Amie Camden, a delegate attending the high school Model United Nations conference in Washington, admitted she was a little scared when she learned which country she would be representing: Iraq.
"I was a little shaky," said Camden, a 14-year-old freshman from George Mason High School in Falls Church, as she stood in a hallway yesterday outside her committee hearing room at the Washington Hilton. "Most people felt sorry for me."
Camden's friend, Meg Wiant, said the assignment to play Iraq seemed difficult at first, but now she's glad her teachers gave it to her. "A lot of people think I'm really brave for doing Iraq," the 14-year-old freshman said, adding that the experience has taught her to be more open-minded and to appreciate different viewpoints.
Which is exactly what Wiant's teachers had in mind last fall when they applied to represent Iraq this weekend at the 28th annual North American Invitational Model United Nations, sponsored by the Georgetown International Relations Association, a 300-member undergraduate group at Georgetown University. Gail Nolan, cosponsor of George Mason's Model U.N. Club, which has about 45 members, said her aim is to have her students learn about the world they live in, experience how frustrating diplomacy can be and realize that people can hold varying views.
Nolan said she saw Iraq as a challenge for her students, 19 of whom are attending the four-day Model U.N. at the Hilton. But the initial reaction, she admits, was: "Are you crazy, Ms. Nolan? Have you lost your mind?"
Bridget Singletary, 17, said her first thought was, "Oh boy, we're in the hot seat now!" Arab countries are difficult to represent, she said, because "it's a different culture."
But she and other George Mason students interviewed yesterday said the experience is not only challenging but rewarding. "It's fun to have a different character than you are in real life," said John Blackwell, a 16-year-old junior who had assumed the persona of a top PLO leader as part of a simulation group.
"You get to see things from another perspective," said senior Aaron Spevacek, 17, an Iraqi delegate in the Middle Eastern Summit. "It's an esteemed position; everyone's gunning for you." Spevacek said his group had just passed -- over his objection -- a resolution calling on Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait.
Spevacek said that when attacked by other nations, his position has been one of denial -- "That's foreign propaganda. They bombed our pipeline." But hostilities, if there are any, end once the delegates step outside the committee rooms.
Camden said it can be tough to keep her personal views separate from those she holds as a role-playing delegate. "I have to support Saddam Hussein, even though I might not agree with him," she said. And when other delegates cracked a joke about Iraq during one committee session, she said that "as an American kid, I found it funny. But as an Iraqi delegate, it wasn't."
Wiant, who said she got ribbed at a Hardee's restaurant because she was wearing her name tag with "Iraq" on it, said many people are ignorant about the war and have closed minds. She said that after researching her role as a delegate, she has mixed feelings about the fighting and thinks there are more pressing problems to be dealt with here at home.
Alexia Latortue, public relations director for the Model U.N. session, said the staff tries to make the experience as realistic as possible. The Persian Gulf is a hot topic this year, she said, but it's just one of several the 2,800 student delegates are tackling at the conference, which ends today.
Delegates have come from about 150 schools nationwide, including about 30 in the Washington area. Concern over possible terrorism caused a few schools to cancel, Latortue said, and security at the hotel is tighter than in previous years.
Because George Mason, like many area schools, has canceled field trips into the District while terrorism remains a concern, parents had to sign a consent form to allow their children to attend the Model U.N.
Most parents took it in stride. Singletary said her mother seemed worried, but "my dad said Saddam Hussein would be cutting his own throat to bomb a bunch of high school kids in D.C."