EPIC’s Latest 2014 Updates

EPIC’s Executive Director, Erik Gustafson (middle) with Program Associate Taif Jany (far left) and the Spring intern team

With only two months passing into the new year, there have been many remarkable developments at EPIC. For all of us on EPIC’s team, it has been a very exciting time and we would like to share a few of these developments with you. 

First, we are pleased to welcome EPIC’s new Program Associate, Taif Jany, a Baghdad native who arrived to the US in 2008 to study Sociology and French at Union College in Schenectady, NY. Taif was born and raised in Baghdad, and left Iraq in late 2006 to seek refuge in Damascus, Syria due to the rising violence in Iraq at the time. Taif arrived to the United States through the Iraqi Student Project (ISP), a grassroots effort to assist displaced Iraqi students in Syria to finish their undergraduate education in US colleges and universities.

Second, we have a new podcast that will knock your socks off, thanks to the hard work of Taif and another amazing team of young interns. Here’s a quick description:

Episode 11: Bridging Cultures through Higher Education: The Iraqi Student Project

How did two upstate New Yorkers forever change the lives of 60 young Iraqis? Our latest IRAQ MATTERS podcast features an interview with Theresa Kubasak and Gabe Huck, the founders of the Iraqi Student Project (ISP), a grassroots non-profit organization that succeeded in securing a college education for 60 young Iraqi refugees in Damascus, Syria. We then talk with two ISP students, Ahmed Tarik and Sara Sabaa, about their life-changing journeys with the Iraqi Student Project. Theresa and Gabe were just two people who saw a problem in Iraq and acted on in, doing their part to support a creative solution. Working closely with Taif, a graduate of the Iraqi Student Project, has given me firsthand evidence of their success.

Jacob Russel at AUIS
Jacob Russel teaching the next group of PhotoVoice students

Third, I arrived in Iraq on Saturday to continue PHOTOVOICE IRAQ: Picturing Change, a research and youth empowerment project that EPIC is undertaking in partnership with American University of Iraq – Sulaimani (AUIS) and George Mason University’s Center for International Education (CIE) and Center for Global Studies (CGS). Last fall, a diverse group of 15 AUIS students and 7 volunteer mentors (all members of the AUIS faculty and staff) piloted the project for the first time. This first group of students “Picturing Change” included young men and women from Baghdad, Sulaimani, Erbil, Kirkuk, Ninewa, Babylon and Diyala. Week after week, they used cameras and written reflections to explore social issues that are important to them. Now we are continuing the project with a second group of 15 AUIS students as part of a photography course taught by the acclaimed photojournalist Sasa Kralj.

On Monday, I led Sasa’s class and formally introduced the students to the photovoice concept and the three core questions of “Picturing Change”:

(1) What do you see as the most important issue today affecting you or people you care about?

(2) What positive change do you hope to see within your lifetime?

(3) How do you see yourself being a part of this positive change?

Yesterday, I was honored to also team up with the brilliant freelance photojournalist Jacob Russell, who taught the students basic techniques of portrait photography.

Over the next three weeks, I will be mentoring these students through three cycles of photovoice. They are a promising group, and alongside Sasa, I look forward to co-mentoring them through the photovoice process. By looking at Iraq through the eyes of these young people, we are gaining insights into how our advocacy and field work can more effectively address their fears and support their aspirations.

Finally, a word about some truly EPIC interns. Every semester brings a new group, and each time I am impressed by the dedicated, talented young people who are attracted to our mission. Last summer it was two of those interns, Lesley Harkins and David Slater, who had the crazy idea of starting a podcast for EPIC. We call it IRAQ MATTERS, and with successive teams of young interns, including U.S. combat veterans and Iraqi Americans, we continue to podcast news, ideas, and conversations about Iraq. Our new interns Alicia Sornson, Julia Uriarte, Ruwani Dharmakirthi and Matan Diner have been working very hard to continue this project as well as taking on other important responsibilities.

If you have not heard of our podcast, make sure you check out our previous podcasts here. Also, please help us spread the word about EPIC’s mission by following us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Without supporters like you, none of our work would be possible. Please help further our mission of peace in Iraq by signing and sharing our Change.org petition to Put Iraq Back on the Agenda and by considering a charitable donation today. Thank you for being a part of our mission.

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Erik K. Gustafson

About Erik K. Gustafson

Erik is EPIC's founder and director. As a U.S. veteran of the 1991 Gulf War, Erik has devoted his life to humanitarian action and empowering youth in support of Iraq's peace and development.