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(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) A group of Young Iraqi leaders painting a mural under a bridge in Rose Park, pose for a photo. Iraqi leaders exchange program called "Bridges Over Barriers"
Iraqi and American teens work together to join neighborhoods with art
Culture » Iraqi and American teens work together to join neighborhoods with art.
First Published Aug 16 2012 10:52 am • Last Updated Nov 30 2012 11:32 pm

Iraqi and American students worked side-by-side to paint a mural under the I-15 freeway bridge that divides the west-side neighborhoods of Guadalupe and Jackson.

The mural is part of the Bridges Over Barriers community art project designed to bring the two communities together.

At a glance

Building bridges

The Utah Council for Citizen Diplomacy hosted 10 Iraqi teens for 10 days.

American and Iraqi teens work together on the Bridges Over Barriers project.

Iraqi students left a their mark in art for the city.

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Started in 2005, the project is organized by NeighborWorks Salt Lake. The two neighborhoods were physically divided by the overpass, but an underlying connection remains. People from both neighborhoods travel under the freeway bridge daily to reach the closest TRAX station, Jackson Elementary School, West High School, various churches and the Capitol West Boys and Girls Club.

"The Bridges Over Barriers project is a perfect example of what we are trying to do," said Laura Dupuy, executive director at the Utah Council for Citizen Diplomacy.

The council strives to promote global understanding and respect between Utahns and people from other nations. It was chosen this year to play host to 10 Iraqi students who were identified as key leaders in their communities. The students came to the United States for a total of four weeks, spending 10 days with host families in Salt Lake City.

"It has been really cool," said Montather, a 16-year-old from Baghdad. "Different than I expected."

The council released only the first names of students to protect them from any retribution they may face in Iraq.

Montather was especially impressed with Washington, D.C., and all the monuments and museums he was able to visit. Another high point for him was the group’s visit to a Real Salt Lake soccer game.

"I was so excited to see there is soccer here. And so many people came to the game, it was really cool," he said.

Rana, an 18-year-old from Baghdad, said her visit to the United States has changed her perspective on Americans.

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"All I know I learned from [the] media. America was a bad place. When I got here, I learned that people here are friendly, always smiling. There are very nice people here," she said.

Fiona, one of six Utah teens to join the group, said she wasn’t sure what to expect from the Iraqi students. She knew they would be different, and she was nervous about meeting them.

"I understand now that we’re not that different, and I shouldn’t have been worried," she said. "We come from different places and have different experiences, but nobody’s really that different from each other."

Dupuy said the sentiment expressed by Fiona is exactly what makes this program important.

"The program is designed to help us break down the barriers between cultures. When we engage in open and respectful dialogue, we are able to understand each other better," she said.

That is why the bridges project was a good fit for the students participating in the council’s program. The project is working to break down barriers between local communities, and when the kids are able to be involved, they see the good they can do and the impact they can have locally as well as globally, she said.

"By working on the mural, [the Iraqi students] have left a physical imprint of their visit on our community," Dupuy said.

Abdullah, a 16-year-old from Baghdad, said he hopes to keep in contact with his host family.

"I don’t have any brothers or sisters," he said. "But now I have a brother and a sister. I will keep in contact with my family, of course."

One of the goals of the program is to take one person’s experience and have it shared back in Iraq with many more people.

"We believe in the multiplier effect," Dupuy said. "All of the students will go home and share their experiences with their families, friends and colleagues, and they will pass the stories on to their friends and families. The experience of one person can affect the perception of many people."

For some of the Iraqi students, it sparked a desire to learn more about other cultures as well.

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