By Leeanne Seaver
In spite of the fact that I would forget – even 30 seconds after being told – how to say “Welcome to my home” in Arabic, I asked, and kept asking. “What do you like to eat?” “Do you have swans like these in Iraq?” “What do you mean ‘American food is so bland’?” The myriad of responses sounded musical when Jamila Al-Helfi, a lovely and patient 16-year-old from Baghdad, would say them. I’d ask questions just to hear her melodic answers. After a couple weeks as her host-mom this summer, I was sure of only two words in her native language: Avocado is just “avocado,” and “Jamila” means “beautiful.”
The story of how this Iraqi teen came to Vicksburg started about five months ago at D.H.S. Al-Mansour, a secondary school in Baghdad where Jamila is in the 11th grade. She heard about an opportunity to visit America from her bestie at school, and both applied. From 2,000 applicants across Iraq, Jamila and her friend were two of 200 who made the cut. She arrived in the U.S. in early July. Michigan was the second stop between stays in Vermont and Washington, D.C.
For my part, it was an inspiring fundraiser for the Kalamazoo-based nonprofit “Colleagues International” (KCI) that drew me. My hand went up when the call for volunteers rang out, and the next thing I knew, I was part of this cool community of host families that had been opening their homes for years around the ‘Zoo. Stories abounded of the sheik who came to breakfast in full regalia and the Japanese girls who didn’t know what an oven was for, and the blind person from Uzbekistan who couldn’t believe there were Braille instructions in an elevator. The common thread in all of these host families was a genuine desire to experience people and their cultures in a wider world while respecting the things that made us feel closer and connected within it.
Jamila’s parents would have been so relieved to know that. Afaf and Adnan Al-Helfi, along with younger daughter Shams, were excited and supportive, but understandably anxious. Relations between the U.S. and Iraq have not been chummy, to put it mildly. As I write, there is a security alert on the US Embassy website forbidding all travel to Iraq due to risks of terrorism, kidnapping, and violence. But it’s a situation the U.S. is trying to improve.
The Iraqi Youth Leadership Exchange Program (IYLEP) is part of the solution. Ammar Aqlan, program officer for Washington D.C.-based World Learning, the organization that implements this exchange on behalf of the State Department, told me via email, “The program certainly builds bridges of mutual understanding between both countries. It both deepens and broadens participant understanding of U.S. culture while putting their home country in a new light.
“Participants and alumni find this experience as a way to discover about the U.S. as well as the beauty of their own country. We hear many participants and alumni saying that the program changed their view of the U.S., especially around friendliness, diversity, and the lifestyle of American people as they live and interact with American families and people. The program does foster people-to-people interactions that correct misconceived perceptions about each other. Participants find that the many realities in the U.S. are similar to other countries, unlike how it’s generally presented in the media. One participant shared with me yesterday that he thought Americans were arrogant but when he got to know them, they were very friendly and kind.”
Since 2007, many Iraqi students who’ve been involved in this exchange have gone onto careers in diplomacy, civic leadership or other areas that draw on learning experiences through IYLEP. There are alumni who have gone to occupy governmental positions, including Ministry of Exterior, according to one of the Iraqi staff. The head of the Iraqi Youth Parliament is indeed an IYLEP Adult Mentor, Laith Raji, who was hosted in Jacksonville, Fla. last year.
Being Part of a Family
While here, Iraqi students are taking classes on leadership, problem-solving, and team-building. I wondered why they couldn’t do those kinds of things back home. “Why come to the States for that?” I asked Jamila.
“It’s good practice to figure out how to do things with unfamiliar people. In Iraq, the goal would be to win – just to win. But here, the leadership training is about working as a team, and being creative in solving challenges together,” she answered. “We have dialogue sessions. We can talk about the problems we’re having in Iraq and discuss solutions. We realize we can’t go back and change our world because we are young, but we have this opportunity to learn these skills.”
