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Program Connects US School Students With Muslim Counterparts Abroad - 2002-03-19

A digital pen pal program launched after the September 11 attacks is connecting U.S. school children in New York and Washington with their counterparts in predominantly Muslim countries.

Instead of writing a letter, licking a stamp and placing it on an airmail envelope, these 10 and 11-year-olds are corresponding over the Internet. It is as much a computer course as a pen pal program. About 20 elementary school students are learning how to craft web sites to trade information with their counterparts in Cairo.

"After we're done with this, the idea is that our Egyptian friends are going to know a lot more about us, each of us," a teacher says.

The students attend Mott Hall, a special New York City public school where everyone is given a computer. They are enthusiastic about communicating with children from a different culture in a far off country. One student, named Brandon, says he has learned about some Muslim traditions, such as the holy month of Ramadan. But he is eager to find out more about daily life in Cairo.

"I want to know about the different kinds of celebrations and all about their life every day life. What do they do when they come home? Hobbies, favorite television shows, regular kid things, what games they like," he says.

For many educators, the need to promote cultural understanding and break stereotypes seems crucial after Islamic extremists of the al-Qaeda terrorist network killed more than 2,800 people in the September 11 attacks. Scores of teachers from across the globe want to help build a more peaceful world. So a new consortium of U.S. governmental and non-governmental groups, known collectively as "Friendship Through Education", was created. Organizer Elisabeth Luu says its web sites can reach students in nearly 100 countries.

"The idea is to encourage children around the world to reach out to one another, to learn about each other. And to increase understanding and friendship to deter future conflicts," she says.

The organizers also try to link U.S. students with children in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Afghan refugee camps, Turkey, Bahrain and Indonesia. Collaborative projects and artwork created on the internet help youngsters, who do not speak English, overcome the language barrier.

But many of the pen pals in Cairo speak English. And as children, they share common interests and have plenty to talk about.

JENELLE: "I told them about my school life and how I like my classes. And I also told them about my brothers and sisters and I kind of gave them my background - I'm a Jamaican, my family and me are Jamaican. And I told them about some foods and I'm going to give them recipes. It's cool."

ZARAIDA: "So, he was asking, how's New York, do you live in houses? And I say there are mostly apartment buildings. He told me he lives in a house and many of his friends live in apartment buildings, like we do."

Zaraida says she learned from her pen pal, Amad, that like Americans, Egyptians have been the victims of terrorism in their own country.

And although Edgar was most animated discussing the differences and similarities between the school systems in New York and Cairo, his conversation with his pen pal, Karim touched on September 11.

"He told me some things about how on September 11, that it wasn't Arabs' fault. It was only Osama bin Laden's people," Edgar says.

The words of Mott Hall student Brandon reveal that the long term goals of the program are not lost on the youngsters.

"I think it's a great opportunity to learn about other people's lives because then, if we learn more, we can broaden our horizons for better things in the future," he says.

Brandon believes adults can learn from the children in New York and Cairo, saying that it is time for them to build bridges too.