Campus & Community / Magazine Feature

Social Work professor featured in new political book

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Ron Suskind had already ridden a wave of media attention emanating from the revelations in his newest book before coming to the University of Denver Nov. 12.

In The Way of the World: A Story of Truth and Hope in an Age of Extremism (Harper, 2008) Suskind wrote that President George W. Bush learned that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq before the U.S. invaded. The mainstream media reported this and little else from a book he said was meant to ask the question about how different cultures can get along.

So when he came to DU’s Graduate School of Social Work (GSSW), Suskind talked less about the Bush administration and its zeal to silence him and more about the people who inspired the book, including GSSW Professor Ann Petrila.

Petrila’s story of Ibrahim Frotan, an Afghan teenager who came to her home as a foreign exchange student, leads Suskind’s look at the cultural divide that separates nations.

“My favorite story, the one that most moved me, is the story of Ibrahim,” Suskind told about 200 people gathered at Craig Hall. “As I wrote it, I wept.”

Ibrahim’s story

The story of Ibrahim began in fall 2006, when the Petrila/Bowers family decided to take in a foreign exchange student from a traditional Muslim country as part of the American Councils Program for International Education. After jumping through all the diplomatic hoops, they went to DIA to pick up an “outrageously handsome” 16-year-old Afghan boy who was, despite his penchant for Rambo movies, stuck in seventh century Islam.

Ibrahim’s country had been invaded first by Russians, then by the Taliban and then by Americans. Members of his Shia Hazara ethnic group had been persecuted; members of his family killed. Petrila said the boy had more exposure to trauma than to the outside world.

Immediately, Ibrahim began to have problems. He had never seen boys and girls interact. He’d never experienced open schools, where students question their teachers. And he had never heard citizens criticize their leaders. The first time he heard adults complain about President Bush’s policies, he asked Petrila, “Will they be killed?”

Petrila welcomed the fundamentalist Muslim boy to her home as a son. He shared her son Ben’s room and participated in family activities and outings. Petrila said they had long talks about their different cultures and family histories. When Ibrahim had a hard time acclimating to school, the Petrila family tried to help.

But Ibrahim saw many of the family’s social customs and day-to-day activities as sins. He questioned Petrila’s authority in the house because of his culture’s views toward women. After failing to adjust to his school, Petrila family dynamics and American culture, Ibrahim lashed out by falsely accusing Ann, among other things, of forcing him to eat pork. At the recommendation of American Councils, they decided to part ways.

Unable to return home because of political pressure, Ibrahim was placed in a new home in Pennsylvania. There, he met a girl who befriended him and began to open his eyes to American culture. Their relationship and Ibrahim’s faith reached a cusp when she revealed that she was an unmarried teenage mother of a 2-year-old son. Though his cultural upbringing would have instructed him to stone such a girl, Ibrahim reached beyond his culture to embrace her worth as a person and a friend.

Ibrahim’s gift of hope

Suskind used Petrila’s story to show both the challenge and the hope of intercultural relations, getting to know Ibrahim through Petrila’s eyes and by visiting the boy after he had returned to his village in Afghanistan. Suskind told his GSSW audience that the experience changed him.

“I’m now someone who goes into the dark valley but finds some sunshine,” he said.

As for Petrila, she’s grateful to Ibrahim for the experience and still stays in contact with him. He opened her eyes to the world of Islam, she says, and opened her son’s eyes to the world at large. She says she’s glad Suskind used her story to probe the question of cultures and is hopeful that more exchanges like the one her family had with Ibrahim will lead to a world where understanding trumps division.

“It has totally broadened our horizons,” Petrila said. “The whole world opened up to our family.”

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