Semester courses started Wednesday, Feb. 3, but on Thursday and Friday both Sulaiman Nasseri ’12 and Khaled Wardak ’13 skipped classes.
They were not skiing.
The Afghan students spent both days with about 20 senior leaders of the Maine National Guard’s 1136th Transportation Company who deploy to Kabul in mid-March. Along with four other students from Afghanistan (including Qiamuddin Amiry ’09, now in a master’s program at Tufts University) and John Campbell ’09, the pair traveled to Bangor and spent more than six hours in intensive activities to help orient the Maine soldiers to the culture, customs, and religious foundations of Afghan society.
Participants on both sides were buzzing with enthusiasm afterward. “This will help them avoid some misunderstandings [and] save some American and Afghan lives,” Nasseri asserted.
“It was awesome,” said Wardak. “Both sides learned about each other a lot.” ... “Some cultural sensitivities can bring a major change,” he said.
Maj. Darryl Lyon of the U.S. Army and Maine National Guard, a veteran of Iraq who helped organize the training, agreed. “You’ve got to take the time to really understand the culture,” he said. “The more we talked, the more we found commonalities rather than finding differences.”
The sessions involved role playing, eating together, learning communication techniques, even an introduction to the Koran. “It is unheard of for a National Guard unit to get this kind of training,” Lyon said.
Lyon said he learned the importance of cross-cultural understanding in Iraq. In 2006 he was invited by an Iraqi commander to share the feast of Ramadan in Numaniyah. He wasn’t very late, he said, but he was not present at sundown. Arriving with his men, he found the door closed and locked, and they weren’t allowed in until the hosts had finished eating. Awkward doesn’t begin to describe the situation, he said.
Walter Corey and Dick Romeo, Portland attorneys who work with the Maine Leadership Institute and who have developed intercultural training models for uniting Arab and Israeli as well as Indian and Pakistani students at the Seeds of Peace camp in Otisfield, Maine, helped recruit the Afghan contingent and organize the curriculum for the training. They both served as facilitators, and they used their trademarked Neuroplays to simulate cultural conflicts, Corey said.
After a huddle in Portland with the Afghan students, the training began Thursday evening in Bangor with an elaborate Afghan-style dinner catered by a Pakistani restaurant (an establishment that had been targeted by anti-Islamic vandals after 9/11, Lyon noted). The meal was designed to simulate a formal dinner. When Corey asked if the soldiers knew how to act at an Afghan wedding feast, the reply he got was, “Walter, my guys don’t know how to behave at an American wedding reception,” he said.
That type of humor went a long way to keep the training session on track. One exercise asked the Afghan and American sides to list stereotypes of one another, no matter how unflattering. American soldiers heard they are perceived as ignorant and arrogant, while the Afghans were told they are often seen by Americans as turban-wearing, Arabic-speaking terrorists, Nasseri and Wardak said.
Facilitator Corey said soldiers learned about the role of religion, the taboos against touching women or entering their homes when a man isn’t present, the Pashtun code of honor, the importance of revenge when an Afghan man loses face. “Most of our guys have no sense of it,” he said.
Corey, who has worked with Princeton psychologists and others to develop the Neuroplays and curriculum, had nothing but praise for the Afghan students. “It takes a lot of courage for these guys to stand up,” he said, particularly when many of their countrymen believe stereotypes of Americans and would refuse to aid the U.S. armed forces.
Of Nasseri, Wardak, Amiry, Campbell and others, he said, “They have the capacity, which is very rare, to see the world through other people’s eyes. To me that’s critical.”
Nasseri, Wardak, and Amiry are graduates of United World College and came to Colby after two years in highly international schools that stress intercultural understanding. At Colby, Nasseri and Wardak said, they’ve been a little disappointed by the reticence of other students to engage and question them about their country and their beliefs, blaming that hesitance on a code of political correctness gone too far.
But organizers of the training in Bangor said they found the students ideally suited to the mission, describing them as open, creative, empathetic, and adept at improvisation, which made the role-playing a highlight.
Part of the value they brought, Wardak said, was that all of the students have very recent experience on the ground in Afghanistan, some as recently as January. They can characterize the “word on the streets” better than many expatriate Afghans who have lost that close connection to the country, he said.
Army National Guard Lt. Col. James D. Campbell ’86, the first Army ROTC graduate in Colby’s history (Colby had an Air Force ROTC program for many years), helped set up the training and called it “a good start” and “a beta test.”
“For what we did, it was spectacular,” he said, stressing that the cultural training is vital and needs to be expanded. “It’s invaluable,” the Afghanistan veteran said. “The average American is not going to have even the slightest concept of Afghanistan or the Afghan people and who they are and what their experience as been.” Campbell, who earned a Ph.D. in history, said that when he landed at Bagram Air Base in 2005, his driver greeted him with this: “Welcome to Afghanistan, sir. This is the Middle Ages with guns.”
Campbell said understanding the culture and people is “absolutely essential for us to succeed. ... And I see success as us being able to leave Afghanistan.”
Wardak, in a separate interview, said what is lacking now in Afghanistan is trust between Afghans and U.S. soldiers. “You can’t win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people,” Wardak said, “if you don’t have respect—if you don’t understand and respect the culture.”
Hear Sulaiman Nasseri and others discuss the training in a Feb. 26, 2010, Maine Public Radio broadcast.