Ava Vana Amein, writes comprehensively about four successful AUIS students who want to be the change in the Iraqi region. Read more here.
Congratulations to all the winners of the Fall 2015 Awards for exceptional academic performance and community service in the last semester.
March 5, 2015 - International Studies students and aspiring actresses, Leah Farooq and Beyan Tahir, are well known faces of the AUIS Drama Club on campus. They have given stellar performances in plays such as Twelve Angry (Wo)men, Will’s Café and 9 Parts of Desire at the University. Recently, they were able to showcase their talent to a much larger audience in Sharjah, UAE, along with a cast of talented youth from all over the Middle East. Encouraged by their mentor and Head of AUIS Drama Club, Elizabeth O'Sullivan, both girls applied for the theatrical training program, Home Grown, run by the Kevin Spacey Foundation and the Middle East Theatre Academy (META). They were selected along with 35 young people from the Middle East out of more than 600 applicants. Their intensive two-week training culminated in a theatrical performance on January 25-26 in front of a large audience, including the Oscar Award winning actor Kevin Spacey and Dr. Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, Ruler of Sharjah. Leah and Beyan credit O’Sullivan for believing in them and pushing them to apply for Home Grown. “If it weren’t for Liz (O’Sullivan) I would never have applied,” said Leah. Initially, they were very unsure and nervous about applying for the program. “I did the video one hour before submitting my application. Later, one of the directors told me that it was one of his favourite audition videos, so I was very happy” said Beyan. “He also said that that Leah and I were among those applicants that they did not hesitate about while making the selection.” O’Sullivan is equally proud of her students for getting into the program. “I'm incredibly proud of all of the AUIS students that auditioned for the workshop. It was not an easy thing to do, and I witnessed some great acting from many of our students. I'm thrilled that out of the 35 spots available, two of them were filled by AUIS students. Leah and Beyan are great examples of how the dramatic arts can help students. They've both been involved with Drama for multiple semesters and it's been really amazing to watch them change and grow as actresses. As a teacher, I feel incredibly lucky to have young women like them to work with.” Talking about the rare opportunity to work and train with professionals in the field, both agreed that it especially helped them to learn how to use their bodies and movement on stage. “I thought being on stage was all about emotions and acting. But, they did all these lifts and moves and they were so smooth. I feel more connected to my body now after working with them. They made us know our minds, what we are thinking, our emotions and our bodies, and that's very difficult,” explained Leah. Beyan echoed Leah’s thoughts, “I’ve always wanted to be on a stage where there isn’t just acting, but there’s movement, and there’s singing and dancing. They taught us to be confident on stage and to do whatever was required at the moment,” she said. The Home Grown production, Dhow Under the Sun, received great response from the audience. “Kevin Spacey cried at the end! He said he couldn’t help it because we were all so good,” said Leah excitedly. Spacey personally spent two hours coaching the participants during the workshop. “I still have quotes from him on my notebook. Every now and then I go back to them so I don’t forget what I want in life and my acting career,” added Beyan. But, the Home Grown experience wasn’t just about acting; it was also about learning to accept differences, and to start new friendships, especially in the backdrop of the current crises in the Middle East. Leah agreed that they went with some perceptions about the other nationalities. “Before I went there, I never felt like I belonged to the Middle East! I was wondering about how I would get along with all of them,” she said, “But soon it felt like the borders weren’t even there. It started feeling like one country, like one Middle East.” “What was also amazing about this program was that everybody was accepted without thinking about gender, race, mentality or anything! ” Leah continued, “Everyone had something that was different. There was a spark in each of them, and you wanted to know them. They were all so creative!” Leah and Beyan have exciting plans for the future with their new friends after finishing this program. Out of the 35 Home Grown cast members, 18 have come together to write a play that they hope to perform in Jordan. “We don’t want this experience to fade away. This is not only going to help us. We’re just starting it but other people might want to join us later. It will be like an institution.” they said. The group members are currently working on the script. The two students also have a personal project of their own. The writer of the Home Grown production, Hassan Abdulrazzak, is of Iraqi descent, and the girls want to introduce his plays to the local audience. “We want to bring his work to AUIS, and through AUIS promote him in the country. That’s our personal project. We want to have one of his plays that talks about a lot of issues in our society. I think it’s a great honor for us to bring his plays here,” they said. They credit the AUIS Drama Club, and especially O’Sullivan, for recognizing, building and appreciating their talent. “I never thought I was good on stage until I started practicing with Liz,” said Beyan, “It’s great that AUIS has a drama club. If we didn’t have it, we would not have been able to do anything. Here, in Iraq, we don’t have very good acting schools. The society is not very encouraging.” Leah agreed with her, “I would have never known I wanted to be an actress if I had not come to this university. Liz really cares about each student’s passion and the theatre. She is an incredible woman. She made us discover who we are as actors.”
