We work at the grassroots level throughout the Muslim World to counter violent extremism before it takes hold, to promote tolerance and understanding, and to foster better relations with the United States.
When I was deployed in Iraq in 2004, one of my duties was searching supply trucks coming into forward operating U.S. military bases. After my duty shift was completed, I would hang around in the secure area with the truck drivers. They were from all over the region including Egypt, Pakistan, Bahrain, and Turkey to name a few, and some of my most special memories are from my time spent with those friends. Since that deployment, I have always thought about seeing the countries and experiencing the culture of my friends. By the end of my volunteer service in Jordan, I will have accomplished the spirit of that goal after visiting Egypt, Turkey, Iraq, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates. In every country, I was greeted and welcomed. One thing that surprised me was the excitement people had when they learned I was an “Ammeerikan.” I received invitations for dinner, people bought me soft drinks, offered me tea and coffee, and wanted my e-mail address to stay connected.
However, the highlight of this journey was returning to Iraq. My purpose there was to meet some Iraqi friends from my Alma Mater. They had participated in the Iraqi Young Leader Exchange Program that was funded by the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. I also teamed up with an Iraqi dentist who I had known for some time and, together, we held an oral health education workshop in a school for the hearing impaired. I will remember that experience forever. The children were so excited and grateful, and the day was about more than just passing out toothbrushes, toothpaste, and explaining why it is important to properly care for teeth: we showed the children that people care about them, and, as an American, I like to believe that I gave them a positive impression of America. I believe that small acts of kindness lead to bigger acts of kindness.
During another part of my trip to an Iraq, a man from Baghdad said he instantly knew I was an American because of my pale white skin, and he shook my hand. We talked about politics, as many people I met liked to do, specifically the relationship between America and Iraq. He told me ‘the past is past’ and ‘thank you for being here.’ He explained that he does not want America to give up on Iraq, and he believes that the future of Iraq will be brighter than the dark days of the past. Our conversation made me feel so welcomed in Iraq – that I had made a good decision to come back.
In Oman I met two young guys from Pakistan who had been working in Oman for several years because they could not find decent work in Pakistan. I was saying my final goodbye to them after two days of their hospitality when one asked me why America hates his country and his people. I felt sad and embarrassed because I knew he had a basis for asking such a question. The mood turned bright again when I told them they would always be welcome at my house. They showed instant enthusiasm and proceeded to invite me to stay with them and meet their families in Pakistan. Sometime down the road I hope we cross paths again, either in America or Pakistan.
My journey in the Middle East has ended, and the message I want to deliver is strong. I want the people of the United States to realize that the culture and people of the Middle East are much more than what American news media talks about. I want to highlight the positivism that keeps the Middle East moving forward and describe how I was met with such hospitality. A college student I met in Iraq is an activist and co-founded Iraqi Streets 4 Change. She is an alumna of the Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program and was named State Alumni Member of the Month by the U.S. Department of State. She has strong leadership skills and promotes civic engagement among Arab youth through social media. Another college student and friend of mine is working on her MBA in international management and leadership and works as a coordinator in the health department for Kurdistan Save the Children, the biggest NGO in Iraq. She is also an alumna of the Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program. These young women are just two examples of people doing great work – the kind of work that many in the Middle East are doing on a daily basis and, in some cases, at great personal risk – because they believe in the communities in which they live.