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Visiting Iraqi Students Raise Funds for Springfield Health Center

A group of Iraqi students, whose first intros to American culture have been through reality television and military bases, have been learning firsthand that the US is about more than Snookie and soldiers. As participants in the Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program, 48 students spent the summer in the States (half at the UMASS Amherst campus and half on the campus of Virginia Commonwealth University), experiencing the politics and culture of America through a program designed to give them a deeper understanding of the US government and public policy.

In addition to introducing students to the inner workings of public policy, the program, funded by the United States Embassy/Baghdad, implemented by the Academy for Educational Development and developed by the Civic Initiative at the UMASS Donahue Institute, aims to bequeath practical knowledge and hands-on experience in fundraising and organizing community-based projects. Michael Hannahan, director and founder of the Civic Initiative explains that in Iraq most of the assistance comes from families or the government, and the idea of fundraising or volunteering is not all that common.

Over the course of their stay here, the students attended classes, went on home visits and took excursions to local cities and landmarks. The program culminated with the planning of a fundraising dinner held at Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, which raised money for the Springfield Adolescent Health Center, a partnership between Baystate and the city of Springfield that will provide health services to local homeless and transient teens. Since many of the Iraqi participants are studying science, the Health Center initiative presented an opportunity to bring a public policy component to their career goals. Taher Abdair, a 21-year old from the southeastern Iraq city of Kut, says “We are happy to help.”

The students, mostly in their early 20’s, are chosen from an applicant pool of 1000 and come from all over Iraq. Some witnessed the 2003 American invasion first hand and have formed impressions based on interactions with soldiers, while others, from regions in northern Kurdistan, have been relatively distanced from the military’s presence. Since the program began three years ago, the danger involved has somewhat diminished, but students still take on a risk when they apply, as not all their countrymen are eager to form deeper relationships with the United States.

The students themselves said they were not afraid to come, despite the occasional less-than-friendly encounter with an American soldier or the less-than-positive perceptions of the US operation. Shahed Raad Abbas of Babylon said the soldiers were rude, while Abdair explained that the initial elation following Saddam Hussein’s demise has given way to disappointment. He notes, “Terrorism is worse,” and the promised development is not happening. Last month, the provincial council in Abdair’s home region voted for the withdrawal of US forces from Kut. According to news accounts, council members said that the US forces have committed many crimes in the city, among them arresting civilians without obtaining a proper warrant from Iraqi justice system.

Politics aside, the program participants were not only eager to learn more about the US, but also looked forward to introducing themselves and their culture to Americans. “We want America to know our true colors,” said participant Zinah Mohammed. “We don’t hate Americans.”

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