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I was at the National Model United Nations conference in New York last year when I heard that Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s COO, wrote a book called “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.” I went to a bookstore immediately to buy it. Initially, I feared that her book wouldn’t help me because I am from a different world. However, I realized after reading it that I have been through many similar situations. For example, like Sheryl, know what it feels like to be the only woman in the office. I also know what it is like to be labeled "bossy" when I try to lead. After reading “Lean In,” I became a big fan of Sheryl Sandberg. I admired how successful and hard working she is. A few months later, I started working at a non-profit organization, the Hiwa Foundation. One of the major projects at the Hiwa Foundation is translating books into Kurdish. After few months working there, I suggested we translate "Lean In." They loved the idea once they learned how powerful the book’s message is. With the support of the Hiwa Foundation and the Lean In Foundation, we got approval to translate the book. Distributing “Lean In” in Kurdish will help the local region to cast off the idea that women must be at home raising children while men work. With collaboration and looking at your wife or husband as a dedicated co-parent, we can build better families and societies. We can have more women sit at the table, as well as more women going back to school or to work with encouragement from their families and society. My hope is to see more women as leaders, entrepreneurs, politicians and business owners. In addition to translating “Lean In” into Kurdish, the Lean In Foundation is supporting my efforts to start a Lean In circle at AUIS. What is a Lean In circle? It is a group of eight to twelve peers who meet monthly to explore professional topics and exchange personal experiences in an atmosphere of confidentiality and trust. Circles can be for both men and women. I believe AUIS can benefit from Lean In circles, which cover topics such as: how to know your strengths, how to communicate with confidence, how to negotiate, how to allow yourself to be brilliant. I loaned my copy of “Lean In” to a few of my friends, and I was pleased to hear that they, too, were inspired by Sheryl’s ideas. Azheen Ihsan Fuad, an international studies major at AUIS, said, “when I first heard about 'Lean In,' I didn't think that it was going to be relevant to me because it was coming from a woman within the corporate world. I was, however, wrong in every possible way.Reading through the pages of ‘Lean In,’ especially when Sheryl wrote about of how she would always worry that she got a low grade on her exams and how her brother would think the opposite. In the end, they'd both get high grades. This wasn’t because her brother was being over-confident, but because of the low confidence she had. That was something that stayed with me, because when it comes down to expressing my opinions or 'keeping my hands up' within discussions duringclass, I always felt like my ideas were wrong. Or I would sometimes whisper the answers/opinions to myself. Yet at the same exact time, another person would word out exactly what I was thinking, leaving me more down than before. As an international relations student, it's important for us to express our opinions and keep our hands up, and what Sheryl was saying in her book, was the right push for me to actually keep my hands up and make sure what I was thinking was heard.” I encourage students to read the book and come join the circles. We are doing this to encourage you to lead. We hope to see as many men as possible in the circles, too.
