COLUMBIA — A former Rock Bridge High School student will travel to Jordan on Friday for a conference he organized between Iraqi and American students.
Michael Schoenleber, 19, thought of the idea for the Youth Initiative for Progress in Iraq in 2007 while studying at Li Po Chun United World College of Hong Kong during his senior year of high school. Schoenleber started an international issues discussion group, and one of the first topics was the conflict in Iraq.
After the discussion, he talked with friend and Li Po Chun colleague Astrid Stuth of Milwaukee about how they could increase dialogue between Iraqi and American youth. Stuth will help facilitate the conference.
“As far as I know, this is the first time American and Iraqi youth will be coming together for something like this,” Schoenleber said.
His conference’s Web site says: “The Youth Initiative for Progress in Iraq conference will provide Iraqi and American youth with a voice and the tools necessary to make concrete progress toward a sustainable and peaceful future between the two countries.”
Expected to attend the nonpartisan conference are 16 Iraqi students — five students from Baghdad, three Iraqi refugees living in Jordan, four students from the Kurdish region of Iraq and four from southern Iraq — and 16 American students, all ages 16 to 19. They will meet at King’s Academy boarding school outside Jordan’s capital, Amman. The balance of Sunnis to Shiites and men to women from Iraq is close to even.
The $76,000 conference is sponsored by various individuals and organizations. Princeton University, where Schoenleber begins college next year, contributed $20,000 to the conference, he said.
Schoenleber said the families of the Iraqi students are “just ecstatic” about their children having a chance to talk with Americans.
“We want the discussions that take place to adequately represent all of the possible opinions present in both countries,” Schoenleber said.
The 32 participants came of age throughout conflict in Iraq, he said, and particularly for the Iraqi youth who might not remember times of peace, whatever they are feeling is deeply rooted.
“When I started working with other students on a student-organized, student-run conference between Indian and Pakistani youth regarding the Kashmir conflict,” said Stuth, who attends Princeton, “I saw first-hand how powerful giving teenagers from opposite sides of a conflict the opportunity to share their opinions and experiences with each other can be.”
Most of the 10 facilitators have led some sort of other discussion over conflict, Schoenleber said. They also attended a week-long conference in Hong Kong and will have a second week of training in Jordan, before the students arrive, from the Bartos Institute for Constructive Engagement of Conflict.
“It was my belief in the ability of the youth to come up with productive ideas and projects to help develop Iraq,” Schoenleber said.
After the students return home, Schoenleber wants them to give a presentation somewhere in their communities about their experiences and what they hope to do with ideas from the conference.
The effort to help Iraqi youth is not intended to end in Jordan. Schoenleber created the Campus Connection Program, which aims to link American universities and high schools with schools in Iraq, to continue dialogue and provide financial aid to the Iraqi schools. Through his program, he hopes to give each Iraqi partner school at least $25,000 worth of supplies and other forms of aid such as old textbooks.
Before studying in Hong Kong for two years, Schoenleber spent six months as a page in the U.S. Senate. There, he said learned of the potential for youth to unite and discuss issues that society faces. When not on the Senate floor, the pages often discussed such issues and worked to think of solutions.
Mark Thomas of Overland Park, Kan., will travel to Jordan for the conference and said he is “really interested to find out what’s going on over there. I want to be able to gain a better understanding of where the Iraqis are coming from.”
Schoenleber had several opportunities at Rock Bridge and in Columbia to meet people from diverse backgrounds. His interest in international relations and world affairs stems from his education at Rock Bridge, especially from a world history course taught by David Graham. That class was his first exposure to international cultures and history, he said.
Graham was happy to hear that. He said he hopes students will be citizens of the world and think globally rather than solely from an American perspective. Schoenleber, Graham said, struck him as a peacemaker who sees both sides of an issue.
“That power to get along with one another still exists,” Schoenleber said. “It’s still possible to make progress and negotiate.”