As war between the United States and Iraq looms, small groups of high schoolers in Baghdad and Bloomfield, Conn., spoke to each other last week about their hopes for the future and discovered they shared many similarities.
About 20 high school students in Iraq’s elite Baghdad College and 17 sophomores in Bloomfield’s 500-student Metropolitan Learning Center, a public magnet school for global studies, participated in a 90-minute videoconference March 3 called “Project Voice.”
The videoconference is available for download for a fee of $8.99 from Global Nomads Group. (Click on the link posted “View Live: Iraq-America Exchange, ‘Project Voice’).
It was organized by the Global Nomads Group, a New York City-based nonprofit organization that seeks to heighten children’s understanding of diverse cultures. Up to 50 schools throughout the United States, as well as one in Costa Rica, viewed the live, sometimes glitch-ridden teleconference, moderated by ABC News reporter Chris Cuomo.
Mark von Sponeck, a co-founder of Global Nomads, said in a written statement: “Youth hear a lot about Iraq in terms of conflict, but in fact, little is known in America about this country and its people. By the same token, how much do Iraqi children really know about the United States and its youth?”
The conference began with Metropolitan Center student Alexander Stegmaier saying, first in halting Arabic, then in English, “Our hearts are with you in all that you are passing through.”
Iraqi student Omar Touma replied wryly in rapid, fluent English, “You have a great future in Arabic,” which made the American students laugh.
The students first exchanged their views on such questions as: If you had three wishes, what would they be? What do you want to be when you grow up?
The U.S. students, who come from a school that’s made up of predominantly minority members, talked proudly of America’s diversity. Both groups, but especially the Iraqi students, all of whom were fluent in English, said that world peace was one of their top three wishes. They spoke from the Saddam Hussein wing of the Baghdad College library.
Iraqi student Reba, who, like most of her classmates, gave only her first name, said that her first wish is to prevent war. Her second is to give to children in Iraq the same opportunities available to children in other countries, such as the United States.
Citing her third wish, Reba’s eyes lit up, and she sounded like a typical American teenager: “I want to have a small apartment and live with my friend, have a car, and hang around, and do a lot of fun stuff.”
Her classmate, Raid, also said he wanted “peace all over the world.” Another wish of his seemed just as ambitious. “I wish I were the president of the United States, to keep the war away from Iraq,” he said firmly.
The American students seemed equally eager to talk about the increased tensions between their countries. Mr. Cuomo asked on their behalf, “Why do you think there’s a potential war with Iraq?”
Tara, an Iraqi student, replied: “I think the U.S. is running after something in my country, maybe oil, maybe other things. Also, there are more ways to destroy each other, so maybe [countries] want to use these [weapons], not just to make them and look at them.”
Metropolitan Center student Juan Velez nodded his head. “People are getting greedier and greedier,” he said. “But maybe they want not just oil or money, but to correct a mistake in their country.”
Another Iraqi student also stressed his desire for peace. Then he spoke of what he perceived as the hubris of the U.S. government.
“The American government wants to make war [because] Iraq is making a problem with U.S. interests. We want to cooperate with people, but we don’t like being told what to do,” he said across thousands of miles via satellite uplink. “Our civilization is 6,000 years old, and we really deserve to rule ourselves.”
All of the American students emphasized the need for peace. But at least one also expressed his support for the U.S. government.
Tenth grader Craig Kulas said: “You have to believe in what your government is saying. We don’t make the decisions. It’s the select few who were voted in by our peers and parents.”
The Iraqi students, who seemed somewhat guarded about discussing possible military action, tried to steer the conversation to more innocuous topics. They spoke of wanting to go to Disneyland, Hollywood, New York City, and the Rocky Mountains if they had a chance to visit the United States.
One boy even said, to the delight of the American students, that the first thing he’d do would be to attend a concert by Dr. Dre, a popular American hip-hop artist.
One of the most serious moments came when students discussed their futures. For the Iraqi students, who survived the Gulf War in 1991 and continuing United Nations sanctions against their country, their future, in particular, remains in doubt.
The Iraqi student Reba said, “My future is not clear. We [might] wake up and hear there will be 5,000 people killed in one day.”
‘The Other’s Humanity’
Besides the discussion, students on both sides played music. The Metropolitan Center’s jazz ensemble swung through Duke Ellington’s “Take the ‘A’ Train,” while an Iraqi student played traditional music on an instrument akin to the hammered dulcimer, a harp-like instrument.
Krista Kafer, a senior policy analyst for the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington, said she applauded Project Voice. But she also hoped that the Global Nomads Group and other like-minded organizations aren’t using such student-centered projects to air their own opinions, whether pro- or anti-war.
“A lot of people use kids cynically to push their own agendas,” she said. “I would hope these [projects] are done free of the government on both sides.”
As with previous videoconferences the group has held in foreign countries, Global Nomads received permission from Iraq’s government to broadcast from Baghdad and help in finding students. The group also receives support from the United Nations Development Program, the U.N.'s global-development network.
The videoconference “was a very moving and powerful experience,” Jonathan Giesen, a co-founder of the Global Nomads Group and its education director, said in a telephone interview from Baghdad.
“The most important thing [the students] learned was seeing the other’s humanity.”