Iraqi students visit area, learn culture


Published: Friday, August 1, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, August 1, 2008 at 1:27 a.m.

Likely flying under most Gainesville residents’ radar the past two weeks is that 27 Iraqi high school students have been here since July 21 getting a taste of North Central Florida and American culture.

Because of security risks for the students and their families back in Iraq, their visit has been kept under wraps.

The students, ranging in age from 17 to 18, came with the Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program of Sister Cities International, a non-profit organization that fosters partnerships between the U.S. and international communities. The students will leave Gainesville this weekend.

While here, the students have stayed with host families, have taken English classes and enjoyed some of the area’s attractions, among them Ichetucknee Springs and the Hippodrome State Theatre.

“There were a lot of security issues,” said Patti Breedlove, a host parent of two Iraqi teens. “But you would never know it the way these kids acted. It didn’t affect their trip one bit.”

Because of the delicate relationship between the United States and Iraq due to the war, the Iraqi Young Leaders program instructed the students not to reveal to the media identifying information about where they live in Iraq, their ages or their names. In addition to this, all photography, video or physical descriptions of the students was prohibited.

Host families and American students who interacted directly with the Iraqis are prohibited from posting any photography, audio recordings or videos on Web sites, blogs or publicly accessible photo databases.

“The students’ visit is something we would have really liked to promote, but we have to be aware of their safety and their families’ safety,” said Patrick Madden, executive director of Sister Cities International.

By the time the Iraqi students conclude their stay in the U.S., they will have been here for one month, will have been taught leadership skills, will have explored U.S. government and society, and will have built relationships with American students and their families, Madden said.

The program’s aim is to promote a mutual understanding between Americans and Iraqis and to foster relationships between youth from different ethnic, religious and cultural groups.

“There’s a lot of value in kids getting to know other kids from different cultures,” Breedlove said. “The Iraqi students were really surprised by American friendliness, and you could tell it really meant a lot to them.”

Gabrielle Byam, the Hippodrome’s summer camp director, spent two days with the Iraqi students when they attended her camp and participated in workshops, watched movies and ate lots of pizza.

Being around the students and just watching them completely changed her perception of Iraq, she said. She expected traditional Arabic clothing and limited English, but she found them to be like her American students.

“It really did bridge some gaps,” Byam said. “It showed me a lot about American culture, and Iraq is now in my top five list of places to travel some day.”

“At the end of the day,” said Breedlove, “we all love ‘Scrubs’ and Josh Groban. They’re just teenagers like my daughters and her friends.”

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