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Sunday, January 23, 2022

Iraqi students stop in Gainesville during trip to U.S.

It was more than an overseas field trip.

It was a chance for 25 visitors from a war-torn country to break down stereotypes and build life-changing relationships.

A group of Iraqi students spent the last two weeks in Gainesville as part of their month-long trip to the U.S.

The Gainesville chapter of Sister Cities International, a nonprofit organization that establishes partnerships between U.S. and international cities, planned the trip.

Gainesville has been a sister city to Duhok, Iraq, for about two years.

The high school students, aged 17 and 18, came from various Iraqi cities.

"It was a real mix or snapshot of the Iraqi country," said Patrick Madden, president and CEO of Sister Cities International.

Gainesville is among nine U.S. cities with Iraqi sister cities.

"This whole program is about exposing the students to American life and culture," Madden said.

Steve Kalishman, president of the Sister City Program of Gainesville, said the goal was to have the young men and women experience Gainesville as typical American teenagers.

During their travels in the U.S., the students stayed in hotels while visiting Kansas City, Mo., and will do the same in Virginia and Washington, D.C., this week.

However, they stayed with host families in Gainesville, an experience Kalishman described as "the heart of the program."

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UF medical student Avan Armaghani, 21, is a member of a host family that took in three Iraqi students.

Armaghani's family is originally from Iraq, and she visited the country in 2005 and 2006.

"It was really special to be able to have these kids here because we share this common bond," Armaghani said.

As a host, she spent time with the students and drove them to their scheduled Gainesville activities, which included visiting the Hippodrome Theatre, Lake Wauburg and City Hall.

"I kind of served as the soccer mom for the time being," Armaghani said.

The students had never been to a movie theater, so they went to see "Mamma Mia."

The students really valued outings that Americans often take for granted, Armaghani said.

She said she enjoyed the students' observations, such as their interest in bike lanes and merchandise receipts at stores.

Madden said he believes the students changed their opinions of Americans, who some felt would be standoffish.

While flying to their first destination, Kansas City, Mo., to attend a youth conference, the students said they were surprised when Americans talked to them.

When the program mixed American and Iraqi students together, they talked about the same things: their school curriculum, what's on TV and what's on their iPods, Madden said.

"We have a lot more in common than we have different," he said.

Madden said he hopes the students realized that too.

"It opens their eyes to other cultures and people," he said. "They take that with them through life."

Besides sharing light-hearted moments, Kalishman said the Iraqi students also shared "horror stories" of growing up in Iraq.

He said some students have witnessed terrible displays in the streets back in Iraq, such as beheaded, bullet-riddled bodies in the streets, car bombings, and people being rounded up, tied together and burned to death.

Most of them have lost at least one family member or friend; many have lost more.

"It's just been horrific for kids to have to grow up like that," Kalishman said. "The fact that they came here and seem well-adjusted and fine is just amazing to me."

A high level of security surrounded the Iraqi students while they visited Gainesville.

No one involved with the program was allowed to reveal where the students live in Iraq, their names, ages or physical descriptions.

Some people in Iraq might attack the students and their families if they knew they were associating with Americans, Madden said.

"We're trying to protect their identities and their images in a world where everyone has a camera and everything can be put on the Internet and disseminated very easily," Kalishman said.

Kalishman said the fact that Iraqi students visited would have been a big deal if word got out.

"This would have been national news if we had the opportunity to promote it," he said.

Despite increased security measures in Iraq, Kalishman said he wants to help plan a trip to Duhok, Iraq, for Gainesville residents next summer.

SFC students, UF students and host families have expressed interest in traveling overseas and visiting the students they now call friends.

"I would be more than willing to go because these kids are really amazing kids," Armaghani said. "They're very inspiring, and I would absolutely love to see them again and be able to see how they live."

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