Projects for Peace Scholars Bring Connection, Water to Home Countries

Aya Al-Shakarchi ’23 and Amina Fatkhulloeva ’22

While many of us were just starting the transition back to normalized life last summer, Cobbers Aya Al-Shakarchi ’23 and Amina Fatkhulloeva ’22 were transforming lives in their home countries of Iraq and Tajikistan. Selected as 2020 and 2021 Davis Projects for Peace scholars, each received $10,000 in funding to fulfill their original ideas designed to foster peace in their native countries. This competitive philanthropic program is only offered to Davis Partner Institutions, such as Concordia, and Aya and Amina were honored to have their proposals selected.

If you’re thinking that $10,000 is a small price to pay for promoting world peace, you’re right — and wrong. Aya and Amina were tasked with every detail of program design and execution, pouring a combined total of hundreds of hours into bringing these important ideas to life.

Girls Lead for Peace: An Intercultural Exchange Between Women in the U.S. and Iraq

For Aya Al-Shakarchi, a junior double majoring in political science and multimedia journalism, this meant fostering a cultural bridge between the U.S. and Iraq. Those who know Aya know that this project was deeply personal.

Growing up in a single-mother household in Bagdad, Aya witnessed the dangerous stereotypes assumed of the U.S. and the restricted opportunities experienced by many Iraqi women. As a young teen, Aya made it her goal to overcome both. She won a coveted, full-ride scholarship to earn her International Baccalaureate at United World College Robert Bosch in Germany and, during that time, participated in World Learning’s Digital Young Leaders Exchange Program (DYLEP) for high school students in Iraq and the U.S.

Aya initially envisioned that her program would also be for all Iraqi teens but quickly decided to focus on teen girls.

“Girls in Iraqi are harder working,” Aya says. “Boys can go play football or hang out with their friends, but girls cannot do that.”

With the pandemic still hindering any possible travel and in-person exchange, Aya created a wholly virtual exchange program made possible by a tool shared by both American and Iraqi women — the smartphone.

In the end, Girls Lead for Peace was an interactive five-week session focused on navigating modern womanhood from representation in the media to cultural identity. Leveraging her connections at home and on campus, Aya drummed up considerable interest and received more than 30 applications — fulfilling her broad requirements of internet access and relative English proficiency. Twenty-four teen girls accepted Aya’s invitation to join the program and, from start to finish, all 24 girls remained engaged in the five-week course.

“Their attention rate surprised me,” Aya recalls. Even the “more introverted girls” participated and engaged in the weekly group discussions, aided by social hour ice breakers ranging from light (crepe or waffle?) to deep questions (how are you treated differently than your brothers?) and the comradery and support of the five American program mentors.

Aya knew the small group format was crucial to creating meaningful conversations and relationships and, together, the 24 Iraqi students, the Concordia and Augustana student mentors and, of course, Aya became a true sisterhood.

In summarizing the experience, Aya says that “the girls felt safe, heard, and valued. We’ve had requests for season two!”

Aya says she is forever grateful for this opportunity to give back to young girls while building self-esteem, cross-cultural dialogue, and friendship. A priceless exchange to say the least.

Learn more about Girls Lead for Peace on the project website.

Water to Promote Food Security in Varzi-Kanda Village, Tajikistan

Senior Amina Fatkhulloeva has lived away from Tajikistan since 2016, but her home country and its people have remained close at heart. As a high school student at United World College Red Cross Nordic, Amina supported the rural village of Varzi-Kanda by revitalizing a classroom with essential facilities like desks and important technology such as computers and printers. Locals were immensely appreciative of Amina’s efforts and went so far as to joke that her next project must be bringing water to the village.

Water shortages in Varzi-Kanda, like most rural villages in Tajikistan, had reached dangerous levels. A simple shower entailed traveling 40 minutes to the nearest city. On a graver level, Amina noticed villagers lacked adequate water to irrigate their crops and, in turn, couldn’t feed their livestock. This food insecurity was leading directly to extreme malnutrition — an issue affecting more than one-third of all Tajikistan households.

“It’s a cycle,” Amina recalls. “If one thing is wrong, everything is going to be wrong.”

While villagers historically relied on rainfall to water fields and livestock, the impacts of climate change had mitigated this precious resource, worsening an already serious situation. Amina began talking with her father about installing a water pump and bringing an irrigation system to the village. She remembers thinking it would be some work, but she was confident this vision would become reality.

In 2019, as a Concordia sophomore, Amina applied for Projects for Peace, but her proposal was rejected due to its ambitious scope. She applied again the following year, curtailing the proposal to focus on just the essentials. This time, she was accepted and dove headfirst into project logistics while allaying the criticism and doubts still pervading this bold goal.

“The entire process had its ups and downs,” Amina remembers. “Almost two years of my energy went to stressing about the project until it was executed.”

To further complicate the project, the quotes Amina received from product suppliers and engineers shifted drastically during the pandemic with corruption and price gouging further hindering progress. As a finance and accounting double major, Amina realized early on that the Projects for Peace funds were a significant help but wouldn’t be enough to cover the audacious endeavor.

The physical barriers were also very real. Equipment, which included hundreds of feet of piping, would have to be delivered from several hours away through steep mountainous roads and it was often uncertain if vendors would follow through.

Amina began working to fund the project and pursued additional fundraising from family, friends, and the larger Concordia community. In the end, Steve Schaefer, senior associate director of international admission at Concordia, connected Amina with the Moorhead Rotary Club who made the final donation.

“Steve took a lot of action to make it happen for me,” Amina says. “He was there for me. He believed in the project and he believed in me.”

Amina now had the $28,000 necessary to finalize the irrigation system — $18,000 more than the Projects for Peace grant — and, in May 2021, returned to Varzi-Kanda to oversee its implementation. Over the course of 10 weeks, the project came to life.

Alongside the engineering team and her family, Amina ordered materials, rented equipment, acquired licenses, and began preparing the site. By mid-June, the arduous work of preparing the path for the pipeline, building the cistern, and installing the electricity poles and transformer began.

By the beginning of July, the installation process was complete, but infrastructure testing revealed the water was sandy and would damage the pump over time. A barrel was immediately built to aid with filtration and work moved forward.

Water from the Margedar River now flows through 1,200 meters of pipe to deliver 600 gallons of water every hour to Varzi-Kanda. This water is used across 70 households, 50 gardens, and two ponds and is used daily for household chores, and as drinking water for livestock. This consistent irrigation has enabled farmers to diversify their crop cultivation, feed their livestock, and has lifted the entire village out of malnutrition.

To ensure sustainability, electricity for the pump is derived from renewable energy, and the system was implemented by top engineers in the region. Maintenance and check-ups will be performed regularly, and all materials and equipment were purchased with warranties. For efficient use of water, people must take turns irrigating their fields. The head of the municipality has been assigned to supervise the operation of the project and update Amina and her father on its status.

For Amina, the experience has been “indescribable.”

“As humans, we don’t survive alone,” Amina says. “I learned that this is my passion. I get such a sense of joy (in helping others). Being useful is my motto in life.”

Watch Amina’s water pump come to life in this short YouTube video.

Contributed by Emily Johnson, Concordia College International Outreach Coordinator