What’s a common factor between “camel jockeys”, “terrorists” and “towel heads” on one end and audiences on Oprah Winfrey, Jerry Springer and Dr. Phil on the other? Nothing! Videoconferencing has been playing a major in eliminating misconceptions for more than 5,000 students in 26 countries. Welcome to EMPOWER PEACE.
“We are peaceful people. We don’t go around shooting Americans, we don’t live in tents and we don’t ride camels!” Until a student from Lebanon clarified this to many of his counterparts in the US through videoconferencing, that misconception was very much alive thanks in large part to media misrepresentation of Arabs. The event hosted by ‘Empower Peace’ last November 30, 2006, connected the Hariri High School II and the American Community School in Beirut with the Robert A. Millikan Peace Academy in Long Beach, California. During that live videoconferencing, the distorted image of Americans displayed in movies or through talk shows like Tyra Banks, Oprah Winfrey, Jerry Springer and Dr. Phil was quickly dispelled by the US students.
The May 22, 2003 peace initiative ‘Empower Peace’ which was launched with the goal of bridging the gap between Muslim and Arab youth on one end, and youth in the United States on the other, has already reached 5,000 students in 26 countries. These include Bahrain, Jordan, Egypt and Kuwait with plans to go to the UAE. The non-profit initiative connecting high school classrooms in the Middle East and South Asia with classrooms in America using videoconferencing and the internet has garnered support from world leaders, educators, schools and peace lovers anywhere. “We’re using cutting-edge technology to connect high school students together in order to break down misconceptions and stereotypes, while building bridges of hope and peace as we progress,” said Asad Mahmood Butt, Empower Peace Director of Media and Advance. Empower Peace also hopes to assist teachers worldwide by enabling their students to learn first-hand about people and countries that they may have only experienced in schoolbooks. Butt, 27, said it was a pretty unique opportunity to work with students and allow them to connect with their counterparts thousands of miles away, but it was tragedy which brought him full time into the endeavor. With background in broadcasting and the son of Pakistani parents, the American-reared Asad was asked in 2005 by Empower Peace founder Rick Rendon to help connect schools in Pakistan to schools in the US. Butt, who had traveled to Pakistan and the Middle East several times, worked for a couple of weeks as a freelancer and returned home. He later learned that a subsequent earthquake which hit Pakistan had killed one of the students who took part in the broadcast. “I stayed on to sort of help out and produce a fundraiser and it snowballed from there; it is the best job I or anyone could ever have,” Butt said.
Using a 90-minute videoconference, students in different locations talk about culture, religion, sports, fashion, music, movies and a little of politics. “We try to stay away from politics and talk more about what students do after school, the movies they see and other questions about dating, family and the like,” Butt said. Nevertheless, Butt says that the number one comment which organizers hear from students in the Middle East is that they love the fact they’re able to tell the world that they are neither terrorists living in tents nor camel riders. “These are the stereotypes that are engrained in American society and the kids here have the opportunity to see American students who are different from what they see on TV shows and movies. It is really a chance to break down those misconceptions,” Butt said.
During the last videocast, a few Lebanese students answered a question about the effects of Lebanon’s ‘July War’ on education. Amer Dabbous from Hariri II answered “I believe that war is never a solution to any problem. On the contrary it’s the source of our problems… Moreover, when it comes to education, we started a month later and the war made it difficult for us to study and focus on our daily lives.” Wadad Itani, from the same school, said that she feels more scared after the war “because there is tension going on between the Lebanese people, making the occurrence of a civil war more probable.” Meanwhile, students in Lebanon learned from a student in Long Beach that she doesn’t agree with a US nationwide survey showing 70% of US students hating going to school and wishing they could quit. “I don’t agree with how those people feel. There are many things I like about school, such as the sports program, seeing my friends and being in the Peace Academy. I feel like the worst part of US education is that there isn’t enough money for books and classrooms,” the Long Beach student said. During the conferencing, students not only ask questions but also give cultural performances. In June 2006, Empower peace connected Broumana High School in Lebanon with a school in Boston and the students in Broumana first did a traditional dance and then went into a hip-hop routine, a sort of cross cultural representation of what Lebanon is. “After seeing that, the students in America wouldn’t stop cheering for a good 3-4 minutes. All you heard was clapping,” Butt said.
During the latest link, Hariri II students sang the Lebanese national anthem. “Every time we talked to these students they would say ‘we love it, we can’t wait to do that again, we want to talk to them some more’. It’s really the first chance for many of these students to connect with anybody outside of their country.”
Empower Peace also keeps these students connected via email addresses of those children who want to communicate with others abroad. But the organization goes the extra mile. Following every broadcast, Empower Peace organizers create 30-minute documentaries and then try to air them on various TV networks in the countries that they operate in, such as GEO TV in Pakistan or Al Hurra TV. These include interviews with the students on their views about the broadcast.
Throughout the year, Empower Peace also engages in many activities that promote leadership and peace. It recently launched a new program named ‘Women2Women’ aimed at empowering future young women leaders from the Middle East, Near East, and the United States. While in Boston for two-weeks, these young women attend leadership conferences at Harvard University, TUFTS University and others and learn first-hand from established professional women leaders from the Government, Business, Media and Entertainment sectors. In September 2005, when the Jyllands-Posten Prophet Muhammad cartoons controversy was going around, Empower Peace sponsored an international contest for art work promoting peace and harmony called ‘drawing the right impressions’. “We got students from all around the world to produce art work that promoted that. We decided that Iran’s president’s sponsoring of his own cartoon contest of the holocaust was the wrong way to go about it,” Butt said.
World leaders’ support for the organization has been growing. “Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf taped a one or two minutes speech about the program saying this was a great program and exactly what the world needs, while former US President Jimmy Carter and current US Senators Kerry and Kennedy also cast their support for the work that we do,” Butt said.
Empower Peace was born following the repercussions of September 11. “We hear about discrimination and racial profiling and I, as a Muslim, have been discriminated against but these times will pass and Empower Peace is one effort towards eliminating the misconceptions on both sides, ” Butt said. Nader Kobrosli from Hariri II included in his discourse about his views on Arab-Americans that they must work on improving the image of Arabs and Muslims in America by being more proactive in their communities. Another ACS student actually said “Let’s not badmouth the religion of Islam because one bad ass blew up two towers.” Lana from ACS said “we are not Anti-American. Most of us live and think like you do…we are not different.”
Butt says Empower Peace is aiming to connect the world through high school students. “We feel they are the leaders of tomorrow. The more students are exposed to different cultures, ethnicities, backgrounds, religions, the better the world will be.” In the end, whether we’re Arabs, Asians, Americans, African or European, we are faces of the same coin. Is it worth flipping over it?