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May 29, 2013 | Luke Blount

International Leadership Program Brings Insights

[Diolog MagazineIn March, Calvary Episcopal School in Richmond hosted three Iraqi leaders seeking to learn about the role of religion in the United States. Calvary was chosen by the
U. S. Department of State exchange program as an example of a smaller community to contrast the visitors’ experience in large cities.


June13_CongregationThe International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP), established in 1940, is a professional exchange program that seeks to form lasting relationships between countries by connecting current and emerging leaders with their American counterparts. Calvary has played an integral role in this cultural education for several years, previously hosting visitors from India and Afghanistan.


“This is a great experience for us,” said Malcolm Smith, headmaster of Calvary Episcopal School.


The visitors were Hayder Murthadha Ali Afand, a political and social activist and journalist; Huthifa Munaf Abdulmunem Al-Mashhadany, a senior adviser for a coalition of Sunni Arab Islamist political parties; and the Hon. Najeeb Abdullah Muhi Muhi, a member of parliament from the Kurdistan region. 


On a Friday morning, the three guests arrived at the school with their interpreter, Elbagir M. Abuosam, to attend the school’s chapel service, which featured enthusiastic singing and hand motions from students and teachers, as well as a music video. Students read Scripture and led the Prayers of the People, and a teacher led a discussion of the fruits of the spirit. Students were then able to ask their guests about life in Iraq. 


One sixth-grader asked the men if their perception of Americans had changed at all since they have begun their trip.


“After coming to the United States, I have seen many institutions and communities,” Al-Mashhadany said. “I have witnessed the coexistence of different religions and different people. And I do admire the Americans as people and their way of life.”


The Iraqi men were eager to dispel any misconceptions about Iraq that the American children and adults may hold. 


“You may or may not know this, but in the Quran, there are many quotations about Jesus. And anyone who doesn’t believe in Jesus is not Muslim,” Muhi said. “I can confirm to you that everything I have seen in your worship this morning, all of these values are found in Islam because the source of Islam and Christianity is the same.”


The guests were also aware that Americans often see violent acts in Iraq when they watch the news, but they wanted to make it clear that Islam is a peaceful religion for the overwhelming majority of Muslims. 


“There are extremists in any religion,” Muhi said. “If you are trying to make any judgments about a people or any faith, you shouldn’t rush to judgment…. Many of our preconceptions about the United States have been changed. If you really want to achieve understanding, then you better go to the place where everything is going on and listen carefully.”


At the conclusion of the event, all three men expressed their excitement to see a joyful chapel service teaching children positive values. Muhi even said that he hoped similar values were also being taught in public schools. 


“The presentation with the pictures and the music was very nice,” he said. “I may take that back home.” He was also impressed with the teachers’ and students’ interaction. “I think our teachers should interact more with the students,” he said. 


Throughout the morning, students politely, and often timidly, asked questions on topics ranging from Iraqi pets to water conservation. The sixth-graders posed some of the best questions because they were studying the Middle East in geography class when news came that they would have visitors from the region.


“I think it is really good when they have this time to interact with the kids,” Smith said. “These are things that students often study in a textbook, but that is very different than actually seeing and asking questions.”


All of the participants said they came away enlightened, with new thoughts and ideas. 


“Our perception is often very skewed by what we see in the media, and this [visitation] allows an opportunity to open eyes,” said Colleen Sanders, dean of instruction. “Just as they were seeing what life is like in the United States, it gives us a little bit of a glimpse of what life would be like in Iraq…. And it has been beneficial to me too, not just for the kids.”