SALT LAKE CITY — A thoroughfare filled with murals had previously attempted to connect the Jackson and Gadualupe neighborhoods in Salt Lake City. It is now being used to build a bridge of peace and understanding between two countries.
The program Bridge over Barriers invited Iraqi high school students and their host families Tuesday to participate in painting a mural design under the bridge at 300 N. 700 West, in hopes of combating stereotypes and closing the gap between cultures.
"As you know, the American society is the open minded people (and) there's a lot of needs in my society, yet I want to learn more from the American society and copy this experience to my community," said 16-year old Abdullah, who along with the rest of the students asked that their last names not be used.
The Utah Council for Citizen Diplomacy and the Iraqi Youth Leaders Exchange Program chose 64 English-speaking Iraqi students to participate in a four-week youth leadership exchange program that started in Washington D.C. and later placed them in seven cities throughout the country.
Salt Lake City participated for the first time by hosting 10 students and placing them with families of Salt Lake high school students, who gathered to work together and get to know each other while painting the mural Tuesday.
Abdullah's family had previously visited the United States and had described the country to him. But nothing his parents said could have prepared the teenager.
"I was telling myself, 'This is America, am I dreaming?'" he said. "Everything is cool (and) the streets are clear, clean, everything is beautiful. Oh! I will stay here, just kidding."
Zahraa, 15, wants to improve her leadership skills while experiencing different cultures.
"I want to improve everything in Iraq," said the teenage girl. "I want to make our voices be heard and I want to have freedom in Iraq, just like here in America."
The Iraqi students did not look past liberties that are usually taken for granted.
"People are free to do anything, free to behave the way they like, free to talk the way they like," she said. "In Iraq, you don't have the right to talk about yourself (and) about how you feel."
The Iraqi Youth Leaders Exchange Program, which is sponsored and funded by the U.S. Department of State through the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, has had 200 alumni in the past several years. The program has helped eliminate many stereotypes among the students.
"I am not even feeling homesick because I really feel like they're my family," Zahraa said of his host family. "My host sister treated me like her own real sister."
Sarah Mian, 18, and her Pakistani family are hosting Zahraa and 18-year old Rana. "Having them here is just the most humbling experience in my life," Mian said.
Mian said she, too, has been able to break stereotypes previously instilled in her.
"They are more intelligent, advanced then even the Western world. Here, (they) have so much knowledge that no one else has, so much truth that we are all yearning to search for," Mian said. "Them exposing that to us is the most gracious gift."
Mian, who is hoping to go to medical school in Pakistan, still sees tension between the Eastern and Western cultures in Salt Lake City and believes that the more exposure people get in an artistic manner, the better it will be for all cultures.
"The more we talk face to face, and we don't rely on the media and the news and the things that people are telling us and not really explaining to us, the more we will understand who these people are and why there is nothing wrong with them," she said. "They are just like you and me and maybe they have more to give us. We have something to give them, too."
Yusur, a 15-year-old who choose to cover herself with a veil and wear sunglasses to shade her face, said she believes that a bridge can be created between Iraq and the United States, but not at the expense of losing her culture and religious beliefs.
"My opinion before I got here was that life here was very easy and easier then Iraq," Yusur said. "I was thinking that Iraq is a hard country to live in and that America was easy, but I discovered that no, America is very hard to live (in)."
Life is harder, she believes, because of the variety of different cultures.
Because her family is not here and because she is a girl, she feels an obligation to keep her traditions and customs.
Elise Grizzel, 15, expected the Iraqi students to be much more conservative and was surprised at how much English they speak. She and her host sister Yusur are very different.
"She (Yusur) is almost like a newborn baby to this culture," Elise said. "It's amazing watching her adjust and try to expand herself. I think she is having a hard time because she is trying to stay with her past and her culture. But, the more I get to know her, the more I understand why."
Fifteen-year old Shadan said she has realized that there are more similarities between Iraqis and Americans than there are differences.
"Before I came here (to the United States) I didn't know the world had so many different cultures," she said. "It is nice to know that even though I am different and from a different country, I am still human. I have the same rights (as) everyone in the world."
Once Shadan returns home, she said the first thing she wants to tell her parent is that Iraq needs change.
"We need change in our lives," she said. "We need more freedom, definitely. We need to start working on things, you know?"