Fourteen youth delegates from the Middle East visited Brown yesterday as part of a U.S. State Department-sponsored cultural exchange intended to expose students to American society and political culture.
Their visit included a tour of campus, an information session about American journalism at The Herald and a conversation with both the College Republicans and Brown Democrats.
The State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program, which coordinated the visit, brings leaders from around the world to the United States to experience “civic life,” including “pluralism, tolerance, and volunteerism” according to its Web site.
The group that visited Brown also went to Washington, D.C., Seattle, Austin and Dallas, and included students and young professionals from 10 countries - Syria, Jordan and Yemen among them.
The Middle Eastern participants are all youth leaders in their home communities, said Kate Green, outgoing director of the Rhode Island International Visitor Program.
Aladdin Atiga, a student of business and information technology at Informatics College at the University of Libya, said came to the United States to give a more accurate portrayal of Libya and the Middle East to Americans. Many Americans he met during the trip did not even know Libya exists, he said.
“One American asked me if we had an airport. A lot of them think we live in the desert and ride camels,” Atiga said.
Other students in the delegation said they were somewhat surprised by how the United States differed from the image the portrayed by the media in their home countries.
Rawan Sweis, a senior studying chemical engineering at Al Balqa’ Applied University in Jordan, was surprised that in the United State “everything is organized.”
She noted the “Walk” and “Don’t Walk” signs she found in each American town she visited. “We have them only in the capital, not everywhere,” she said.
Iyad Yacoub and Aya Malas from Damascus, Syria, said they came to the United States to learn about American non-governmental organizations.
Yacoub said he was surprised by the sheer number of NGOs in the United States and the level of participation in them.
“I have another perspective to life,” he said, “that civic responsibility is what you have to do – it’s not like a hobby or an interest. You have to feel it. People here have a sense of citizenship and want to be part of the development of the country.”
Malas said she was interested in understanding what motivates Americans to volunteer for and donate to NGOs.
At The Herald office, editors answered delegates’ questions about censorship and the freedom of the American press.
Later that evening, the group met with the College Republicans and Brown Dems, who illuminated key differences between the two American political parties, including disagreement over the United States’ policy toward Iran and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
After the discussion, Dems President Gabriel Kussin ’09 told The Herald he didn’t think political differences between the two parties were stated clearly enough.
“I would have really liked to go into more detail about how the two parties differ,” Kussin said.
When the conversation turned to Iran, discussion between the Brown students and visitors became particularly heated. Some IVLP participants questioned why the United States does not accept Iran’s government as democratic.
One IVLP participant, Falastin Dawoud, a junior at An-Najah University in the West Bank city of Nablus, spoke in Arabic through an interpreter about the United States government’s characterization of Hamas as a terrorist organization. She argued that Hamas is not a terrorist organization – rather, Palestinians are simply trying to defend themselves, she said.
After the formal discussion concluded, the IVLP participants and the Brown students mingled, continuing the discussion and exchanging e-mail addresses.
“I think it was a really good discussion,” Marc Frank ’09, president of the College Republicans, told The Herald.
“It was heated – there was a lot of disagreement. At times it got to be a little bit of bickering without substance, but overall I think there was an understanding between the people, and there was a genuine interest in hearing from both sides about their views on the world,” he said.
The participants’ reactions to Brown – and America in general – were enthusiastic. “I want to live and study here,” Malas said.
“The most strange thing I felt here is that I didn’t feel like I was a stranger,” Yacoub said.