A July 31 Metro article about Iraqi teenagers attending a youth leadership conference quoted a participant talking about an exchange he said he had with an official of Halliburton Co. Officials of the Hugh O'Brian Youth Leadership organization, which sponsored the conference, attended the meeting and say Halliburton officials did not make the comments attributed to them by the teenager. (Published 8/4/04)
They had come to Washington from all corners, these teenage "ambassadors" in matching T-shirts who were storming the microphones at the panel discussions, eager to challenge the policy wonks and politicians with their suggestions for a better world.
There was Brooks from New York, who wanted to know if anyone had considered planting genetically modified crops in drought-plagued nations. Sabrina, "from the best state of Texas," with serious concerns about welfare fraud.
And then there was the clean-cut student who stood up to ask the man from Halliburton Co. why the United States had cast so many former Iraqi soldiers into unemployment. "I said, 'It's the army of Iraq, not the army of Saddam,' " the teenager said later. "He said, 'They might have blood on their hands.' "
But thanks for your question anyway, Ahmed from Iraq.
For 36 years, the nonprofit Hugh O'Brian Youth Leadership organization has sponsored these annual conferences -- known as the World Leadership Congress -- with the mission of channeling the unblemished idealistic energy of go-getter high school sophomores. Every year, the 400-some teenagers chosen from schools across the United States and a few dozen other nations bunk in a college dorm and attend a week's worth of seminars, motivational speeches and "We Are the World" singalongs.
This year, though, for the first time, they included five students from Iraq. Not surprisingly, some of the most interesting lessons were happening outside the seminars.
"These guys walk up to me and they say, 'Do you hate us?' " said Zahra'a Khalil Muhssin, 16, a dark-eyed girl from Baghdad with red-framed glasses. "They think we hate them."
Ghazwan Majid, a tall, mustachioed 17-year-old from Baghdad, affected a convincing American surfer's drawl to imitate the question he kept getting: "Heyyy, what's goin' on there in Iraq?"
"When they watch the media, they think it's only bombs," said Diana Rudha, 16. "They are surprised when I tell them there's progress."
Just over a year ago, the teenagers spent a month of sleepless nights as missile shells exploded near their homes during the war in Iraq. Since then, they have endured fears of bombings and kidnappings and the other signs of an unstable nation. Most have lost friends or relatives to the violence -- including a government official who had helped coordinate their trip.
Yet they are also enjoying the vigorous debate newly allowed in classrooms that no longer have Saddam Hussein's visage staring down from the walls or up from the pages of every textbook. And this week -- thanks to a donation from Halliburton, the controversial contractor involved in the rebuilding of Iraq -- they were able to enjoy the American traditions of overachieving teens: late-night rap sessions and question-and-answer panels, talent shows and group cheers.
Not to mention all the hugging. In the lobby of the student center at George Washington University one night, an ambassador in a cowgirl hat suddenly screamed "Ghazwan!" and just threw her arms around Majid, who gamely reciprocated before she skipped away.
"I've learned so much about the life of the teenagers in America!" Muhssin marveled a few minutes later. In Iraq, explained Ahmed Alrawi, 17, "you cannot hug a girl."
The week's larger purpose was somewhat more serious. There were the panels on religious tolerance and world health, the trips to museums, the rallying cries from motivational speakers.
"It's changed my opinions about so many things," Majid said over a pizza dinner at Pentagon City's mall toward the end of the week. "We need to think about our prospective futures. I think Iraq needs us. If you work honestly, that will improve things in your country."
It is exactly the kind of idealism that the organization's leader said he always hoped to inspire. Hugh O'Brian, the star of television's "The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp," started his first youth seminars at the height of his Hollywood fame in 1958; today, at 79, he remains an active, daily presence at the annual gatherings.
He had brought the Iraqis here to serve a larger purpose than their own self-improvement. "It's not just what the Iraqi students get out of this," he said. "It's what every other student gets out of this."
And, in fact, American students said they found their Iraqi counterparts to be a highlight of the week.
"It's so cool," declared Carrie Shoultz, 16, of Eagan, Minn., as she lingered around the Iraqis' dinner table. "I oppose the war, but I thought it would be good to get it from the horse's mouth."
And what had she found? Majid asked wryly.
"That [the Iraqis] were pretty split," Shoultz said. "I thought they didn't like us [Americans] -- I wanted to hear that they didn't like us. But then you got Ali here . . . who supports Bush!"
With that, 15-year-old Ali Abood pumped a triumphant fist. Just a few nights before, he and Majid had enjoyed a brisk debate about U.S. involvement in Iraq -- Majid condemning the security shortfalls that had enabled countless terrorist bombings, Abood arguing that many more Iraqis had died under Saddam.
Yet it was a more quiet Abood this day. He had enjoyed every minute of his time in the United States, but that morning had brought bad news: 70 dead in a suicide bombing in Baqubah, his home town. He had tried to call his parents but could not get through.
In two more days he would go home. But he was already looking ahead, infected with the youth leadership bug and all the small-world spirit of the past week.
"I have a plan with a girl named Emily," Abood said.
They would stay in touch, he said, creating their own bridge between Iraq and the United States. And together, they would embark on some kind of project, exactly what they didn't know, but something that would help young Iraqis -- something that would make a difference.