This summer, thirteen students from the AUIS club Shakespeare Iraq took a break from studying history in order to make a little. On July 1, they arrived at the Tony Award-Winning Oregon Shakespeare Festival, almost exactly halfway around the world from their Sulaimani campus. They raised the travel funds themselves through a wildly popular kickstarter internet campaign. All of this was historic, and would have utterly satisfied most people. But at our five year-old university, it is gettting progressively more foolish to confuse our students with most people. Upon their arrival in Oregon, the cast of Shakespeare Iraq, some of whom had never been on an airplane before, shrugged off their jetlag and performed the Bard’s words in three languages, for eight days, in front of thousands of theatergoers. Several times they hit the rare air that any performer dreams of: holding still on stage, waiting for the laughter and applause to subside. Sometimes they even had to wait through showstopping standing ovations. That’s a problem actors spend careers trying to create. And because this surely would have satisfied most people, these students naturally pushed even further. They accepted invitations from Santa Clara University, Portland State University, the American Conservatory Theater, TNT’s hit show “Leverage,” and the Artist’s Repertory Theater, where they spontaneously broke from a question answer session and, to the stunned delight of the audience, performed their entire show. They also chose to spend time with Americans decidedly outside the theater crowd. They ate homemade pizza with US Iraq War veterans, and shared Portland’s finest “Voodoo Donuts” with officers from Portland’s Finest.But it was the unplanned experiences that truly tested them. Most Americans have learned, for obvious reasons, not to bring up the Iraq War with strangers. But if you are an Iraqi, on a highly publicized visit to the US, strangers are going to bring up the war with you. During these moments, and there were many of them, our students became effortless ambassadors, using humor, intelligence and grace to calm nerves, sometimes tears and even anger. Performances like those were obviously not in anyone’s script. We never thought of them while we rehearsed, raised money, applied for visas, and wrestled with various devils in the details. Yet those were the performances I wish I still had tickets for. But I’m lucky -- at least I saw them once. Most AUIS faculty and staff couldn’t make it to Oregon, yet they gave generous donations, changed exam schedules, and tolerated boisterous rehearsals outside their office doors. Hundreds of OSF subscribers gave just as blindly, knowing they couldn’t make the dates of our shows. Without them all, Shakespeare Iraq would have slid straight to the crowded underworld of vanquished noble ideas. I’m teaching a research paper class this semester, so I’m obliged to confess my bias and provide some balanced reporting. Sure, there were days on the trip were people got tired and petty. I heard, “Can’t we just go to a mall?” more than once, accompanied by a colorful metaphor. It is possible that I offered to drop them off at the nearest mall and leave them there, in equally colorful prose. But when it mattered most, and when I least expected it, every member of Shakespeare Iraq performed so masterfully that I stopped feeling proud and started feeling humbled. As much as I expected from them, I still woefully underestimated what they were truly capable of. Maybe I can’t say that Shakespeare Iraq changed the world – it is, after all, the world. But I can say just fine that Shakespeare Iraq changed me. As for the world, there is this new show they’re working on.
Nine AUIS students participated in Iraqi Yong Leaders Exchange Program (IYLEP) this June for six weeks. Before I start talking about our time in the program, let me give you the basics. IYLEP is a leadership, educational, and cultural program funded by the US Embassy in Baghdad. There are two IYLEP institutes administrated by FHI 360: Social Media and Public Policy. There are two others implemented by World Learning: Environment and Social Awareness and Public Health and Community Development. There is also IYLEP for high school students, which is also administrated by World Learning. Now let’s get a little deeper. Randi Barznji and I participated in IYLEP Social Media Institute at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) in Richmond; four AUIS students participated in IYLEP Public Policy Institute at University of Massachusetts – Amherst; and three others participated in IYLEP World Learning. During that time, we had an impressive, fantastic, and unforgettable experience. This program basically consists of two parts: academic and cultural, which we called “the fun part.” As the only AUIS students in Social Media Institute, Randi and I each got three certificates: one from the Embassy of the United States in Baghdad & FHI 360, the another from the School of Mass Communications and the Global Education Office at VCU, and the third for first and second place award by Social Media Institute at VCU. We spent 5 days in Washington, D.C. for the opening conference. We participated in various activities, visited popular tourist attractions, and attended lectures. For example, we went to a lecture about American Government and the Presidential Election of 2012 by Philip Patlan, who worked for the White House during Obama and Bush administrations. He talked about life in the U.S briefly, and then discussed public life as well. In the very beginning of his speech, he said that individuality is very important in the U.S. After his