MOSUL—It’s 8 a.m. in the eastern United States and students at Pennsylvania State University are arriving to a classroom in heavy coats, groggy from their early start. Here in Mosul, in northern Iraq, it’s late afternoon and the sun is sinking over the city, much of which still lies in ruins more than two years after its liberation from the Islamic State, or ISIS.
At first, life under the jihadist group dominated weekly discussions between the two groups, as young Moslawis described their ordeal and students at Penn State listened in horror.
“No matter what the subject was, they always ended up describing their suffering under ISIS,” says Basim Razzo, Iraq program manager at World in Conversation, which facilitates video dialogues between students in countries worldwide. “It was therapeutic for them to describe what happened.”
After a few sessions, Razzo encouraged the Iraqi students to discuss other aspects of their lives. “Even though they were oppressed by ISIS, they have hopes and dreams. These students are running extra fast to catch up; they want to make up for the three lost years of their lives.”
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Razzo brought the World in Conversation program to Mosul and the nearby city of Erbil after watching a TED Talk by the sociologist Sam Richards, who co-founded the program with his wife Laurie Mulvey, also a sociologist, in 2002. The pair had observed a rise in racial tension at Penn State University, where they both teach, and wanted to provide a platform for “true public diplomacy,” which they subsequently expanded to involve students in countries around the world.
Having lived in the United States previously, Razzo had encountered many misconceptions about Arabs, Islam and the Middle East. “I wanted this opportunity for American students to learn about our culture, our religion, our values and way of life,” he says.
‘A Cross-Culture Dialogue’
For students at the University of Mosul, the program offers a chance to understand the realities of American society. “It works both ways. … Our youth think life in the West is so easy, but it’s not. I tell them, ‘True, they have more freedom than you do, but freedom has a cost.’ It’s a cross-culture dialogue,” Razzo explains.
Several newcomers joined the Mosul group for a recent dialogue, eager to see what the session would bring. Batool, 21, is hoping to improve her English while Zainab, also 21, is a regular participant. “It’s been a great opportunity to get to know another culture,” says Zainab. “They are not as different as we thought—it’s nothing like the movies!”
There’s a static crackle, then the screen flickers into focus, showing students at Penn State settling into their seats. The topic today explores personal goals. What do the two groups worry about? How do they cope with these concerns? The answers, despite the students’ different contexts, are notably alike—the challenges of finding a job and the demands of adult life after graduation are at the forefront of everyone’s mind.
“Even though they were oppressed by ISIS, they have hopes and dreams. These students are running extra fast to catch up; they want to make up for the three lost years of their lives.”– Basim Razzo
Iraq program manager for World in Conversation
Students participating in the dialogues say they learn a lot, and not always what they expect.
“It’s not just about exchanging cultures, this is much deeper than that,” says Momen Mohamed, who completed the training to become a facilitator last year. He was surprised to find that life in America is a far cry from the Hollywood image.
“We’ve always thought that Americans, and the West in general, live in prosperity, but in fact some of them barely get by and have enormous bills and student loans to repay. … People here don’t know that.”
Insights on Both Sides
Participants in Mosul have also gained insights into their own society. “I discovered that every single one of us found ways to grow during the ISIS occupation,” says Mohamed. “Some people learned languages, others grew closer to their families or worked on themselves in some way.”
A translation student at the University of Mosul, Mohamed signed up because he wanted to change perceptions about his city. “I want to reach out to people and change the mentality about Iraqis and Moslawis; I want to show them who we really are, beyond the stereotypes in the media.”
The initial 10 minutes of the session are spent doing introductions before the first question sparks a discussion about life after university. Students in the United States want to know more about the protests in Iraq, and how students are affected by the unemployment issues that have been at the forefront of the continuing demonstrations. (See a related article, “Inside Iraq’s Protests: Students Are Defiant in Their Demands.”)
Mohamed takes the microphone to explain that young Iraqis’ course of study depends on whether they secured high enough grades to enter popular fields like medicine, which offer better employment prospects. In Iraq, it’s less about following your passions, and more about where the job opportunities are, he tells them.
“I want to reach out to people and change the mentality about Iraqis and Moslawis; I want to show them who we really are, beyond the stereotypes in the media.”Momen Mohamed
An Iraqi facilitator with the World in Conversation program
A Safe Space for Difficult Topics
Some topics touch on sensitive areas and everyone falls quiet. Discussions about the role of women in society, for example, can be difficult to broach in Mosul, but this is a safe space and initial reluctance gives way to an urge to speak out.
During one conversation about beauty standards, a female student in Mosul mentioned the Kardashian style, Mohamed recalls. “I was like, What! Normally we don’t talk about this stuff, but the dialogue creates an atmosphere of trust and honesty, so people say what they want.”
For students in the United States, these conversations shed light on the nuances surrounding gender relations in Iraq. Austin Kurtanich, 21, who facilitates the discussions on the Penn State side, was surprised to discover common ground between American and Iraqi students over issues like equal pay, sexual harassment and the MeToo movement.
“Another time they asked us about religion and were surprised to hear there were devoted Christians and Muslims in the room,” says Kurtanich. “… More often than not, the similarities show themselves.”
At other times, starkly different experiences offer insights that can only be gained by listening. “There was a conversation where a boy in Mosul described being injured by shrapnel after an RPG exploded next to him,” says Kurtanich. “All you can do is listen at that point and be respectful.”
But it’s important to ensure that the dialogue remains two-way, he says, despite interruptions when power cuts in Iraq pause the 90-minute session, or rare occasions when a careless comment causes offense.
“We believe that conflict is a benign force—an encounter between differences—the opposite of combat,” explains Mohamed, who is considering a career as a teacher when he graduates.”
The idea is not to prove right and wrong, he says, but to invite discussion. “I want to open my mind to the world, see the whole picture and know more about people. This is a great way of doing that.”