By age 21, Imane Bakkioui already believed in the importance of interfaith dialogue. This belief led her to participate in a women’s conference and an international exchange program offered by the U.S. Embassy in Belgium to allow young people like Imane to network with U.S. academics and religious leaders. The “Women2Women” program and the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) have provided her with access to expertise, mentorship, and networking opportunities.
Imane believes that great changes can result from small choices. “When we say we want to make the world a better place, it really looks like a big dream that is not possible,” she says. “But every small step is a step in the right direction, even the little ones, even smiling at someone… even just listening to someone because he or she just needs some help. This little act is a little step to a better community and a better society.”
Dialogue between people with different views and beliefs is necessary for deep social change, Imane believes. While a student of Arabic and Islamic Studies at KU Leuven University, she became a dedicated advocate for interfaith dialogue.
The “Women2Women” program in Antwerp focused on issues revolving around women’s rights. She was grateful for the lessons in activism – on “how to stand up for your rights,” she says. The conference gathered 70 young women from across Belgium and professors from Harvard University in the U.S. Imane remembers the inspiring experience fondly: “We bonded, talked about the future of Belgium, about political themes, and about social issues.”
The International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) gave Imane and other participants opportunities to put interfaith dialogue into practice. During a two-week tour of U.S. cities, they met diverse religious leaders, including rabbis and imam. “We talked about how they live their religion in the United States, and how important that is for them,” she says.
After participating in these programs and listening to people’s stories I noticed that people… keep trying to make our world a better place.
Dialogue about cultural diversity also bolsters social change, Imane has found. The diversity she saw in her trip to the U.S. resonated with her own personal experiences as a Belgian with Moroccan heritage. “The United States is a country of immigrants, but they’re not so obsessed with your roots. They’re all Americans,” she says. “I really hope to see this happen in Belgium – to just see everyone as just Belgian, with different roots maybe, but still just all Belgians.”“I really hope that Belgian citizens will work on better listening and communicating with each other.”