very nice place," the Baghdad girl said. "And I wish I was staying here for all my life."

At the dairy farm, she held her hands or her hijab — head scarf — over her mouth as farm co-owner Helen Robb showed the group the cow barn, which reeked.

The last stop of the day was at a women's crisis center, where two staffers described the shelter's work protecting women and children from domestic violence.

"It helps us to see the real life, and to know the other country," the girl said.