Eleven teenagers from Iraq have been living with American families and going to school in the United States this school year as part of the U.S. government’s resumption of education and cultural ties with that country.
“For my culture, for a girl to go to the United States when she is 15 is a big deal,” said the only girl in the group. “I decided to be an ambassador for my country,” she said. “Things are getting really bad in Iraq. My family wanted me to be safe for a year.”
Last February, 23 Iraqi college students and two scholars arrived in the United States to study through the Fulbright Program—the first Iraqi group to participate in the U.S. government-sponsored exchange in 14 years. Since then, the U.S. Department of State has sponsored a number of Iraqi students and educators to come to this country.
Some participated in a summer institute on civic education, others attended a summer leadership institute, and still others took a crash course on primary and secondary education. The U.S. Department of Defense also hosted a group of Iraqi educators, who visited schools on U.S. military bases.
The Iraqi teenagers arrived last summer and will stay for the school year as participants in the State Department’s Partners for Learning: Youth Exchange and Study program. The 2-year-old program is for students from Muslim countries and is administered by AYUSA, a youth-exchange organization in San Francisco. (“Muslim Students Question Foreign Policy, With U.S. Assent,” June 16, 2004.)
International exchanges will help Iraqis reconnect with the rest of the world and reclaim their culture, following the U.S.-led ouster of Saddam Hussein’s regime, said Patricia Harrison, the assistant secretary for the State Department’s bureau of educational and cultural affairs. “We can’t just bring over students, but we need to bring over the teachers, legislators, lawyers—people interested in building a civil society.”
The program for high schoolers aims to give them a chance to share their culture with Americans and expose them to democracy at the grassroots level, she said. “Something as benign as a home visit for a young person, seeing how we work in terms of the PTA, how you have that bake sale may be part of our landscape we take for granted,” Ms. Harrison said, “but it makes an impression on a young person.”
Education Week interviewed three of the 11 teenagers on the condition that the newspaper wouldn’t name them. Ms. Harrison said the State Department protects the identity of minors to lessen the likelihood that they are targeted for violence.
All three students said they have an important job to inform Americans about their country’s culture and people. A 16-year-old living in Arizona said he and another Iraqi youth gave a presentation about their country at one school six times in a single day.
The students criticized American news coverage of Iraq, saying it focuses too much on bombings and gives what they say is a false impression that most Iraqis are anti-American.
A 16-year-old Iraqi boy who is attending a public school in Virginia relayed how American troops helped rebuild his school after it was “almost destroyed” during the war and provided notebooks and computers. “They were coming to our weddings and community events,” he said. “The media never showed that stuff.”
“They should tell about the lives of regular Iraqis, rather than only that an explosion happened here and there,” said the Iraqi girl, who is now 16 and goes to a private school in Massachusetts.
She said her parents send her brothers to school in Iraq but fear they will be kidnapped. She had to stay home from school many days last year in Iraq, she said, because of bombings nearby. In addition, it was difficult to do homework because her home usually didn’t have electricity, she said.
Some aspects of life in the United States have surprised the teenagers. They’re struck by how students sometimes show disrespect for their teachers. In Iraq, said the boy living in Arizona, when a teacher enters a classroom, students stand and wait for the teacher to tell them to sit.
At least with the Iraqi youth living in Virginia, the State Department seems to have achieved its desire to offer exposure to American democracy. Fascinated with the recent election process, the boy stayed awake throughout election night on Nov. 2 and until 3 a.m. the next day monitoring results.
He was impressed, he said, that people worked hard to promote their chosen candidates up until the last minute before the election, but that after the votes were in, Americans seemed to accept the results.
That youth characterized the upcoming legislative elections in Iraq, scheduled for the end of this month, as the “first true elections” there for many years. “My parents had to go and say ‘Yes’ for Saddam Hussein. They didn’t have a choice,” he said. “It’s our time to choose our candidate. We had enough of Saddam.”
Sami Al-Mudhaffar, the minister of education since June, provided a brief update on education in Iraq in a Dec. 26 e-mail.
Schools are closed in Fallujah but operating elsewhere in the country, he said. He estimated that 95 percent of Iraq’s school-age children are attending school.
The Ministry of Education started public kindergartens for the first time this school year and has made some curriculum adjustments in a limited number of subjects. And the World Bank has printed 80 million textbooks for the current school year.
Mr. Al-Mudhaffar said Creative Associates, which is under contract with the U.S.government, has recently accomplished some tasks in Iraq despite security concerns. The Washington-based company has trained Iraqis outside the country, for instance, but hasn’t begun to set up the 162 model schools that are called for.
Coverage of cultural understanding and international issues in education is supported in part by the Atlantic Philanthropies.
A version of this article appeared in the January 12, 2005 edition of Education Week as U.S. Bringing Iraqi Students and Educators to America