Mohammed squatted atop a five-foot pile of mulch, his shovel jabbed into the chaff somewhere out in the snake-infested, cedar-scrubbed hill country southwest of Dallas. Sweat darkened his black Reebok shirt and soaked his ankle socks and his coal-black hair. He was taking a breather from a community service project yesterday at the Dogwood Canyon Audubon Center, building and staining wooden picnic tables and clearing brush.
This was his first time in Texas. So far, he's seen the Fort Worth Stockyards, a Texas Rangers ball game and the Museum of Nature and Science. And pretty soon, if he's unlucky, he'll find a couple dozen chigger bites. He wiped his brow with his slick forearm. "I think they're trying to kill us," he joked, referring to his American handlers and the Audubon staff. And wouldn't you know, it might be hotter here than it is in his hometown: Baghdad.
Mohammed is one of 10 handpicked high-school students participating in the World Affairs Council International Visitor Leadership Program. These kids are Iraq's cream of the crop; they bear the future of that war-wracked country on their shoulders. The program is intended to cultivate leadership skills and promote a "mutual understanding, respect and collaboration between the United States and Iraq."
Translated: We hope they come here, get a taste of America for a few weeks, take the country's reins when they're ready and don't hold a grudge later, despite the fact that our liberation of Iraq from Saddam Hussein has yet to deliver its people from the grip of violence.
Conversely, they believed they'd arrive in America as pariahs, viewed by us as zealots, terrorists -- the objects of our unified hatred. This, more than the skyscrapers in the Big Apple, the vastness of Rangers Ballpark, the cavernous halls of Congress and working traffic lights, has surprised them the most.
In almost every way, most of these kids are classic teenagers: gawky, labor-averse, a little rambunctious. Except that they're from Iraq, one of the most dangerous countries in the world, and one we've invaded twice in less than two decades. Mohammed couldn't really tell anyone he was coming to America, which, in his country, is a really big deal. Visas are hard to come by.
But traveling here still isn't the kind of thing you put out on the street in most parts of Iraq. NPR is reporting that a similar program for Afghan students is being suspended because some of them won't return to Afghanistan, often because their very presence here jeopardizes their lives back home.
"I didn't tell my friends at school," Mohammed said. "I told them I'm going north of Iraq. It's a bad situation."
And yet each is indicative of a stratified Iraq. Rozaly is from Iraqi Kurdistan, an autonomous province in the north. She wore a snug "I Heart DC" T-shirt and skinny jeans, her full black hair in a big, swinging ponytail. Just a few days removed from her 17th birthday, you could see her becoming the next Iraqi teen-pop idol, but she's more interested in architecture. She marveled at the engineering wonders she saw when she craned her neck skyward in New York City a little less than two weeks ago.
She shares none of Mohammed's fear; her journey here required none of his secrecy. "In the north, it's nothing like that," she said. "We have American companies that help people."
And then there's a young woman who we'll call Aasera, from a city in Northern Iraq. She was quieter than the others -- serious-minded, contemplative. Unlike like Rozaly, in her part of Iraq, she must wear the hijab, a purple, flower-print head scarf to match her pink and purple flower print dress, under which she wore jeans.
After they finished up at the Audubon Center, the teens were bused over to Babe's Chicken in Cedar Hill. Aasera and I sat next to each other. She was open and curious, yet laconic in some ways. You could see she held some knowledge no young woman should. She was a teen going on 50, and I found out why. Without giving away too much identifying information, two members of her extended family were murdered.
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But she was still a youth, in many ways, like any other youth. She played Mohammed al Salim's "Galb Galb" for me on her Nokia cell phone, which is apparently the most popular song in all of Iraq. She told me her favorite movie is Just My Luck with Lindsay Lohan. Like most people she knows, she loves Harry Potter and Iraq's Got Talent. I shared some of my fried catfish with her. She gave me some of her fried chicken. She experienced mashed potatoes and gravy for the first time, and she smiled after the first swallow, dimples deepening.
Like Mohammed, Aasera won't be able to tell many people in her city about eating fried catfish and talking about country music with a blond Texan. Odds are, it would get her killed when, or if, she returns.There, buildings still bear fresh bullet pocks and bomb scars. It remains one of the deadliest places in Iraq. Her closest girlfriends told her not to come back home.
"It's dangerous to go back," she said. "But everyone will go back to Iraq, our families. We are here to help Iraq."
A cake was brought out for Rozaly's 17th, and we all sang "Happy Birthday To You." Then, stuffed and groggy, they piled back into a van, destined for canoes on the Trinity River and, soon enough, back to their own country -- a new generation destined to inherit a country with an uncertain future.