Lourd Hanna, a 23-year-old Chaldean activist and humanitarian from Erbil, has been participating in peace-building missions since she was a teenager. At 16-years-old, she was selected to participate in the Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program from the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, and at 21, she was granted the distinct opportunity of meeting with the Dalai Lama on a trip with the U.S. Institute of Peace. She is fluent in English, Kurdish, and Arabic, and Neo-Aramic, and is currently learning Persian. In college, she co-found the Middle East Sustainable Peace Organization (MESPO).
The Kurdish Project: I want to start by asking you where you grew up. Were you raised in Kurdistan?
Lourd Hanna: Yes, in Erbil. I was specifically from a community that was not predominantly made up of Christians, which is usually the case for Christians in Erbil that are not in places within their own community. My father was a professor of nuclear physics at Salahaddin University, so we were living within the compound for lecturers, and we were the only Christian family there. In all of the educational stages of my life, I’ve always been the only Christian in my school. I am Chaldean, [but] most of my friends were Kurdish.
TKP: As a Chaldean in Erbil, did you feel that you belonged?
LH: Since I was three, a Kurdish lady from Suleimani would watch me while my mother worked. I eventually started speaking Kurdish Suleimani more fluently than my own language! When my family spoke to me, they eventually started to use Kurdish words and terms. Because of my [knowledge of languages], I could speak to a person in the accent and language they were speaking with me in order to beat any obstacles of having different roots.
TKP: So you spoke in accents because you felt that it would make people more comfortable?
LH: Yes. Ever since I was young, I have thought that having a good relationship means having good communication, and that is built into my personality today. I make sure to start from somewhere that is common—whether it’s language, accent, or the topic we are discussing. I picked this up from my childhood.
TKP: Tell me about your acceptance and experience with IYLEP (Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program)?
LH: I was accepted at 16-year-old and It was very exciting! They were asking for young leaders who have done volunteer work, had an interest in other cultures, and could represent Iraq. In 2011, volunteerism was new in Erbil. People had so many initiatives in mind. The U.S. embassy was supporting these projects with small grants. Before I left, I was a part of the Hugh O’Brian Youth Leadership program doing volunteering and community service. We had gender equality initiatives and campaigns for environmental care. At that time (before ISIS), there were waves of displacement from Mosul and Baghdad who we were helping.
TKP: When you came to the US, what was it like to be so far away? Where were you in the US?
LH: In the U.S., we took leadership and community service courses while living with a host family. I went to Pensacola, Florida for ten days with an American family. It was amazing. I had a sense of family—I remember calling my host-mom “Mom.” When I went to the host-family, there were other Iraqis on the same program in Pensacola with me, so these families were holding and attending events.
I remember going to the State Council for sessions on public speaking. That’s when I realized I was equipped with language skills but not with the skills to present on [certain] issues. And the first thing we were noticing was that [in the U.S., as a part of this program], our voices were heard. We were there to learn and to apply the skills back home. But in Iraq, it’s different. When you are young, it is hard to be a change-maker. Most of the voices say “So many people tried to do this before you, it didn’t work out, do you really think you can change this, it’s very hard, etc.” In the U.S., I felt more encouraged and empowered. When I was back in Iraq, I had changed. I would plan, execute, and find a team. We would include everyone’s opinion and come up with something great. I gained this in the U.S.—from a community that provided a space for innovation and ideas, which was lacking in Iraq at the time.
TKP: Were your parents reluctant about sending you to the U.S.?
LH: My parents were supportive. As long as we were being change-makers, we should take advantage of every opportunity. My dad is already a social activist—he does so many projects for the community, and he serves his community by using his knowledge of academia. So it was always built into us and he has always been an inspiration.
For my mother, there was a fear because I was the only Christian in my community. As an Iraqi minority, there are deep trust issues in the community, and you must always put your safety first. And while I understand this, I also believe that peace-building experiences have helped me have better relationships with non-Christians. If I had grown up in Ankawa in the Christian community, I would just be a small fish in the sea. But being in Erbil and coming from a different background and ethnicity in the region, I can have more of an influence, and can use my communication skills to affect change.
TKP: When you did come back, what did you study in college?
LH: I studied biomedicine, microbiology and health sciences.
