Eman Ibrahim started volunteering in Iraq’s first cancer support center in the northern Iraqi city of Erbil when she was 18, providing psychological support and reading to patients. It was satisfying work for the energetic young woman, if heart-wrenching at times.

Yet, when the 21-year-old Kurdish medical student from Hawler Medical University became head of the Erbil Hub center last year, she wanted to do even more to help—and that meant learning new ideas. Last July, she got her opportunity with the Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program.

Iraqi students on tour in Pullman
Young Iraqi medical students visited WSU Spokane and Pullman for two weeks in 2017.
(Photo Shelly Hanks)

The highly competitive scholarship program brings 100 Iraqi college students to the United States for 17 days, to foster the next generation of Iraqi leaders through cultural and social exchange.

Washington State University was one of four U.S. universities selected in 2017 to host the program, which is sponsored by the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and administered by World Learning. The focus at Washington State was public health, and all 25 participants at WSU were medical students. WSU will host another 25 Iraqi students this coming July.

WSU coordinator Cheryl Hansen says the Iraqi students didn’t waste a minute during the packed visit. They saw the global animal health program, veterinary hospital, and equine therapy program, among many other departments, says Hansen, director of partnerships and outreach at WSU International Programs.

As future doctors, the visitors particularly enjoyed WSU Spokane’s health sciences campus, sharing a lunch with faculty physicians and touring the anatomy and nursing simulation labs.

Off campus, the students learned about civic life in Pullman with tours of police and fire stations, city government, and the Pullman Regional Hospital. They also had seminars on leadership, civic education, and diversity awareness.

“We were so impressed by the participants, a group of passionate medical students who want to make the world a better place,” says Asif Chaudhry ’88 PhD, vice president of International Programs.

One participant, Ahmed Darweesh from the western province of Anbar, exemplifies that altruistic nature. Darweesh says his father inspired him to always improve his community, and now he wants to pass that on.

“We need to improve the community through the youth,” says the 21-year-old Darweesh. “I want to encourage them to have the power to do something.”

The Iraqi students didn’t just visit WSU departments and Pullman offices. Each weekend, they lived with local residents. It had a profound effect on both host families and the Iraqis.

“The host families were tired of reading about Iraq in the newspaper and watching on TV, and wanted to talk with Iraqis face to face and find out what was really going on,” says Hansen.

For Ibrahim, the homestay was a highlight. “My family is so protective. I’m the youngest, and they were worried about the host family,” she says. But Ibrahim soon felt comfortable, particularly after she told her host family about her concerns that people would judge her for wearing the hijab head scarf.

“The mother was so generous and kind,” says Ibrahim. “The second day she came to me with a scarf and said, ‘Can you teach me how to tie this?’ She said if she sees someone who is hijabi, she’ll wear the scarf.”

Hansen says host families showed the Iraqi students around the region, from visiting the Moscow farmers market to taking a seaplane over Lake Coeur d’Alene.

“This group left an indelible mark on the hearts of Palouse area residents who hosted them in their homes over the two weekends,” says Chaudhry.

They also learned to be part of the Cougar family, says Hansen. “One thing I taught them when we first met was ‘Go Cougs!’ They never let me down, and they said it at the end of almost every session.”

Hansen says she hopes the students will return to Iraq with fond memories and useful knowledge. “They were already leaders before they came, and hopefully they became better leaders here,” she says.

Ibrahim certainly returned to Iraq with some plans. She’s already heading up an expansion of the support center to assist Syrian refugees and orphans in Erbil.