lecture, I had a chance to talk to him. I told him that on the one hand, individuality is not something unique about the U.S. It is important almost everywhere in the world, including Iraq, because everyone is motivated by self-interest. This is the nature of human beings, as Machiavelli discusses in The Prince. But that does not mean that family or other things such as power, money, and religion, are not important. They also play a very important role, especially in Iraqi society. On the other hand, yes, Patlan was right because individuality is more important in the U.S than in Iraq, where family is usually more in charge of society than individuals. Then, he talked about public life which is very different from public life in Iraq, because we do not have a strong government, and a large number of associations, nonprofit organizations and NGOs, as they do in the U.S. Another interesting thing that I happened upon in D.C was seeing AUIS President Dr. Athanasios Moulakis on the street. One day, in the evening, we went to see the White House and the Capitol Hill and some other popular places in D.C. After that, we took a taxi to go back to our hotel. On the way, we stopped at a red traffic light, and suddenly I saw Dr. Moulakis. He was walking on the street. I called him and he turned around to me, and said hello, but unfortunately, I did not have a chance to talk to him because the cab driver pulled away. I told him to stop for a few minutes, but he could not because it was too crowded. After the opening conference in D.C., IYLEP participants from Public Policy headed to Amherst in Massachusetts, while the Social Media participants headed to Virginia Beach on the Atlantic Ocean. We spent the weekend swimming during daytime and attending concerts at night. After that, we went to Richmond, VA. Richmond, which is the capital city of Virginia, is only 2 hours away from Washington D.C., but it is totally different. When we first arrived in Richmond, I felt like I was visiting another country! We had Social Media class for one month with VCU students in Richmond. During every class, experts on social media lectured us. We had midterm and final exams, assignments on Twitter and Delicious.com, and presentations on social media tools and Iraq. After the class, we also did some other activities. For example, we visited CBS6, a local TV station, and Randi and I were selected by our professor and IYLEP staff for an interview about social media, Virginia, and Iraq. The anchor of CBS6 asked me a question about one thing that I would like to tell the Americans, and my response was that I hope that more Americans will take interest in what is currently happening in Iraq. Iraq has been developed since the liberation of Iraq in 2003. There has been a lot of construction and investment. Our education is getting better. Our economy is growing every day. I would like to tell the Americans that what you see in the news about Iraq is not always correct. If Americans want to get a better understating about Iraq, they should visit Iraq to see the progress. We also wrote blog posts for Richmond.com. My article was about politics and equality in my hometown, Rania, and Sulaimani in particular. The most important part of the academic side of this program were our projects for nonprofit organizations. We worked for non-profit organizations with VCU students in Richmond. Our class was divided into 10 teams. There were IYLEP students and VCU students in every team. Our client was Fan Free Clinic, which was the first free clinic in the Commonwealth of Virginia. We created YouTube video, Tumblr, social media strategy and manual, and other social media platforms for our client. By the end of the course, each team presented their projects, which were judged by 3 experts on social media. Randi’s team won first place in the final project by voting from the audience and the judges, and my team was placed second. In short, the most important part of working for nonprofit organizations was the combination of VCU and IYLEP students in each team. We learned a lot from each other. They learned a lot about Iraq and our culture, and we learned many things from VCU students about American culture, American history, American Government, even American music and food. This experience proved to me that it is absolutely correct when they say students can learn not only from their professors, but also from other students as well, especially if the students have different backgrounds. I think this is why or it may be one of the reasons that the universities in the U.S attempt to diversify their student body populations by accepting international students. Finally, we returned to Iraq on August 6. Since I returned, I have been asked by a number of people about the main purpose of the program. I am sure some of you who read this blog post have the same question. The main purpose of this program is not to get a certificate. It is not only about social media or public policy. It is about life in general. We experienced many different things. We compared life and culture in the U.S and life in Iraq. There are a lot of similarities and differences. For example, one of the differences that I observed was that dreams and goals differ between Iraqis and Americans. In the US, everyone can have a long term goal and achieve that goal if they want, and they make a lot of effort to pursue that goal. However, in Iraq, people have a lot of short term goals, but it is not easy to accomplish short term goals because of the political instability and some other problems that we have faced. One of the similarities is diversity. The U.S is also very diverse like Iraq.