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Youths tell their stories through Iraqi exchange program

Published: Friday, Sept. 4 2015 3:28 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) 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.

Lmaa from Nasiriyah, Iraq, left, Adam Sherlock of Spy Hop, and Sara from Kirkuk, Iraq, produce 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) Lmaa from Nasiriyah, Iraq, left, Adam Sherlock of Spy Hop, and Sara from Kirkuk, Iraq, produce 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)

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.

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) 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)

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.

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) 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)

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.

One of the biggest adjustments he had to make was to the food at the summer camp. When asked what he ate, he said, "I absolutely do not have any idea."

Sara from Kirkuk, Iraq, Mina from Baghdad and Lmaa from Nasiriyah, Iraq, work with Adam Sherlock of Spy Hop on 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) Sara from Kirkuk, Iraq, Mina from Baghdad and Lmaa from Nasiriyah, Iraq, work with Adam Sherlock of Spy Hop on 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)

However, the food has improved for him since arriving in Utah.

"Doughnuts are awesome," he said.

Amenah Ferman, 16, said the experience helped her see that she is not alone and that there are other people like her.

She noticed that people seem to have more freedom in the United States.

"You can pretty much do whatever you want here. You can be yourself here. And it's sort of limited back home," she said.

During the camp, they worked on a project that involved an Iraqi women's rights project, an effort she wants to continue when she gets home.

Breanna Steggell, 15, was one of the high school students in Salt Lake City to attend the exchange program. The East High student said she did not know much about Iraq and thought the idea of exchange students from there was "weird." Since beginning the exchange program, she said, her perspective has shifted.

Sara from Kirkuk, Iraq, 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) Sara from Kirkuk, Iraq, 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)

"I figured out that they're just like us," she said.

Robin Pratt, director of communications for the Utah Council for Citizen Diplomacy, said the program seeks to instill respect and understanding "one handshake at a time."

Organizers wanted to select young leaders from Iraq to help them see their leadership potential and how they could make a difference in their own communities.

The Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program revolves around providing leadership opportunities for youth, teaching them how to be involved in their communities and government, how to solve problems and work well in teams.

The program has partnered with the Utah Council for Citizen Diplomacy to provide youths with opportunities for service, education and education.

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