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By Warda Belem (YES 2017-2018, Mali, hosted by IRIS in Shenandoah, IA)

Originally posted on the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study website

While on the YES program, I was in the beautiful town of Shenandoah in the state of Iowa. My placement organization, IRIS, and my host family were such a huge support system for me during this time. They pushed the shy girl I used to be to my limits and made me discover my real self. Through the YES program, I learned that the sky’s the limit and that you create opportunities for yourself. When thinking back about my exchange year, I have such strong emotions that I want everyone to feel them too. I want them to feel the happiness of being on a team, the want to be successful, the pride in being a leader, the determination to improve after failing, and so much more.

Since becoming a YES alumna, I took the lead of my country’s alumni association for a year as the president. During my term, our goal was youth empowerment. We organized workshops, trips to see the living conditions of our sisters and brothers, competitions to wake the inner leader in everyone, and other activities that put youth empowerment as the focus.

Warda and fellow alumni at a YES Alumni Association event.

One of the first activities I participated in was a workshop on gender based violence (GBV). The purpose of the event was providing a platform to people – especially the youth – to learn and talk about something that is somewhat considered “normal” in our society. A speaker talked about GBV: the definition, history, types, and ways to fight against it. Some group discussions took place and we had very brave GBV survivors share their experiences.

Through our pre/post-test surveys we noticed a good change in our participants’ mindsets. At the end of the activity, we encouraged them to pay it forward by sharing this gained knowledge.

Warda awards the debate winners with certificates.

Another youth empowerment activity we did helped build leadership skills for Malian youth. Being a former “shy girl” I needed to make an activity that included what I now love, talking. So, we organized a debate competition! It happened in a town outside of the capital city, we strategically held it there as we wanted to spread awareness about our alumni association and the YES program. The main purpose of the event was to teach youth how to express themselves and stand up for their opinions. Before the competition, every participant went through a training on how to debate. All the debate topics were based on the theme of education. As a bonus, we had alumni share their U.S. experiences and answer questions about the YES program. Again, we encouraged the participants to share forward what they learned.

In all the activities we did, my goal was always to guide youth down a leadership path and let their minds do the rest. I like to call it “Care for Care”. I show you the way and you pay it forward by showing it to someone else. By doing this, we are always supporting one another in our efforts to grow and improve as individuals and as a society. The impact might not be large right now, but everything takes time; we have to keep on persevering. I learned to love my country with its flaws and grew the need to see it develop. On this long journey that I took, I like to remind myself of what my host dad once told me: “If it was easy, everybody could do it.”

Warda and her host dad after her first track meet.

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