Though IRIS began in 1993, it didn’t begin officially connecting with communities in Africa until 2001. The year brought the start of two projects, one in the east central region of the continent and one in Nigeria.
The first project was the African Great Lakes Reconciliation Project, which took place between Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Zimbabwe and Uganda. This area, also known as the Great Lakes Region, was recognized by IRIS and other representatives in Iowa as a region of conflict and internal struggles amongst the different nations. The goal of the Reconciliation project was to bring together 16 diverse individuals from different backgrounds and alliances to resolve issues of civil society, justice, a free and responsible media, and non-violent conflict management/resolution.
The Great Lakes Reconciliation Project ran through the month of September of that year and benefited the countries represented by the 16 participants.
After the attack of September 11, 2001, IRIS wanted to connect communities more than ever. In October, the Building Civil Society and Peace in Nigeria project started. This project brought five Christian and five Muslim Nigerians to Iowa for a program focused on religious tolerance. Former Lt. Governor of Iowa and founder of IRIS Bob Anderson said the project held great impact in the first month after the 9/11 attack.
“In a way, it was our Muslim participants helping Iowans understand what Islam was all about,” Bob said.
The Nigerian project ran from the beginning of October through November of 2001. One of the main points of this project was a roundtable discussion held at Northwestern University on November 1. Participants were religious leaders from Kaduna and Taraba State, Nigeria, as well as faculty in the program of African Studies at Northwestern.
The program also created a connection between IRIS and Nigerian leaders. This benefited IRIS as they later worked to become the recruitment organization for the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study (YES) students from Nigeria, a contract IRIS received in 2002. Since connecting through these first projects, IRIS has continued to build relations with countries in Africa and selects YES students from both Nigeria and Tanzania.