TKP: When you were studying, did you know that you wanted to come back to the U.S. eventually?
LH: That has always been a big question. I remember going back to the States for different exchange programs and organizations after my time with IYLEP, and I remember people asking me why I didn’t just stay there. And the idea of staying in the U.S. was seductive, especially when you come back after 40 days and you are disappointed by what you see back home. Whenever I was mad at something, I would say, “If I had the chance to leave tomorrow to the U.S., I would leave!” Because there, I could practice my freedom. Freedom is being able to say whatever you want and being as innovative as you want without being judged.
TKP: Tell me about MESPO (Middle East Sustainable Peace Organization)?
LH: Part of the alumni network of IYLEP was a group called the Exchange Program Alumni, in which you could apply for a grant from the U.S. Embassy for a community project. One of the alumni contacted me about a grant he applied for to run a project on religious pluralism and peace-building and asked if I would help facilitate the project. Once we got the fund, we started research in to Suleimani. We took participants from different religions and genders, and we visited mosques, taquiya, churches, and Zoroastrians temples. We wanted to see how religions and people following certain religions were contributing to and encouraging peace. It was very successful. My friend called and said that we should make this into an organization. At first, I was against it, because I knew you needed support from the government or connections with companies in order to start a fund. We could do peace-building, but we needed sponsorship. He told me not to worry, and we put papers together, and we [started MESPO] without funding.
Any time we had projects, we funded it ourselves. If we had workshops, I would sleep in a Church, or pay out of my own pocket and find somewhere to sleep so that we could use the money more efficiently. Later on, we used our connections to secure an office. It was after doing many workshops on religious pluralism, coexistence, and social cohesion with MESPO that I applied for the USIP (United States Institute of Peace) Exchange with the Dalai Lama.
With USIP, it was so exciting to see other youth leaders. There were leaders from places across the world, such as Sudan and Syria—it was beautiful. I felt that we were there for a reason. It was fate. It is very hard to meet someone that is doing exactly what you are doing in a different country, but you can meet and share the lessons you have learned.
TKP: What do you remember about the Dalai Lama?
LH: I remember his compassion. He said that we are all little Dalai Lamas and he cannot do it alone—we need to go be Dalai Lamas in our own countries.
TKP: Right now, what do you see for your future career?
LH: I am working on a project preserving cultural heritage through storytelling, looking to see how we can relate to communities through history and culture. I am also still part of the peace-building project at the Catholic Relief Services. But I aim to eventually do peace-building services on a diplomatic level. Meanwhile, I have applied for a position at the Canadian Embassy in Erbil, as a political and public affairs assistant.
TKP: What do you think about Kurdistan and Kurdish politics—specifically in regards to their role with ISIS and the refugee crisis?
LH: With the rise of ISIS, Kurdistan has become a survival ship. I believe that fostering many people with different ideologies and backgrounds has been an interesting success. Kurdistan is very diverse, and many people think they are the originals of the community. But people no longer say “the Kurdish nation,” they say “the Kurdistani nation.” This lets people feel connected to the community even more. Kurdistan was supportive for the IDPs who felt that they could never survive. In terms of diplomacy, Kurdistan has done its best to communicate to minorities and make them feel at home. They are not just guests. It is beautiful.
TKP: Are there specific projects that you want to take on?
LH: One thing major goal that I have is to add a peace-building department to any institutes in Kurdistan. I believe it’s essential to have a department that would foster this knowledge and to start implementing peace-building classes in schools. We need to reinforce a sense of belonging in Kurdistan. That cannot happen unless there is trust. I told the Dalai Lama that for everyone in the program, it was easy to say where they were from. They could bring an American flag, or a Sudanese flag. But for me, I would have to bring multiple flags. I am Kurdistani, I am Iraqi, I am Chaldean, I am Catholic. In short, I am Mesopotamian. I am from multiple roots. I don’t want to think of this as an identity crisis, but rather as a diverse identity of mixed roots.
When I was explaining this, he said he thought that our community needs to reinforce upon the fact that diversity needs to be fostered. Without minorities, our community would all look the same. But minorities make it special, so there needs to be a recognition of diversity in communities. This land is shared by everyone.