The 6th graders at a New York City elementary school, children who had a firsthand view of the dust and smoke rising from the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center, have been talking in class about questions they have for their counterparts in Muslim nations.
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The pupils at Mott Hall Elementary School in Harlem wonder whether their overseas peers might hate them just because they are American. Others want to know how the daily lives of students in the Islamic world differ from their own.
Now, to find out the answers, all they have to do is ask their electronic pen pals in Egypt.
About 100 members of the 6th grade at Mott Hall are e-mailing youngsters at two schools in Cairo through President Bush’s Friendship Through Education initiative, which connects American students with students in predominantly Muslim countries. The program is part of a campaign by the Bush administration to hammer home its oft-stated point that the U.S.- led war on terrorism, launched in response to the September attacks in this country, is not a war with Muslims or the people of Afghanistan.
Friendship Through Education program coordinators say the e-mails allow the students to get to know one another as individuals and replace stereotypes with nuance.
“Before we start talking, I would like to say I have no grudge against you for the incident on September 11,” wrote one of the New York 6th graders to a student at the Nefertari Language School in Cairo. “One question I want to ask you is do you hold a grudge against me? I don’t want to bring this up anymore but just in case you hold a grudge, then we can talk it over and maybe help you through it.”
This introduction came from that Cairo school: “I am Amr from Egypt. ... I want to change the ideas of many people who think that Arabs and Muslims are terrorists,” the student wrote. “I think that’s all for now and I hope to hear from you very soon.”
Teachers and students are coming up with other projects for the students involved in Friendship Through Education. Some students are putting together Web pages to build links with their partner schools; others are making “friendship quilts” to exchange with the overseas schools. Program coordinators are even trying to set up online chess matches.
Marc Briller, a coordinator at Mott Hall Elementary School, said the 6th graders there would be preparing a package of descriptions and diagrams of New York City street games, like stickball, to send to their Egyptian pen pals. The New York students hope the Egyptian students, in return, will send an explanation of games they like to play, Mr. Briller said.
Since the Friendship Through Education program was announced on Oct. 25, American schools have shown increasing interest in participating, organizers say. The program is being run by a consortium of international organizations that are working with the White House and the U.S. Department of Education. At first, primarily schools in the areas most directly affected by the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks signed up. Now, about 350 schools around the country are in the process of establishing relationships with corresponding schools overseas.
Meanwhile, interest in America’s Fund for Afghan Children, another administration goodwill initiative that enlists U.S. students, has also held steady in recent weeks.
President Bush on Oct. 12 asked American children to each stuff a dollar in an envelope and send it to Washington to augment taxpayer-financed relief aid to Afghanistan. Donations had reached $1.53 million as of Dec. 4. So far, the Red Cross has processed 242,000 letters to the fund. That number has not increased in several weeks, however, because of mail holdups caused by anthrax contamination at the White House’s off-site postal facility. (“Relief Donations Languish at Contaminated Facility,” Nov. 14, 2001.)
In addition to the mailed donations, the Red Cross has collected $47,727 through online donations, and $14,000 from Coinstar machines.
A version of this article appeared in the December 12, 2001 edition of Education Week as Pen Pal Effort With Muslim Children Overseas Takes Off