Inspiring A New Generation of Iraqi Leaders
For 10 Years and Counting

Since 2007, the Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program (IYLEP) has brought more than 2,500 Iraqi high school and undergraduate students to the United States for four weeks each summer to learn about leadership, civic engagement, and peacebuilding. The Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program is sponsored by the U.S. Embassy Baghdad and the U.S. Department of State with funding provided by the U.S. Government and administered by World Learning.

Read on to learn about our alumni and their visions for Iraq’s future.

Jump to: 2007 | 2008 | 2009 | 2010 | 2011 | 2012 | 2013 | 2014 | 2015 | 2016 | 2017 | 2018


IYLEP Launches

IYLEP launched with a plan to send 200 high school and undergraduate students to the U.S. over a two-year period. But recruitment proved to be a challenge in that first year due to a worsening security situation, according to Mayada Alsafi, World Learning’s country program director for Iraq.

Ultimately, seven undergraduate students—out of about 130 applicants—took part in IYLEP’s first cohort. “It was a lifetime opportunity for them, an eye-opening opportunity,” Alsafi says. “It changed their thoughts, changed their ideas about the community.”

Read a Q&A with Alsafi 2007

Aysar Alaidi, 28, Baghdad: IYLEP High School

Aysar Alaidi had never been out of Baghdad—let alone Iraq—when he applied to join IYLEP. When he returned home, he couldn’t wait to start working in his community. He’s been involved with humanitarian campaigns and is now a project assistant for the International Organization for Migration, where he builds relationships between Iraqi police and the communities they serve.

Read Aysar’s story 2008


By 2009, as the security situation improved in Iraq, IYLEP staff began visiting high schools and colleges in safe areas of the country to recruit students.

Diversity remained a challenge, however. Country Director Mayada Alsafi says she still couldn’t safely travel to major areas such as the Anbar province, and she couldn’t reach girls who lived in religious cities like Karbala’a or Najaf either. “But year by year, that was changing,” Alsafi says. “IYLEPers started affecting their community. When you see someone who went [to the U.S.] and came back with no harm but with many positive things, then you think about doing the same for your girl or boy.”


Shan Sherwan, 28, Sulaymaniyah: IYLEP Undergrad

Shan Sherwan has been advocating for women's rights since she was 16, researching how girls at her school could protect themselves from harassment. Now, at 29, she's working to put an end to gender-based violence by training women in entrepreneurship skills. Shan credits IYLEP with helping her turn her passion into a career. "I really thought IYLEP would open that door for me," she says. "And it did. I gained way more than I had ever hoped."

Read Shan’s story 2010

Lourd Hanna, 23, Erbil: IYLEP High School

Lourd Hanna saw that things needed to change in her community. In 2011, Iraqi sectarian violence was at a high between Arab and Kurdish people and her native Erbil was seeing an influx of refugees. Drawing on her IYLEP experience, Lourd founded a nonprofit that works to build cultural bridges between the various religious and ethnic communities in Iraq through workshops, dialogues, and visits to religious sites. "It was the baby steps of peacebuilding," she says.

Read Lourd's story2011

Stephanie Greene, Chicago: IYLEP High School

IYLEP isn’t just for Iraqi youth. Each year, select students from U.S. schools join the program to explore more of their own country and create bonds with their Iraqi counterparts. Stephanie Greene, a Chicago native, took part in IYLEP the summer before her senior year, traveling to Brattleboro, Vermont; Bozeman, Montana; and Washington, DC. It was a powerful experience.

“My experience in IYLEP really shaped everything I did afterwards, in terms of how I interacted with people and my curiosity for the world,” she says. “I think if everyone was able to have that experience, and go into it with an open mind, the world would be a better place as we begin to understand people.”

Read Stephanie’s story 2012

Yousuf Alrawai, 25, Baghdad: IYLEP Undergrad

He founded: Debate 4 Peace, a club that aims to introduce Iraqi youths to professional debate as a tool for dialogue and reconciliation.

His inspiration: IYLEP’s conflict resolution workshops were Yousuf’s first exposure to the concept of debate. He wanted to introduce other young Iraqis to debate so that they, too, could strengthen their communication skills and learn how to engage in their communities. “This is one way to make youth realize they are contributing and their opinions are being heard by decisionmakers.”

Why it matters: “Diversity is important, but it can be a dangerous thing if not practiced in a healthy way. Debate can offer a way to exchange ideas peacefully with dialogue rather than with fighting.”

His perspective on IYLEP’s legacy: “IYLEP was the start of many great things that encourage people to make social change in our community.”


Zain Mohammed, 29, Baghdad: IYLEP Adult Mentor

He founded: the Al-Faisaliya Café, a live music café in Baghdad.

His inspiration: noticing the lack of gathering places for young Iraqis. “I found a need of community,” he says.

IYLEP helped by: teaching Zain about the principles of social entrepreneurship. He says there weren’t really any youth initiatives in Iraq before IYLEP launched in 2007. Most young people aspired to secure jobs with the Iraqi government rather than venturing into the private sector. “After 10 years of exchange programs, now there is a different mentality,” he says. “This is the future of Iraq. Not by government, but by youth business.”


Raya Al-Lataifei, 20, Basra: IYLEP High School

Raya Al-Lataifei is a community organizer and an architectural engineering student at the University of Basra. She’s been an active member of the Basra is Your Home campaign, which works to support families who have been displaced by ISIS, as well as the White Helmet Team, an organization that offers trainings for engineering students.


