From Boston to Baghdad: How local and Iraqi students are tackling COVID-19’s biggest issues

"I think a lot of things are similar – similar rhetoric surrounding the vaccine, similar fears among people who haven't gotten the vaccine."

Amanda Soh / United Planet

Kylin Levy, a 26-year-old occupational therapy doctoral candidate at Boston University, spent the past six weeks helping a local organization study how the pandemic affected sexual behavior.

While Levy is approximately 160 miles away from the population she is studying, her teammates are a little farther away – about 5,832 miles, to be exact.

Levy is one of 110 students participating in this year’s US- Iraq University Global Public Health COVID-19 Addressing Healthcare Inequity program. The program – organized by United Planet and funded by the US Embassy in Baghdad this year – brings together students from the U.S. and Iraq to tackle issues developed from the pandemic.


The six-week program puts undergraduate and graduate students – half from Iraq and half from the U.S. – into groups paired with an Iraqi or U.S. organization. The teams met over Zoom with group members, faculty, and organization members to discuss COVID-19’s most complicated concerns. 

“The hope is that it’s not just an exercise in creating a program or doing the research, but that it’s something that the agency will then be able to take,” said Dr. Nancy Lowenstien, a program director at BU and a faculty advisor for the program.

Students work on research for their final project, which will be presented to the embassy and organization representatives on August 3. Credit: Amanda Soh / United Planet

Each group contains two co-captains – one from Iraq and one from the U.S. – as well as a faculty mentor. There are over 20 students from Boston University and Boston College involved with the program, as well as a few faculty advisors from Boston University’s Sargeant College of Health and Rehabilitation.


For her team’s project, Levy is working with ROCA, an organization that helps young people dealing with trauma. They are comparing their research with surrounding Massachusetts regions.

“We were given this program and this platform here at the micro level to build this understanding and empathy that maybe can reverberate out to the macro level,” Levy said.

The program’s pilot program started last year with high school students originally. While last year was funded by the Stevens Institute, this year, they approached the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, who were interested but requested the program involve only college students instead. 


“We have nursing students, we have biochemistry students, so we have these really high level students and team captains who have careers outside of this program,” said program director Donna Lubrano at United Planet. “So it’s really interesting to see who this program attracts.”

Mays Shakr Hamid is an 21-year-old Iraqi student in the program studying English literature at Anbar University. Her group is working with the United Iraq Medical Organization to deal with vaccine hesitancy – an issue she has seen in her own communities.

“One of my friends when I was in college, she saw me wearing a mask during examinations. And she was like, ‘what are you wearing?’ and was like ‘there is no virus,’” Hamid said. “She believed that there was no virus, like it didn’t even exist.”


Hamid’s group is creating a video that includes discussions with unvaccinated Iraqis to help their organization understand why people are not getting vaccinated. 

Hamid’s group interviewed people in Iraq who did not want to get vaccinated and why. Credit: Amanda Soh & Mays Shakr Hamid / United Planet

“We will take the people from the low incomes, they will talk about why they cannot take the vaccination,” Hamid said. “Is the most important reason the income? Or is it because they are actually hesitant from taking the vaccination because they are hearing new things?”

“I think really the only difference is really seeing who has access to the vaccine and how readily it is available between countries and people’s experiences with getting the vaccine,” Levy said. “But I think a lot of things are similar – similar rhetoric surrounding the vaccine, similar fears among people who haven’t gotten the vaccine.”


Each group came up with different outcomes for their projects, such as social media campaigns, websites with vaccine information and videos like Hamid’s group. The groups will present their projects to the partnering organizations and the embassy on August 3 and 4.

Levy and Hamid agreed the program was a way to make connections after an isolating year.

“I feel like everyone talks about here in America feeling really isolated, but I think that we were actually really isolated from other countries,” Levy said. “Because to me it became like a competition of which country could get the vaccine first or had the lowest numbers and so it made an already lonely phenomenon, even lonelier.”

“They make friendships that I know some of the students from last year are still in contact with their co-captains that they worked with or team leaders,” Lowenstein said. “So these are friendships that you know are very lasting.”

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