Youths tell their stories through Iraqi exchange program

Published: Friday, July 12 2013 7:35 p.m. MDT

Mina from Baghdad traces a map of Iraq while making a film about Westerners' opinions of Iraq at Spy Hop Productions in Salt Lake City on Friday, July 12, 2013. Iraqi high school students and two Salt Lake high school students, selected through the Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program and the Utah Council for Citizen Diplomacy, are spending 12 days together exploring leadership, tolerance, diversity, Utah culture and history, civic engagement and activism, and relationship building.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — An Iraqi girl stood against a whiteboard as her new friends took a picture of her eyes.

Adam Sherlock, an instructor at Spy Hop Productions, had just walked the girls through how to capture images of a map of Iraq as they erased it slowly. Later, they will be able to reverse the footage so it appears as if the map is appearing out of nowhere.

They will insert the photos of the girl's eyes and the map footage as part of their documentary on Americans' perceptions of Iraqis. The girls will present their work along with four other groups as part of the short film "Be the Change" at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art on July 20.

The film is part of the Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program that took 45 Iraqi youths and five adult mentors to Washington, D.C., the Legacy International Global Youth Village camp in rural Virginia, and to one of five host cities in the United States.

They will have spent almost a month in the United States by the time the program ends. Two youths from each of the host cities also participated in the events.

Nine Iraqi teens and one mentor came to Salt Lake City on Tuesday. Their week was packed with scavenger hunts throughout the city, visits to the state Capitol and a mock city council meeting.

On Monday, they will watch the traditional dance of 'Lil Feathers and will be able to share their own customary dances as well. Later, they will visit This Is the Place Heritage Park, ride the Snowbird tram and go bowling. They also plan on canoeing and clean up trash on the Jordan River.

Sara, 16, wearing a pink cheetah print head cover, nose ring and stonewashed jacket with skirt, said people in the United States do not worry as much as Iraqis about fashion. They're more casual in how they dress. They also are less concerned about having the latest technology.

"People don't judge here," she said.

Lmaa Abdullah, 17, and Sara and Mina, 15, both of whom asked to be identified only by their first names, said it was different being able to walk places by themselves here. Back home, they said, it is not safe to travel alone.

The exchange program is indicative of the country's progress in spite of setbacks. In 1990, the ratio of net enrollment in primary education was at 91 percent, according to the United Nations Iraq Millennium Development goals. It fell to 85 percent in 2007 and was back up to 89.1 percent in 2011. The United Nations goal is to have 100 percent primary education enrollment by 2015.

The teen girls involved with the exchange program reflect the country's movement toward gender equality. One way the United Nations is measuring this is through the percentage of national parliament leaders who are women. In 2011, 27 percent of parliament leaders were women, the United Nations reported. Although this is still a far cry from the 2015 goal of 50 percent, it shows progress from the 13 percent in 1990.

Sherlock, who regularly works with refugee youths through Spy Hop Productions, a nonprofit education and media center for youths, said he was impressed with the teens.

"They're really empowered to tell these stories," he said.

Lass Jalal, 17, in a blue, button-up shirt over a dark blue V-neck T-shirt, looked like any other American kid. However, he saw contrasts between the United States and his home country. People smile back when he smiled, he said, and are more social.

Ali Mohammed, 15, said he gained leadership skills during the exchange and learned from politicians. He said he hopes to go into politics someday and is working toward a scholarship that could take him to college at Harvard or Oxford.

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