The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Local News

July 17, 2011

Young Iraqis learning lesson in aftermath of Joplin tornado

JOPLIN, Mo. — Two weeks ago, Hiba Muhsin Ahmed was attending classes at a university in Iraq. Sunday, she and a group of Iraqi exchange students took part in Joplin’s recovery effort. Ahmed says the damage from the EF-5 tornado that struck Joplin is similar to the damage in areas of her home town of Najaf.

“I think it is the same kind of damage, but we don’t learn how to get rid of this damage,” she said.

Ahmed says that in Iraq there is a lot of damage from war, but there is not a significant civilian cleanup effort.

The 25 students are members of the Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program, which is sponsored by the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. The group is being hosted by the Spring International Language Center at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville.

Alannah Massey, special programs director for the Spring International Language Center, says the purpose of the program is for the students to learn skills that they can take back to Iraq and help to rebuild their country.

“They are so excited and passionate about their country and their communities and wanting to improve them, and they have the desire and the energy; and here is where they’re really developing the skills and knowledge to apply toward it,” she said. “They already have ideas, and they already have the drive, so this is designed to hone that and focus it.”

Massey says the 25 students were chosen for their leadership qualities and represent universities from across Iraq. She says the University of Arkansas was one of two universities in the U.S. selected to host the program; the other is Colorado State University.

Gorgees Maleel says he hopes to take the lesson of community involvement back home to northern Iraq.

“We learn how to recognize ourselves, and how to work with groups,” he said. “Usually everyone works for themselves there, but here we are learning to work in groups and share ideas and accept others’ opinions.”

Although the need to rebuild their own country was in the front of their minds, many in the group say they have enjoyed the opportunity to visit the United States.

“I expected that the American people would be kind to us because we see that different people from all over the world make their home in America. All different cultures and races are already living here, so I thought they would welcome us,” Maleel said.

Ahmed says she has been impressed by the Americans she has met.

“I am surprised because all of the Americans work hard, and I want to be like them,” she said.

Sarah Frederick, a senior in foreign relations and economics at the University of Arkansas, says that meeting the group from Iraq gives her hope for that nation’s future.

“I think the younger generation of Iraqis is a lot more open to peaceful dialogue,” she said. “I think Iraq needs a generation that is more likely to speak up and get things accomplished, and I think this group is really smart and has the ability to do that.”

Ahmed says the trip to America has helped her realize that ordinary Iraqis have a large part to play in their country’s recovery.

“(Iraq) needs everybody to have a responsibility to his country and want it to be successful, and for everyone to be responsible for everyone in the country,” she said.

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