Doa’a Czar, 23, Wasit: IYLEP Undergrad

Doa’a Czar is a medical student and a humanitarian who works independently and with NGOs to support and empower women, focusing on issues such as violence, child marriage, and healthcare. She studied at the University of Texas at Austin during her IYLEP Undergraduate exchange, where she fondly remembers one professor who taught her how to be a better listener.


Thamir Elias Khidhir, 27, Duhok: IYLEP Undergrad

Thamir Elias Khidhir was already making a difference in his community when he joined IYLEP Undergrad. The 27-year-old Duhok native is the founder of the civil society organization Humanity, which seeks to help the most vulnerable people of Iraq. IYLEP sharpened his skills and helped him make an even bigger impact. “I started leading the volunteers and the employees in a better way,” he says. "It helped me a lot to be a better person, a better leader."

Read Thamir's story

DYLEP Launches

In 2016, World Learning built on IYLEP's success with the Digital Young Leaders Exchange Program (DYLEP). This online program connected Iraqi and American students in virtual host families; together, they watched lectures, played games, and discussed digital citizenship. Students were able to access DYLEP anywhere and at any time. "It helped us reach those who typically may not have the opportunity to do an in-person exchange, including refugees, IDPs (internally displaced persons), and people with disabilities," says World Learning Program Officer Jennifer Chen.

DYLEP—which is now The Experiment Digital, sponsored by the Stevens Initiative—has helped U.S. teens like Turner Payne learn about the Middle East and shatter stereotypes.

Read Turner's story 2016

Sajjad Mohammed, 23, Baghdad: IYLEP Undergrad

He founded: Care-Iraq, an online database and booking system connecting Iraqis with healthcare professionals.

His inspiration was: In early 2016, Sajjad woke up with a toothache, but discovered that his family dentist was away on vacation. He didn’t know where to find another dentist and began to wonder why there wasn’t a way to search for that online.

How IYLEP helped: That summer, Sajjad traveled to the U.S. to study social entrepreneurship at Ball State University through IYLEP Undergrad. Consultations with his professors as well as medical professionals at Ball State helped Sajjad come up with a business plan for Care-Iraq, which he launched in November 2016.

What’s next: Sajjad plans to continue developing the Care-Iraq database and doing everything he can to help rebuild his country. “If there’s change coming,” he says, “it’s coming from young, motivated Iraqis.”


Fatima Khamasi, 18, Diwaniyah: IYLEP High School

Fatima Khamasi is an 18-year-old high school student from Diwaniyah, Iraq. She’s headed to university soon to study medicine and, eventually, international social work and community development. In the meantime, she hopes to continue working on projects like the Diwaniyah City of Peace Carnival, a festival she founded to promote peace in her city.

Read Fatima’s story

Mohammed Obaid, 18, Kirkuk: IYLEP High School

He founded: Iraq’s first Model United Nations club.

His inspiration: Mohammed learned about Model UN during his IYLEP exchange program in D.C. His roommate–who hails from Stowe, Vermont–told him about the organization. Intrigued, they decided to work together to launch Iraq’s first-ever chapter. “I saw how Model UN is not about solving world issues but having the opportunity to learn the skills that could lead you to becoming a leader, a diplomat, or a politician,” Mohammed says.

Why it matters for Iraq’s future: “Why is Model UN important? It builds a generation of politically and civic-minded individuals.”

Why he’s taking action: “Before going on IYLEP, I was like, ‘This is my lifetime opportunity. I should not come back empty-handed.’”


IYLEP Arabic Launches

In hopes of reaching even more Iraqi youth–many of whom may not have the English language skills required to join IYLEP–World Learning organizes a cohort group conducted entirely in Arabic. By its second year, IYLEP Arabic boasted a class that was 53 percent female, spread across Iraq’s four regions: North: 16 percent; Central: 24 percent; South Central: 31 percent; South: 29 percent.

"By bringing in students who are Arabic speakers only and providing them that opportunity [to participate in the program], it creates more diversity," says Christienne Carroll, Cultural Affairs Officer at the U.S. Embassy Baghdad. "We’re always looking for new ways to do that."

Read about IYLEP Arabic’s first class 2017

A Decade of IYLEP

To celebrate the 10th anniversary of IYLEP—and all the change that alumni have gone on to create in their communities and their country—World Learning hosted a reunion conference in Baghdad on March 31, 2018. More than 250 young adults from provinces across the country gathered together alongside distinguished guests, including U.S. Ambassador Douglas Silliman and World Learning President and CEO Carol Jenkins.

"We have learned that these programs enable people from different walks of life to find their voices, transform, and lead. Through these programs, we are together building bridges across the world, making our communities better places in which to live," Jenkins says.

Read more about the conference 2018

The Future of IYLEP

Over the last decade, IYLEP has given more than 2,500 young Iraqi citizens an opportunity to explore the world and instilled in them a desire to serve their communities. Already part of Iraq’s broader transformation, these alumni–like Thamir Elias Khidhir in the video above–are determined to continue their work as leaders and change-makers. World Learning has been honored to work with these promising young people, and we look forward to the next 10 years.

By the Numbers

IYLEP By the Numbers - Province

*Anbar, Dhi Qar, Halabja, Kirkuk, Maysan, Najaf, Ninewa, Salah ad Din, and Wasit

IYLEP By the Numbers - Partners
IYLEP By the Numbers - Gender