One Cherry Creek High School student saw echoes of California in a photo of the sun-dappled streets of Baghdad. Another drew comparisons between the landscapes featured in pictures of Basra and the lush forests of the American northwest.
The CCHS students gathered around a table in the school's Student Senate room on Aug. 22 were in the midst of a virtual tour through Iraq, led by a pair of natives who encouraged the cognitive connections between the Middle East and the U.S. The Iraqi teens offered context to the photos they showed on their cellphones, explaining, "We have many different kinds of places."
At a table across the room, a different group of Iraqi teens guided CCHS students through simple Arabic and Kurdish lessons. At another, speakers decked in traditional Iraqi garb detailed fashions and aesthetics from all chapters of the country's history. A different group focused on lifestyle traditions from the country, and another discussed religious and diversity issues.
The 13 Iraqi high school students leading the discussions were representatives of the Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program, and they visited Cherry Creek High School on Aug. 22 through the nonprofit organization WorldDenver. Founded by Karen de Bartolomé, the organization is dedicated to advancing a deep understanding of global affairs and cultures. That mission is largely realized via international exchange programs.
The Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program, meanwhile, is a program sponsored and funded by the U.S. Embassy, Baghdad and U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, Youth Programs Division. IYLEP is administered by World Learning in partnership with local community organizations like WorldDenver.
"The idea is to make Colorado a more globally minded state. Our main goal is facilitating international exchanges," said Sofia Dugas, program assistant intern for WorldDenver. Dugas is also a Cherry Creek High School alum. "We bring in about 600 people annually from all around the world, from entrepreneurs to business leaders to teachers."
The group of Iraqi students visited Cherry Creek as part of a month-long trip across the United States, a journey that included stops in Vermont and Washington, D.C. Selected from about 5,000 applicants, the Iraqi ambassadors were on a mission of cultural communication and understanding. Specifically, the ambassadors were focused on building skills in leadership and civic engagement; fostering a respect for diversity and a stronger understanding between people of different ethnic, religious, and national backgrounds; and building a mutual understanding between people of Iraq and the U.S.
That mission was clearly successful at Cherry Creek High School, where the Iraqi and American teens didn't have to work hard to find common ground. The Iraqi students shadowed their counterpart to Creek classes, and they led the cultural exchange session for members of the CCHS Student Senate toward the end of the school day. The meeting ended with a communal dance session, as Iraqi and American students joined hands and moved around the room to the strains of traditional Arabic music.
"This is exactly what I think students should be doing," said Max Gomez, who hosted two of the Iraqi students in his theater class. "Watching them participate in our class was one of the coolest things I've ever seen," he said, adding that discussions about religion, culture and lifestyle offered a different perspective of life in Iraq. "You can only learn so much from a textbook. Sometimes you have to interact with someone face-to-face."
The effort meant a lot to the Iraqi students like Avesta Elias, 16, who arrived with a simple mission in mind.
"Personally, my message is to show people that Iraq is not only a war zone," Elias said. "These students were really interested in knowing more about us, even though they are not Iraqis. That was really interesting to me."
The Cherry Creek High School students had offered preliminary feedback about the exchange, responding to prompts about their preconceptions of Iraq. Many wrote that they saw the country as a hotbed of violence and conflict, a place devoid of joy and culture. The group had a chance to respond to those same kinds of prompts after their day with their Iraqi counterparts, and many of the CCHS student officers scribbled on neon-colored sticky notes as they still struggled to catch their breath after the demanding dance session.
To the question, "How do you view Iraq after what you've learned?," one CCHS student wrote simply, "It's a lot like America."