In the process, they’re improving their English fluency, meeting local groups and entrepreneurs, going to concerts, visiting museums. I was especially pleased that they toured the Ladies Library Association downtown—the first building in the United States built by women independently. And in Michigan exclusively—they’re staying in the homes of host-families.
“We’re very proud of our unique brand of hospitality,” said Jodi Hope Michaels, executive director of Kalamazoo’s Colleagues International (KCI). “Most of our visitors stay at hotels and only have time for a meal in a home. We love it when our visitors are able to stay with a family host—experiencing day-to-day life with Americans, as is the case with IYLEP.”
Since 1971, KCI has hosted thousands of international visitors from all over the world. Professional exchanges for emerging and established leaders, internships, job-shadowing, youth leadership programs, and seminars are tailored to the specific interests and needs of both the exchange visitor and KCI. KCI is proud to be the only city in the U.S. to host IYLEP-Arabic since its inception three years ago. It is wonderful to have Iraqi youth join the people from more than 100 countries whose representatives have tasted perch and toasted marshmallows with their local West Michigan “family” over the years.
The Vicksburg Connection
For Jamila—and five of her friends who visited her here—that experience has centered on fun things Vicksburg had to offer. I’ve taken Jamila for ice cream at Apple Knockers, fishing at Klines Resort. We’ve taken walks around town (she finds our gardens and yards beautiful) and wandered through the shops and eateries. We visited the Farmers Market and enjoyed the July 15 village celebration at the Vicksburg Pavilion. We (tried to) catch frogs and paddle-boated on Sunset Lake. We also went to the community theater at the Comstock Auditorium, and had the most exhilarating speedboat ride at South Haven on Lake Michigan.
Everywhere we’ve gone, Jamila has been touched again and again by the hospitality she’s experienced. “American people are not like what we see on TV. They are kind and nice. They respect our differences.” Although Jamila herself doesn’t, some of the IYLEP girls cover with the hijab, a veil that many Muslim women wear over their head and shoulders. Jamila was worried that this could single them out, but “no one has treated us badly,” Jamila reported.
To reassure her mom and dad, “We communicate daily using WhatsApp, and I tell them about my day.” They love seeing her iPhone videos. “I already knew it was beautiful here because of the internet pictures, but the people are incredibly nice and that has been wonderful. The only hard part of the trip so far is homesickness,” Jamila admitted.
Summer camp homesickness is surely a universal condition, and I wondered what other things Iraqi and U.S. teens might have in common. She surprised me by pointing out “Iraqi and American youth are quite different. Especially in education, Iraq doesn’t focus on our specific talents and thoughts—American kids seem to do that easily.”
So what advice would you give a 16-year-old American girl, I asked her. “Americans have everything we don’t have. For example, freedom and wearing what you want or saying what you want. I think she should appreciate the freedom she’s got,” Jamila advised. Then she added, “Socially, we have some similarities. I go to the mall to hang out with my friends, but only in Baghdad because it’s more modern.”
This is no small thing. Jamila can leave her home without a male escort or head-covering because she comes from a progressive family. In fact, she plans to become a heart surgeon one day, a goal her parents support enthusiastically. Yes, her husband will be picked for her, and she cannot even kiss him before they’re married. Yes, she can say no to the match (whew). Yes, it is scary to live in a place that is so volatile, but things are so much better in Baghdad than they once were. Yes, she’ll leave the States soon, and perhaps never come back, but it has been the experience of a lifetime for her.
What will she take with her when she goes? “I liked perch, but I miss Dolma, which is stuffed grape leaves. In Iraq, we make ours with rice, beef, lemons, and spices—cumin, coriander. When I get home, that’s the first thing I’m going to eat!”
Food aside, “I can tell people what Americans are really like. We can understand each other if we get to know each other,” she said, adding, “So Leeanne must come visit me someday! Of course she will!!!”
Of course, I will, beautiful girl. In English, the word for that is YES.