Student delves into Iraqi culture at English language institute

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Rafael Prado, a Penn State senior majoring in education and public policy, had always been intrigued by the Middle East — and his curiosity was spurred even further by the political and cultural turmoil following the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

“I’d always been interested in Middle East relations,” he said. “While growing up, 9/11 had always been this aura that I couldn’t make sense of and I felt like I needed to unravel that mystery.”

Rafael Prado, left, a senior majoring in education and public policy, is shown with Amar, an Iraqi Elementary English teacher and a participant in the American-Iraqi English for Reconciliation program. Credit: Photo ProvidedAll Rights Reserved.

With the help of a Penn State professor with ties to the Middle East, Prado found his way to Iraq last summer as a participant of American-Iraqi English for Reconciliation (AIER), an institute that promotes mutual understanding and respect between the U.S. and Iraq by providing the opportunity to ordinary Americans to live in Iraq for 30 days and converse with Iraqis. In addition to teaching conversational English to Iraqis of all ages, Prado launched the first-ever website for the institute during his stay.

Prado, who is from Modesto, California, said that Penn State has provided him with “opportunities to engage in impactful civic practice and to see the world” that will help him excel in his career.

In addition to his experience with AIER, Prado took part in the College of Education’s D.C. Social Justice Fellowship as a sophomore.  

“Especially as one who studies education policy, it was an opportunity to combine the philosophies and theories we learn on campus with direct in-classroom practice, as well as to network and sit with policymakers, nonprofit leaders and teachers from the D.C. area,” he said.

A major benefit of the fellowship, Prado said, was having the opportunity to critique his own teaching style by being engaged with teaching and research simultaneously.

Rather than restricting himself to “highly bureaucratic spaces,” said Prado, he got the best of both worlds during his fellowship by immersing himself in a classroom experience, since he said he feels that “academia fails without practice.”

Part of Prado’s motivation for pursuing AIER, he said, was to gain experience teaching English to students whose primary language is not Spanish. He said that, as the U.S. continues to diversify due to immigration and globalization, there will be an increasing “need to think outside of the English-Spanish language box.”

“Knowing that I hoped to one day influence education policy to many types of students was kind of my motivation to get to know English-language learners who weren’t coming from a Spanish-language background,” he added.

American-Iraqi English for Reconciliation was developed by the Muslim Peacemaker Teams (MPT) as an opportunity for Americans to visit Iraq. According to MPT’s website, the idea for a Muslim Peacemaker Team developed in January of 2005 in the spirit of the Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) that work in Iraq. CPT, founded in 1984, is a nonprofit organization based in Chicago and Toronto that supports communities struggling with violence. The mission of MPT, directed by Sami Rasouli, is to unite all Iraqi groups in peace while teaching the people to be self-sufficient.

Prado said he was able to connect with Rasouli and his team through the connections that Penn State has with the organization. Prado first learned about AIER through Sam Richards, teaching professor of sociology, who teaches Soc 119, Race and Ethnic Relations. Richards also is development director of World in Conversation, a student-driven Center for Public Diplomacy housed in the College of the Liberal Arts. The center trains undergraduate students from all colleges to become skilled in navigating cross-cultural exchanges while working in small groups.

In addition, Richards has spent time in Iraq and is friends with Rasouli, and he told Prado about the exchange program he was running with Americans. Richards made the idea seem “very safe, very doable,” Prado said, so he reached out to Rasouli and eventually got accepted into the AIER program.

The most valuable part of his monthlong stay in Iraq, Prado said, was dispelling some of the misconceptions in his own mind about the country by gaining firsthand experience with the culture. Prior to his journey, the only sources of information he had about the Middle East were films, older peers and news reports.

Upon arriving in Iraq, Prado was given the opportunity to converse with Iraqis through the AIER’s language classes. The institute has six different classes from beginner to advanced; students in the advanced classes include teachers, doctors and university students.

“That’s where the deep discussion piece came through where we got to ask these philosophical or political questions … really get to know each other on a personal and cultural level.”

Rafael Prado, top right, enjoys a meal with Sami Rasouli, top left, director of the Muslim Peacemakers Team, his two children, Roia and Omar, and Abu Malak, a family friend. Credit: Photo ProvidedAll Rights Reserved.

A major discrepancy that Prado said he discovered between Americans and Iraqis lies in how closely each group identifies their counterpart with their respective government. Iraqi people “do not feel represented by their government,” he said, and therefore do not view the American people and U.S. government as one and the same. On the other hand, he said, Americans tend to “view Iraqis as the Iraqi government.”

“Upon my return I gained confidence to speak about the realities of many Iraqis,” Prado said. “I can now empathize more than ever with Iraqis and understand how the country I am represented by has affected their lives.”

One of the most striking things that Prado noticed about Iraq, he said, is the overall decline in the standard of living since the Iraq War. He added that the Iraqis’ feelings about their situation are prevalent in the demonstrations and uprisings across the country.

“While the actions of our government dishearten many Iraqis, they maintain joy in connecting with Americans,” Prado said. “There were never moments of indignation or grudge against me being an American, even with elders, and that was quite powerful.”

Combating common misconceptions about Iraq, Prado said, was an impetus for him to launch a website for AIER.

“I felt like a lot of the work they were doing was very important to address to get rid of these discriminatory behaviors and stereotypes," he said.

While Prado admitted that conversation was a challenge during his stay in Iraq, he said he made an earnest effort to integrate into the culture and learn some of the Arabic language. In turn, the Iraqi people were kind and welcoming to him.

“They were very open to me being American and building relationships and getting to know me as well as me getting to know them," said Prado.

As Prado prepares to graduate from Penn State, he said that his experiences in Iraq have reaffirmed his beliefs about the importance of incorporating multicultural views into educational policy — especially considering that the U.S. has “many cultural perspectives compared to monolithic cultures.”

“I did not come back with the magic formula, but I can certainly suggest that the expansion and diversification of leadership within the government and research education community could yield promise,” he said.

After graduation, Prado said he plans on continuing his formal education into “research or advocacy on any front.”

“The field of public service lacks global citizenship and I hope to bring this along with me wherever I go next," he said.

To learn more about American-Iraqi English for Reconciliation, visit online.

Last Updated September 03, 2020