Finding peace among the trees

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BRATTLEBORO -- When you are trying to break down international stereotypes and build bridges between nations at war, it helps to start that work by swinging on ropes in the middle of the forest.

Each summer World Learning hosts youth groups from troubled regions across the globe, and for every session part of that learning takes place at the High 5 Adventure Learning Center.

High 5 is a nonprofit organization that uses rope swings, climbing walls and platforms high among the pine trees, to build trust and relationships among the participants who take part in the course.

This week about 34 teenagers from Iraq arrived on the World Learning Brattleboro campus to work with about a dozen U.S. students.

Shane Stryzinski, A World Learning staff member, said the school routinely brings the international visitors to the adventure course within the first few days.

"It's a way to get the energy going," he said. "It's a way to get conversations going and build trust. It works."

SIT staff members have been taking participants of the peace building program to High 5 for years.

Catholics and Protestants from Northern Ireland, Jews and Arabs from the Middle East, and Bosnians and Serbs have all tested their trust and fears high atop the ropes and wires at High 5.

The exercises force the groups to break down pre-conceived notions about each other, develop trust and work together toward a common goal.

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At the course Sunday one group of Iraqi and American teenagers talked about similarities and stereotypes.

The discussions ranged from a shared appreciation of nature and swimming, to false assumptions about each country.

The Iraqis, whose names can not be used for security reasons, talked about stories they heard about American teenagers who do drugs.

They talked about false assumptions about women who wear burkas, and about the thoughts some Americans have about the role Iraq played in the 9/11 attacks.

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All of this was talked about after groups of the American and Iraqi teenagers helped each other on a rope swing across raised platforms.

"It is a lot easier to open up after working out here," Stryzinski said. "The point is to establish bonds and trust, and once you do that it is easier to get conversation flowing."

The Iraqis who are visiting Vermont are part of a larger group of Iraqi youth who are spending part of the summer in the U.S.

About 80 Iraqi youth are taking part in the summer program, which was developed to cultivate a new generation of Iraqi leaders while building ties with communities in the United States.

Other members of the group are spending time at Colorado State University and at the University of Arkansas.

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The group in Brattleboro is made up of high school students.

The whole group will get back together later in August in Washington D.C. for training in leadership, conflict resolution, peace building and cultural readjustment.

The Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program is funded by the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.

Nearly half of Iraq's population is under the age of 19, according to a World Learning press release, and youth there face challenges such as high drop out rates, lack of community engagement, and 30 percent unemployment.

World Learning has been hosting Iraqi exchange students since 2007, and past participants have returned to their country to collect clothes for orphans, raise money for cancer patients and teach elementary school children about environmentalism.

The graduates have also gone on to conduct similar leadership workshops with other youth in Iraq.

More than 800 Iraqis have taken part in the program.

This year students in other parts of the country have visited a city council meeting in Fayetteville, Arkansas and toured the scene of the Joplin tornado.

Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at hwtisman@reformer .com or 802-254-2311, ext. 279.


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