Looking Back—3 Ways My Internship in Iraq Changed Me for the Better

A silhouette photo of Lauren Sawyer with two other 2010 interns.

As I write this, our 2012 interns are in the air and headed toward Iraq! So it only seemed appropriate to share a few lessons-learned by former intern Lauren Sawyer. Lauren wrote out 3 of the most beneficial things she took away from her time here in Iraq, and we're hoping this year's interns will also benefit personally as they help us save lives.


It’s been two full years since I boarded the first of three planes that would take me to Iraq.

Yet I still remember what I was talking about when I first landed in the desert country. Another intern, Lydia, and I were trying to rewrite the words to “Party in the U.S.A.” to fit our situation. By the end of the summer the song became “Party with the P.U.K.,” for a political group in northern Iraq. (Sophisticated conversation? Not so much.)

I have so many memories of that summer in Iraq: the places I ate, the taxi rides, the late-night chats on the roof of our house. But more than that, I have a series of life-changing realizations. Iraq changed me: it changed my perspective, it changed my behavior.

Here are a few ways:

(1) People are just people wherever you go.

While in Iraq, a fellow intern Claire and I used to hum Regina Spektor’s song “The Ghost of Corporate Future” with the lyrics: “People are just people; they shouldn’t make you nervous.” I’m convinced we got that song stuck in our heads as often as we did because of that first line: “People are just people.” We found ourselves saying those words all the time, whenever we met another Iraqi we had something in common with. 

The similarities between me, a young American girl, and the Iraqis I met were most clear in the English class Claire taught. I noticed how our Iraqi students watched the same TV shows as us (Vian loved “Grey’s Anatomy”) and had similar views on marriage, even, and education.

But more than that, I met people who were fundamentally like all people I knew in the States. I met fathers who loved their children, who would do anything to keep them healthy. I met children who loved games and were happy always—even when they were on their way to surgery.

Now that I’m back in the U.S., I still have opportunities to remind myself of this truth, that people are just people. I’ve spent the past two summers working for a nonprofit that advocates for people with disabilities. I’ve learned there, too, that people are just people— whether they are blind or have Down Syndrome. People are just people.

(2) We cannot accurately critique people without having truly experienced their culture.

Last semester I was sitting in my freshman-level philosophy course—as a senior—counting how many times the blonde freshman-but-sophomore-by-credits said something rude and untrue about Muslims. In that same class I heard my professor and other students make claims about how Iraq is “Worse off now that the U.S. troops are leaving”—as if these silly Midwest American civilians knew anything about life in Iraq.

My roommate and my boyfriend both told me to just say something and I did, once, without much effect. Changing someone’s mind about a culture isn’t easy.

Living in Iraq for two months taught me that you cannot critique or judge a culture without having experienced their culture like an insider. Visiting Italy for a few weeks is not the same as living like an Italian, speaking the language, shopping where they shop, eating their food, learning about their politics, their history. My two-month stint in Iraq taught me that I didn’t know enough about Iraq to critique it.

I need to keep asking questions. As soon as I stop asking questions and think I have it figured out, I’ll inevitably hurt someone or lead others to believe a lie. So when people like that freshman-but-sophomore-by-credits girl say something I know is untrue to my experience in Iraq, I need to do more than just correct them. I need to show them how to ask questions, to hunger for understanding, and to have an imagination, which leads me to my last point...

(3) We are called to be people of imagination.

I heard about Preemptive Love Coalition when I had lost all faith in my future. I was 19 years old, and I thought that just because my life wasn’t heading in the direction I thought it should, it was over. But after reading PLC’s mission statement and then talking to Jeremy and Cody about their vision for Iraq’s future, my faith was restored. I recognized even before I boarded those planes that those working for PLC were people of imagination, and I wanted to be a part of it.

I’m convinced that you can’t do anything big and life-changing without having imagination. I doubt PLC would have ever existed without Jeremy and friends imagining a life without heart defects, without thousands of kids in line for surgery.

Before I worked for PLC that summer, I let myself live small stories that took little imagination. I expected my life to be like everyone else’s, without real risk, without adventure. But PLC showed me how to have an imagination, to dream up a better world for others and for myself.

Now, as I’m graduate-school bound (“real world” bound, as I say), I know that imagination will save me from living a self-centered life. Imagination will turn me into a person like the PLC staff and the doctors and the business people I met in Iraq, dedicated to changing the world—and able to.


You can read more musings by Lauren on her blog. Come back next week and we'll introduce you to our new summer interns—can't wait!

About Matthew Willingham

Matt Willingham is Preemptive Love's Senior Field Editor and writes primarily on politics, history, general updates and visual peacemaking through photography and film.

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Looking Back—3 Ways My Internship in Iraq Changed Me for the Better
Looking Back—3 Ways My Internship in Iraq Changed Me for the Better
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