Sixty Iraqi students collected in a conference room, eyes glued to a TV that showed about forty American students smiling back. After a brief introduction from both sides, students bravely shuffled forward to sit in a chair fitted with a microphone and a webcam with their peers surrounding them. Students’ hesitation turned to confidence as the conversation progressed. The questions morphed from the innocuous “What do you do on the weekends?” and “Why are Americans always smiling?” to the contentious “Do you ever feel physically threatened?” and “Why does the American government like controlling the whole world?”. Thought provoking answers fell on fascinated ears from both ends. As it turned out, both sides shared similar interests and difficulties. Almost everyone enjoyed going to the movies and hanging out with friends and almost everybody faced too much homework and hard economic times. After an hour and a half of meaningful exchange, my Iraqi students exited the conference room beaming on account of the bridge they had just constructed linking the two worlds.
The idea started as a small pen pal exchange and quickly evolved into a full teleconference. Students exchanged questions before hand, setting the basis from which a fantastic cross-cultural conversation blossomed. Using the first conference as a stepping stone, I organized another one albeit with a more intimate atmosphere.
Four waving Iraqi students sat in a row facing a webcam and a microphone. On the other end four American students waved back. Based on information exchanged before the call, they traded probing questions about problems facing their societies. The protests sweeping the Middle East including Iraq were of particular interest to both sides. Identifying the corruption that runs like rain through Iraq, one student emphasized “before the war, we had one lion: Saddam. Now we have many lions”. Discrimination, corruption, and economic issues were highlights. Of course, with the American students being in Cleveland, my Iraqi students were curious as to how a river could catch on fire. Though we all had a good laugh about that one, it was a sad reminder about the pollution problems that both societies face. As the conversation pushed on, superficial differences melted away, and students again realized that the similarities outweighed the differences. After an hour and a half, everybody was all smiles; another bridge had been erected.
The most recent teleconference involved about twenty of my Iraqi students and five American students. Though politics made a brief appearance, they mostly wanted to escape to the land of pop culture. Excited students listed American TV shows they loved (24, Prison Break, Lost) and exchanged their opinions on pop icons. Sadly, only one American student knew some Arabic pop culture (none knew any Kurdish pop culture) but the others replied that they were eager to learn. At the end of the teleconference, everyone was enthusiastic about continuing the conversation. The American students set up a Facebook group and invited the Iraqi students to join. They have since traded numerous messages back and forth.
This Fall I am planning a more intricate teleconference with Development Now members discussing sustainable development issues and conflict resolution in Iraq with masters students in America. I hope it will be as successful as the other teleconferences have been bridging worlds.
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