MOSUL—It’s 8 a.m. in the eastern United States and students at Pennsylvania State University are arriving to a classroom in heavy coats, groggy from their early start. Here in Mosul, in northern Iraq, it’s late afternoon and the sun is sinking over the city, much of which still lies in ruins more than two years after its liberation from the Islamic State, or ISIS.
At first, life under the jihadist group dominated weekly discussions between the two groups, as young Moslawis described their ordeal and students at Penn State listened in horror.
“No matter what the subject was, they always ended up describing their suffering under ISIS,” says Basim Razzo, Iraq program manager at World in Conversation, which facilitates video dialogues between students in countries worldwide. “It was therapeutic for them to describe what happened.”
After a few sessions, Razzo encouraged the Iraqi students to discuss other aspects of their lives. “Even though they were oppressed by ISIS, they have hopes and dreams. These students are running extra fast to catch up; they want to make up for the three lost years of their lives.”
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Razzo brought the World in Conversation program to Mosul and the nearby city of Erbil after watching a TED Talk by the sociologist Sam Richards, who co-founded the program with his wife Laurie Mulvey, also a sociologist, in 2002. The pair had observed a rise in racial tension at Penn State University, where they both teach, and wanted to provide a platform for “true public diplomacy,” which they subsequently expanded to involve students in countries around the world.
Having lived in the United States previously, Razzo had encountered many misconceptions about Arabs, Islam and the Middle East. “I wanted this opportunity for American students to learn about our culture, our religion, our values and way of life,” he says.