Campus & Community / Magazine Feature

Iraqi and Israeli teens meet during videoconference

Approximately 24 Iraqi high school students sat in a theater at the Cable Center on the University of Denver campus Aug. 9, staring at the big screen as the virtual images of students thousands of miles away in Israel appeared.

About a dozen Israeli students, seated around a table in a Tel Aviv conference room, stared back.

After a few moments of typically awkward teenage conversation, they began peppering each other with questions. They soon discovered that not only did many of them look alike, they desired many of the same things — Middle Eastern food, American music … and peace.

“My dream is exactly the same as yours,” said one Israeli teen. “Peace.”

DU’s Institute for the Study of Israel in the Middle East (ISIME) sponsored the video conference between Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish Iraqi students visiting DU on a grant from the U.S. State Department and Jewish, Arab and Muslim Israeli high school students brought together by ISIME in Israel. 

The audio-video capabilities of the Cable Center turned the trans-Atlantic conference between citizens of countries at war for more than half a century into an intimate conversation between teenagers.

“I feel like we’re not only making history, we’re touching history,” said ISIME Executive Director Shaul Gabbay. “We here in Denver are now blessed with the opportunity not to dwell on wrongs from the past but to build relationships for the future.”

The two groups began building their relationship by realizing how little they knew of each other and discovering that much of what they had learned from the media was wrong.

Iraqi students expressed surprise at seeing Arab faces on the screen. When asked, they said they couldn’t place Israel on a map and new little about the history, diversity or culture of the country. Likewise, Israeli students were not well versed on the internal makeup of Iraq and could only describe what they saw in daily media reports of the war.

After more than two hours of conversation, they learned a lot about each other.

Iraqi students wanted the Israelis to know that Iraqis, despite their differences, loved each other and were not responsible for the daily violence. It’s the militias from other countries, one teen said, that were responsible for the killing. The only way to stop it, she said, was to close the border.

They said Iraq “had a bad leader” but was safer before the war began. Now, they said, young people can’t go out on the streets for fear of being shot and can’t talk to anyone about their problems because they don’t know who to trust. The U.S., they said, needs to stay in Iraq until the borders are closed and the streets are safe.

“We have kidnapping, killing, but we love our country,” said one Iraqi teenager. “We just want Iraq to smile again.”

The Israeli students said they, too, deal with terrorism and violence. But they said they can walk the streets in relative safety and trust the people they talk to, they said, including the Jews, Muslims and Christians that live together in peace in Israel.

When Barb Vogel — a Denver teacher, human rights activist, ISIME associate and facilitator — asked students if they personally knew victims of violence, the majority of Israeli and Iraqi students raised their hands. She implored them to continue to talk to each other and work toward peace between their countries.

“Your hearts are free and your lives are ahead of you,” Vogel said. “No one can ever take your hope away.”

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