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U.S., Iraqi youth ‘chat’ half a world apart

United States, September 1, 2009

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April Koral

The Tribeca Tribune
September, 2009

The Mercy Corps Action Center to End World Hunger, in Battery Park City, is the place to go to restore your faith in humanity.

And so it was, early one morning last month, that a group of American and Iraqi students sat transfixed before large screens, staring at each other an ocean and two continents apart.

For one week, the American students, members of Mercy Corps’ Global Citizens Corps, had been learning about the causes of global poverty and what they could do to mobilize their communities to help.

But those lectures and workshops couldn’t compare to this live video chat.

“To actually see the Iraqi students was really powerful,” said Nicole Bleuel, 16, a senior at Horace Mann High School in the Bronx. “We made friends halfway across the world through technology.”

Brianda Guzman, 17, a student at Bronx Theater High School, was equally moved. “It was pretty awesome,” she said.

The video image that flashed from Khanaqin, in eastern Iraq, into Lower Manhattan was of a crowded classroom with a single overhead fan.
Intermittently, the power failed, stopping the chat. A few minutes into the conversation, the students learned that a series of bombs had just exploded in Baghdad, killing nearly 100 people and injuring scores more.

The theme of the video conference was education and at first each group stuck with its prepared list of questions.

The Iraqis asked, “Is education free in America?” and “What are the difficulties in finding a job after graduation?”

The Americans wanted to know what the Iraqis had to study in order to graduate and what challenges they had faced in getting an education.
But before long, the conversation took its own course.

“We asked them what kind of music they listened to,” Guzman said, “and they said, ‘like Beyonce and Shakira.’” One thing led to another and soon each group was singing to the other.

Standing, the Iraqi students sang a traditional Kurdish song. The American teens then put arms around each other and sang “Lean on Me.”

For Sailesh Naidu, a Mercy Corps youth trainer who helped organize the event, this was the moment he was waiting for.

“It was beautiful,” he said. “People tens of thousands of miles away experiencing the joy of getting to know one another. Connections aren’t that hard,” he added. “We have so much more in common than we realize.”

Nicole Bleuel agreed.

“These are people who want to help the world like we do,” she noted. “We are fighting for the same cause.”