Bobby Fraser’s view on Iraq is different from what it was two months ago. That’s because two months ago he didn’t know any Iraqis.
But this past July, Fraser got to know 16 Iraqis on a personal level when he traveled to Amman, Jordan, for a conference aimed at bringing Iraqi and American youth together to discuss progress in Iraq.
“It just brings the whole situation closer to home when you actually have 16 friends who are directly dealing with the conflict,” Fraser said of a suicide bombing in one of his new friend’s Kurdish town.
Students from Princeton University and Hong Kong’s United World College spearheaded the 11-day Youth Initiative for Progress in Iraq conference. Fraser, a junior, and freshman Jonathan Lesser were two of the 16 Americans who attended the conference.
Fraser and Lesser said their relationships with the Iraqi students they met was the most valuable part of the conference. The conference was organized to create friendships at the very beginning, Lesser said. Although the Iraqis spoke some English, translators were often needed.
Fraser said talking with the Iraqis “opened my eyes up to the situation.” He was struck to hear, for instance, that “in Baghdad, they only have two hours of electricity that’s provided by the government a day.”
After getting to know each other, the students were able to get into the “nitty-gritty Iraq-U.S. relations,” Lesser said.
In a series of daily discussions, Iraqi students shared their personal experiences and talked about areas in which they believe their country needs transformation.
“They told some of the most unbelievable, heart-wrenching stories,” Lesser said.
One Iraqi fled to Jordan as a refugee after his father was murdered for being a Christian, he said. He is now trying to move to the United States with the help of one of the American students who organized the conference.
Fraser and Lesser are also working this semester to bring two Iraqis to study in D.C. They are talking to administrators at GW and Howard to bring one student to each school.
Fraser said the Iraqis acknowledged the significance of having an American education in Iraq.
Schooling at American colleges covers a much wider subject range, encouraging well-rounded students, Lesser said. An engineering major can also study architecture or languages. In Iraq, an engineer only studies engineering.
“What we were told is that an American education is the most respected,” Fraser said. “And if they have an American education they can be a leader in their country.”
After all the discussions, the group at the conference drafted a 12-page declaration pinpointing top areas of concern in Iraq, such as education, security and human rights.
The conference leaders then sent the declaration of intent to international and U.S. leaders including Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.).
“We related to each other as people as opposed to Americans and Iraqis,” Lesser said. “We were able to relate emotionally and socially. While we didn’t think it was that important while it was going on, it was the most essential part.”