A group of 25 college students from Iraq are in Montana, as part of a Young Leaders Exchange Program arranged by the U.S. State Department and the University of Montana. The three-week tour is focused on international peace building through studies in environmental and cultural preservation.
Natalie Dawson — the Director of the Wilderness Institute and a wilderness studies professor at UM — is one of the program’s organizers. Thursday afternoon, Dawson was taking a break in the shade near UM’s iconic grizzly statue.
"Right now, literally five minutes ago, they all got on a bus to go to Glacier National Park," said Dawson.
Dawson said the students were going to learn about the development of the Waterton Glacier International Peace Park and resource protection. This week is packed with field trips to the Flathead Reservation, National Bison Range, Montana Natural History Center and MPG Ranch.
"Personally I’ve already learned so much about a part of the world that I’ve never had any on-the-ground experience with but only read about in the news given our involvement in that region of the world for the last many years," said Dawson. "And so the students have taught me a lot about cultural differences and similarities. And they’re a really inspiring group of students."
Some of the students are from Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, which was seized by Islamic State or ISIS in 2014. U.S.-backed Iraqi forces launched a large-scale military operation in October to retake the city, and since then, more than 742,000 people have been displaced.
When Iraq’s prime minister declared victory over the militants in Mosul last Monday, the students were enjoying a hike in the Rattlesnake Recreation Area just outside Missoula.
"Some of the students that identify with the Iraqi flag pulled out the flag and displayed it, and were taking photos and excited," Dawson said.
Dawson said she was overwhelmed by the community support from Missoula and Western Montana.
"There are so many people that have reached out that want to personally meet with and invite the students into their homes for meals or to share an afternoon. And the students just keep saying how welcome they feel, and how friendly everyone has been," said Dawson.
The Iraqi students depart Montana on July 26th to complete their program in Washington, D.C.