In a basement classroom at Montana State University that is literally and figuratively a world away from their homes, 20 students from some of the most war-torn countries on the planet learned simple techniques to resolve conflict.
A young lawyer from Egypt made a gentle attempt to push a Syrian student off his center. A young woman from Bahrain said the cruelest thing she could think of to her friend from Yemen, which prompted both of the women to break down in giggles. The room exploded not with anger, but with laughter and enthusiasm.
"Breathe …. Center ….Look them in the eyes," advised Deidre Combs of Bozeman, an expert in mediation, author and an instructor during a Middle East Partnership Initiative six-week course of study at MSU. "Take in their criticism. Ask them to 'tell me more!' When you are angry and react, you lose power."
Combs said that while some of the techniques might seem basic, they are effective, even when faced with some of the types of intense conflict the MEPI students could face when they return home to Palestine, Syria, Egypt, Gaza, Palestine, Iraq, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Jordan, Algeria, Bahrain, Yemen, Oman, Kuwait and Tunisia.
And, several of the students concurred, citing examples of encounters with the police and situations that their American counterparts might find unimaginable. In fact, no last names of women interviewed in the story are used to protect them when they return home.
"Deidre taught us how to be focused and stable, which I believe is helpful during conflict," said Fatima, a 21-year-old Palestinian/Israeli woman from Afr Bara who studies English and Arabic literatures at Tel Aviv University and is no stranger to living with conflict in her everyday life.
Yet, the young women "cooperates" with Bridges, a project at Tel Aviv University that provides monthly activities at which both Palestinian and Jewish students meet to find common understanding and to get to know each other as human beings.
"We hear each other (at Bridges)," said Fatima, who has many ambitions including becoming a writer, filmmaker and ambassador. "People are very special, and it helps if we have a common goal, such as peace."
She said she was pleased to discover that while at MSU "we are learning more about ourselves at MEPI. And, it's a good experience to know more about yourself."
Maged Arisha, a 21-year-old from Menoufia, Egypt, also knows what it is to live with conflict. Several days the MEPI instructors relaxed a rule and allowed Arisha to check Facebook in class so he could learn firsthand of news of the effects protest and strife in his country had on family and friends.
"What we are learning here will help us when we return home," said Arisha, a recent law school graduate who has ambitions of becoming a professor and a politician.
In addition to conflict resolution, the students, who were selected for their leadership at their universities, are taught courses on leadership tools, goal setting, cross-cultural communications and public speaking, among other topics. This year, each of the students made a small film as a final project.
"This is important to me because I believe education is the first thing needed to improve if you want to make a change in any country," Arisha said. "We get to know the system here (in the U.S.), and that will give us a new perspective when we return to Egypt."
"Deidre taught us how to solve conflict through her methods, and I'm eager to go back home and apply some of the techniques," said Mohammed Arous, 22, of the Kerkennah Islands of Tunisia. An international debate champion, Arous is a graduate student in business who has already started a nongovernmental organization (or NGO) to advance the causes of youth in his country.
"Write down that I love Bozeman. I love the people," Arous said. "It's a privilege to be part of this experience."
Janelle Rasmussen of the MSU Office of International Programs who coordinates the MSU MEPI visit, said that one of the many goals of the MEPI program when the U.S. State Department started it in 2002 (others included empowering women, improving education, encouraging economic reform as well as political participation) was to select future leaders from the Muslim world and bring them to the U.S. to meet real Americans and experience authentic American life, rather than the America they learn about in books and media.
As Combs added, "The MEPI program is true citizen, grass-roots diplomacy."
MSU, which has been a MEPI host campus for nine years, is one of six universities in the country this year to host a delegation of 20 students. While they were at MSU, the MEPI students also went to the Livingston Rodeo, river rafted, put on weekly current affairs discussions for the community, visited Butte, the Flathead Indian Reservation and participated in other activities. From Montana, the students drove to Seattle and then will fly to NYC and back to Washington, D.C. before returning home.
The students said being selected to participate in MEPI had benefits they hadn't imagined when they applied for the program.
For instance, 20-year-old Nashwa of Egypt, who learned while in Bozeman that her exam scores qualified her to be at the top of her class in computer engineering, said that the skills she learned at MSU helped develop her character, increased her self-confidence and gave her skills how to interact with people that she might not have had before.
"(MEPI) has taught me how to be more open-minded, and has taught me that others, besides my family, can care about me," she said.
And Fatima, the Palestinian, said one of her greatest pleasure was freedom to talk to Americans about her country, and having her voice heard.
"I am really grateful that MEPI gave me a voice to speak," she said. "It takes some kind of burden from my heart."
Janelle Rasmussen (406) 994-7602, firstname.lastname@example.org