Students envision a common future for the U.S. and Arab world
Posted April 30, 2009; 10:05 a.m.
Student leaders from Princeton and the Middle East recently spent four days on campus examining the relationship between the United States and Middle East with the goal of increasing understanding about issues that connect them.
The conference, "Visions and Revisions: Charting a Common Future for the U.S. and the Arab World," brought together 15 visiting students from Jordan, Morocco, Egypt and Lebanon with 16 University students to explore their similarities and differences through talks about religion, politics, human rights and culture.
Student leaders from Princeton and the Middle East recently spent four days on campus examining the relationship between the United States and Middle East at a student-led conference titled "Visions and Revisions: Charting a Common Future for the U.S. and the Arab World." From left, Egyptian student Abd el-Hamid Sherif, sophomore Daniel Growald and sophomore Alex Thompson discuss ways to continue collaborations after the visiting students return to the Middle East. (Photo: Brian Wilson)
"By fostering an unfiltered discussion we wanted to cultivate knowledge and empathy, and also lay the groundwork for collaborative leadership between student leaders from diverse backgrounds and religions," said University senior Zvi Smith. "My own perspective has been significantly deepened by the conference. It was a transformative experience."
The conference was organized and led by Smith, junior Nour Aoude, sophomore Danny Growald, junior Farah Naim and sophomore Zahava Stadler. Smith said he and Associate Dean of Religious Life Paul Raushenbush came up with the idea to host a select group of Middle Eastern students following a 2008 student trip to Jordan sponsored by the Office of Religious Life and the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.
Held from April 24-27, the conference included presentations, community service projects, cultural events and public lectures by Middle East scholars, including former ambassadors Robert Finn, a lecturer in Near Eastern studies and international affairs, and Daniel Kurtzer, the S. Daniel Abraham Visiting Professor in Middle East Policy Studies and a lecturer in public and international affairs.
The event concluded with students developing ways to promote peaceful relationships between the United States and Middle East on their respective campuses, such as creating an Internet forum to increase knowledge about Islam and other religions and organizing a Middle East speaker series.
On each day of the conference, participants broke into small discussion groups to examine topics such as gender, media coverage of the Middle East, terrorism and stereotypes. (Photo: Brian Wilson)
Participants also engaged in small, confidential discussions about topics such as gender, media coverage of the Middle East, terrorism and stereotypes. Many students said it was these intimate meetings that proved the most enlightening.
"The really valuable part of this experience is that we came together as one group in one room and discussed everything openly," said Youssef Yaacoub, a Lebanese graduate student from the American University of Beirut. "I also really appreciated that so many of the Princeton students in the group are studying Arabic. It was very touching that the students here have taken the time to really understand our culture and our point of view."
Although it was not her first time in the United States, Egyptian student Neama Ebaid said she has re-examined her perception of Americans after her brief time at the conference.
"When I came here I discovered that there are many, many things that people from the Middle East think about Americans -- and a lot of things that Americans think about us -- that aren't true," said Ebaid, who is studying at the American University in Cairo. "Now that we have a better understanding about where people in the U.S. may be coming from, we can communicate this to other students back in the Middle East."
University sophomore Melekot Abate, who is Ethiopian and lived in Yemen, said he was able to approach the conference from a unique vantage of having lived among American and Arab cultures.
From left, Neama Ebaid, a visiting student from the American University in Cairo, talks with sophomore Miryam Hegazy and Egyptian student Mariam Yousry at a reception on the last day of the conference. (Photo: Brian Wilson)
"I was really surprised at how much new insight I gained into the American mindset and the Middle East mindset," Abate said. "We can take what we learned here and give other people the opportunity to look at these issues in a fresh way."
Co-organizer Naim echoed Abate's comments, saying that the conference helped establish a "path forward."
"In just four days we were able to build long-lasting relationships and create connections by understanding each other better and establish empathy," Naim said. "Now if we hear something in the news about violence happening in the Middle East or in America, we don't just think, 'What an unfortunate event,' we think, 'That could be my friend.'"
The conference was sponsored by: the Office of Religious Life, Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Program in Near Eastern Studies, Fund for Intergroup Collaboration, Office of the Vice President of Campus Life, Pace Center, Davis International Center, Council for International Teaching and Research, Department of Psychology, Program in American Studies and Fields Center.
Fifteen visiting students from Jordan, Morocco, Egypt and Lebanon joined 16 University students on campus April 24-27 to explore issues that connect the United States and Middle East. The conference was organized by University students Zvi Smith, Nour Aoude, Danny Growald, Farah Naim and Zahava Stadler. (Photo: Brian Wilson)