In their first communication since the U.S.-led war in Iraq, groups of high school students in Baghdad and in Bloomfield, Conn., spoke to each other candidly early this month. They talked about the war’s impact on their lives and about the American occupation, and they wondered aloud about their futures.
On one side sat 10 juniors and seniors from Iraq’s elite Baghdad College and other Iraqi high schools. On the other were 17 sophomores in Bloomfield’s 500- student Metropolitan Learning Center, a public magnet school for global studies.
The “Project Voice” exchange, a 90-minute videoconference, was organized by the Global Nomads Group, a New York City-based nonprofit organization that seeks to deepen students’ understanding of different cultures. Up to 15 schools nationwide also viewed the live videoconference, which was sponsored by several American high-tech companies and education groups, including the Pleasanton, Calif.-based Polycom Inc.
The June 5 exchange was the second such meeting between the two groups. The first was held March 3, just days before the military strikes began. (“‘Project Voice’ Enables Teenagers in U.S., Iraq to Share Viewpoints,” March 12, 2003.)
Anger and Skepticism
But while the first conference had its lighthearted moments, the second was more serious and frank.
The Iraqi students, many with anger and frustration in their voices, told the American students of the hardships and dangers they had experienced—and still experience— because of the six-week war that toppled the regime of President Saddam Hussein.
Airstrikes had damaged some of the students’ homes, and many said they had relatives or friends who had died or were injured in the war. Electricity, water, and food are still in scarce supply, they said, and crime has skyrocketed since President Bush declared the end of major combat on May 1.
Almost half of their classmates from the first videoconference could not attend the second one because of fear for their own safety, the Iraqi students said.
“It’s really painful to see your country destroyed,” said one male student. “Fuel is unavailable. Food is unavailable. Many things are going worse.”
Many of the Iraqi students were also skeptical of why the United States had launched the war, and they contended that the American military isn’t now adequately protecting the Iraqi people or guarding schools, museums, and hospitals.
“Nobody in Iraq believes [the Americans] are here to liberate us,” said Ruba, a female student. “People think they’re here to colonize our country, to take oil. No one believes they did the [war] for our sake.”
Another student, Omar Touma, took a more diplomatic approach.
“The Iraqis will need as much help as possible, even from the U.S., to reconstruct the government and country,” he said. “We [are starting] from ground zero.”
He and his classmates, many of whom looked older than in the March videoconference, tired and drawn, sat in white plastic chairs on the roof of a student’s house. In the background stood date palms, a mosque, and an inoperable satellite tower.
Their parents, mindful of the armed gangs that now roam the city, kept a close watch nearby.
The American teenagers seemed nervous and hesitant at first. They spoke of their relief that the Iraqi students were all right, as well as their mixed feelings about the war. For them, the war was surreal, something they tracked on CNN and other news outlets.
“What we know about the war, we see in the movies, on TV,” Bloomfield student Alisha Walker said softly. “My blessings are with you, and I’m sorry for what happened,” she added.
Another Bloomfield student said it was too soon for the United States to pull out of Iraq.
“I think we’re in too far now to just pack up and leave,” he said. “We lost soldiers there, just as you lost innocent people. For us to just go home now ... looks like we would be giving up.”
Elements of Surprise
Mark von Sponeck, the director of international relations for the Global Nomads Group, said the American students seemed surprised that the Iraqi students weren’t more grateful.
“They were a little taken aback by how a lot of [Iraqi] students expressed their frustration,” he said.
Yet the American students knew that the Iraqi students weren’t angry at them, said Metropolitan Learning Center teacher Caryn Stedman, who helped organize the videoconference.
After an initial period of awkwardness, students on both sides also seemed more comfortable in talking to each other this time.
“Before the war, nobody knew what was going to happen,” Ms. Stedman said. “All of that uncertainty is gone, for better or for worse.”
Both groups brightened when they spoke of their desire to meet in person some day. Several Iraqi students, such as Ruba, also said they wanted to go to college in the United States.
“I’ve heard that America has the best educational system in the world. I would love to see you guys face to face,” she said wistfully. “It’s my dream, but I don’t think it will come true.”
That’s something Global Nomads and Metropolitan want to make real. Another videoconference is tentatively planned for fall, organizers said, and Ms. Stedman said she hoped to bring several of the Iraqi students to her school.
By the end of the 90 minutes, the Iraqi parents were anxious to leave. Dusk was approaching, and night is a dangerous time to be on the streets these days.
Sitting in deep shadow, Iraqi student Omar looked at the American students one last time and said, “We hope that we can see you again, ... and I hope by then we’ll have the peace and freedom that was promised by President Bush.
“I hope we can live a happy life, because that’s all of our dream.”