YARMOUTH — With a determination to break down cultural barriers, high school junior Hannah Potter created a pen pal program for students in America and Iraq.
The online communications project called NewView connects high school students from the United States and Iraq through an e-mail forum.
Potter, 16, said the idea started when she attended the Global Youth Village camp in Virginia over the summer. The camp is similar to Seeds of Peace, and hosts 30 students from Iraq and 15 students from the United States to learn more about each other through peace talks, question-and-answer sessions and trust-building activities.
“It was a very diverse group of kids,” Potter said. “I found that while I was looking to find differences between us, I found more similarities.”
Potter said most of the students from Iraq expected Americans to be like Paris Hilton or Britney Spears or the images they saw portrayed on MTV. She said all the students were given an opportunity to ask questions of each other about their culture, lifestyle and beliefs.
“The whole idea of this project is to break down the stereotypes,” Potter said. “The Iraqi kids wanted to share their stories because they want people to know the truth.”
The NewView project pairs students from Baghdad with students from Yarmouth High School as they respond to a series of topics.
The first correspondence was about the origin of their name, Potter said. Each student wrote about their name’s history, family or cultural significance. The second e-mail topic focused on specific foods of the student’s region, local ingredients, meals around holidays or celebrations, and dietary restrictions for personal or religious reasons. The third topic asked students to talk about their homes and communities. The most recent topic was about cultural holidays.
“We want everyone to get to know each other and then we can build trust,” Potter said. “As we go on, the questions may get more personal.”
At the summer camp, Potter interviewed a few Iraqi students who were excited to participate in the pen-pal program.
Maryanne, a resident of Arbil, Iraq, said she found the American students to be very nice, which was different than she expected. She said she would like to change the idea that Iraqi people are scary or fearful.
Zainab, a 16-year-old student from Baghdad, said she has met a lot of American students and made close friends at the camp. Sana, also from Baghdad, said she wants cultural exchange between her friends and American students.
Maha, a senior at a gifted high school in Baghdad, said her parents were afraid to let her come to the camp, but she quickly learned that what she knew of America was wrong.
“Now I totally recognize that Americans are truly nice people, girls and boys without any exceptions,” she said. “We are living as a family, we are totally friends, we love each other.”
She said she was shocked when Potter told her about the pen-pal project because she didn’t think Americans would be interested in Iraqi culture.
“It’s a good idea because we have a false picture of each other,” Maha said. “We are not that bad a community. I want to share my culture with you, and I want (you) to share your culture with me.”
Julia Butler, a junior at YHS, participates in the NewView program and said the process has given her a new perspective on Iraqi culture. She said she never knew this type of relationship was possible and is grateful for Potter’s innovation.
“Looking back on what I used to think about the Iraqi culture, I feel ashamed about how close-minded and ignorant I was,” Butler said. “I feel extremely fortunate to have been able to be in contact with a girl my age who lives in Baghdad. Just getting to know her, learning more about her culture and making that connection has been a reward.”
Although NewView is a pilot program, it has already started to evolve, Potter said. In a recent trip to Egypt, she met with students who are interested in participating. A friend in Amherst, Mass., has shown interest in the program and Potter will connect the two groups for a new version of the Yarmouth-Iraq pen pals as soon as January.
She said her family helped her to develop the program, and she gave a lot of credit to the students in Iraq and Yarmouth who are mature enough to communicate effectively and respectfully.
“I’m excited to have people learn about the program and give their feedback,” she said. “I’m really thankful there are people who want to make a difference by sharing their stories and breaking down stereotypes.”
Amy Anderson can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Sierra, left, a student from Florida, hugs her friend Zainab of Baghdad during a two-week Global Youth Program that brought together students from Iraq and the U.S. last summer in Virginia. The program inspired Yarmouth High School junior Hannah Potter to devise a way to break through stereotypes and connect students in a pen-pal program she calls NewView.