Published on Sunday, October 20, 2002 by the Ventura County Star (California)
U.S., Iraqi Students Exchange Letters of Peace
by Leah C. Wells
Dear Friend, My name is Fahad. First I want to thank you about your nice feelings toward our people in Iraq. Here in Iraq we love all peoples in the world and we try to help them if we could. All people in the world must not believe everything bad said about us in programs made specially to produce bad facts about Iraq.
My students received this pen-pal letter from a student at the Al-Markaziya School for Boys in Baghdad. Earlier this month, I visited Iraq to deliver pen-pal letters from students in my "Solutions to Violence" classes, and now a friendship between two warring nations has the opportunity to bloom.
The lack of intercultural communication between students in the United States and students in Iraq is troubling. All we know of them via mass media is that all 24 million Iraqis are equated with their one leader. All they know of us are 12 years of economic sanctions and no-fly-zone bombings.
When I watch your movies on our black and white TV, I have many dreams to have a color TV, to see your real colors. Do you have the same face that we have? Do you have the same heart?
The high-school-aged students have most often crossed my mind. When teaching about Iraq, I inquire as to the age at which my students had their first memories. Most students say somewhere around 3 to 5 years old. My students, most of whom are 15 to 18 years old, have grown up knowing leisurely lives, free from bombings, free to watch what they want on television and to buy what they want in shopping malls.
I ask them to stand in the shoes of their same-age counterparts in Iraq. Imagine that since conscious memory, all they have known has been war. It's a powerful exercise in empathy.
Friday is my holiday. I don't go to school, but I study for hours and hours to get to the medical college. Because of the embargo on our country, there's no medicine for diseases, and many newborn kids and children are dying.
Even more troubling to me are the youngest children, those 12 years and younger. They were born after the sanctions and after the Gulf War. They have known no life other than war. And the saddest part? It's not at all their fault. They are being held hostage under a dictatorship they did not choose, captive and deprived of basic nutrition and access to education.
I would like to tell you that all Iraqi people are against the idea of war. We believe in peace and that we have the right to vote our own leader.
UNICEF reports that 80 percent of schools in Iraq are in desperate need of repair. Eight-thousand schools lack basic infrastructure and the basics to support education: no new textbooks since 1989, no chalk, no classroom repairs. Teachers' salaries prior to the Gulf War were approximately $500 per month. They now earn $5 per month. Students are sent home to use the restroom because those at school pose too great a health risk. And the rate of primary school-aged girls dropping out has increased to 35 percent in the past 12 years.
According to UNICEF, education is the only sector in Iraq that has shown no improvement since the sanctions were imposed in 1990.
As a teacher, I am deeply concerned about the connections between education and war-making. Every penny we spend on weapons of mass destruction, every dollar that is diverted from academic enrichment to daisy cutters and pre-emptive strikes deprive American students of the right to a quality education.
How enraging that our military recruits disproportionately in poor communities of color. How egregious that my students who cannot afford higher education must join the military to pay for their studies. This classist, racist policy glares at the American public who are too blinded by war talk to notice. We are sending poor people to kill poor people. Where is the democracy in that?
So we are a people who like the peace and work to get it. Because whatever I say I can't describe to you how much Iraqi people suffered after the war.
Currently, the pen-pal letter exchange program, supported by Voices in the Wilderness and the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, is the only one of its kind. No study abroad programs exist. All diplomatic ties with Iraq have been severed since the early 1990s. It is even illegal to travel there.
Knowing this, how can we expect the youth of America to know that "our quarrel," as so many governments have said, "is not with the Iraqi people." If we don't make the distinction, how will they?
Education is the key to ending wars. Through this simple outreach of American to Iraqi students, young people are changing the world.
Leah C. Wells of Santa Paula serves as the peace education coordinator for the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. She is available to speak about her trip. She may be contacted at email@example.com.