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Editorial: Iraqi initiative at UMass helps bridge a gap

Civilians inspect the site of a car bombing in Baghdad, Iraq, Friday, Aug. 1, 2014. The United Nations says more than 1,700 people, mostly civilians, were killed in Iraq in July, marking a dramatic decline from the previous month, when some 2,400 people were killed as Sunni militants swept across large parts of the country, capturing the second largest city Mosul.(AP Photo/Karim Kadim)

Civilians inspect the site of a car bombing in Baghdad, Iraq, Friday, Aug. 1, 2014. The United Nations says more than 1,700 people, mostly civilians, were killed in Iraq in July, marking a dramatic decline from the previous month, when some 2,400 people were killed as Sunni militants swept across large parts of the country, capturing the second largest city Mosul.(AP Photo/Karim Kadim)

For the past five years the University of Massachusetts’ Civic Initiative of the Donahue Institute has taken part in a cultural exchange that brings Iraqi students to the campus for over a month in the summer.

This year, 118 came to the United States thanks to the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, which contracted with the Meridian International Center, an international leadership organization of Washington, D.C., to take courses, get a feel for life in this country and get involved in community service with the hope they will use what they’ve learned to make a difference in their homeland. UMass hosted 24 of them.

It is not a traditional exchange in which U.S. students also travel to Iraq, although some UMass students who have served as mentors to the Iraqis have gone with Civic Initiative director Michael Hannahan to Erbil, Iraq, for reunions. The focus is on sharing information, ideas, culture — and it is a winning idea.

Some of the young people who were here took time out from their busy schedules to talk with the Gazette about the misery that has escalated in their country over the past few months as Sunni militants, deeply resentful of the Shiite-led central government, take over chunks of the country in a bloody march toward Baghdad. They expressed gratitude not only that the exchange offered inspiring coursework and experiences, but that it gave them a chance to bond with fellow Iraqis, who are members of a variety of sects back home, which they say political leaders divided in a way that is ruining their ancient land.

“Here we are all Iraqi people,” Karzan Fadhil Suhbat, 23, told the Gazette. “There is a brotherhood among us. What we see among the politicians at home is not what we see here.”

They are the hope of the future for their land, but some of them, understandably, are reluctant to return to a place where they describe neighbors as young as teens roaming the streets with guns in their hands to protect themselves from unknown terror. Suicide bombings are a continuous occurrence and women are being threatened with genital mutilation.

They face dangers that most U.S. college students cannot imagine. Being here gave them a respite, though their worries about their families were constant. Still, they got to have fun for a few weeks — trips to the beach, an amusement park, museums, New York City and Washington, D.C.

And they took intensive courses. At UMass the focus was public policy and public health. Students said they were exposed to new ideas, including the principle of gay rights.

One woman said she was so struck by those ideas that they will stay with her always.

They delivered food to elderly people in Amherst as volunteers for the Meals on Wheels program and enjoyed meeting ordinary Americans that way and through time spent with host families.

“I got the chance to meet a wonderful family,” said Suhbat. “We talked with each other about Iraq and the U.S. We exchanged ideas. They were very nice.”

He also talked about how one senior who received one of the meals he delivered wanted to talk to him about “Iraq’s nuclear weapons.” He was happy to set her straight that it is Iran, not his country, that has them. One young woman who delivered those meals, too, said she enjoyed that person-to-person contact. “I felt like I was contributing something, going there bringing food, saying hi, making them happy.” Even small encounters, with politicians out of the way, can have a strong impact toward global harmony. Kudos to UMass for doing its part to attempt to bridge gaps.

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