War Kids Relief: Creating Peace by Connecting Kids

Amy Sack, northfield.org intern

In five short months, Pam Middleton and Dina Fesler organized a unique program that allows American and Iraqi children the opportunity to interact with each other through cultural exchange. The War Kids Relief organization aims to help ease the pain of war-torn Iraqi children while at the same time help kids on both sides of the world connect and relate to each other through its Young Ambassadors Program. I caught Middleton and Fesler Monday at the Hideaway and spoke with two Northfield youth in the program about their involvement.

The Beginning

When Fesler heard about the War Kids Relief program, she knew immediately she could not let the fledgling organization go under. Captain Jonathan Powers, an Iraq veteran, originally created the program in 2005 as a way to help Iraqi children deal with the effects of the war by creating youth centers. As the founder and executive director of the Children’s Culture Connection (CCC), a nonprofit that partners with other organizations working to raise cultural awareness and help children worldwide, Fesler was still searching for potential partners when she heard about the organization.

When Fesler found out about the organization, the program was struggling to earn enough financial support despite Powers’ best efforts. While the original program lacked adequate manpower, Fesler said, “the intangibles [were there] of the people that are desperately wanting to support anything positive [in Iraq].” The organization was often searched on Google, and Fesler knew that many people felt frustrated with the situation in Iraq and wanted to help.

As Middleton described it, “the work [done by War Kids Relief] is too important to too many people…not just to the children in Iraq, but to families in this country, veterans in this country, and people in this country who want to be able to help people in Iraq, especially the children.” To keep the name and mission of the War Kids Relief alive, Fesler decided to adopt the program under Children’s Culture Connection.

In keeping with the mission of the CCC to encourage peace building by connecting kids in educational ways, Fesler started out with the idea of a pen pal program when she took over War Kids Relief in July 2008. Connecting kids through a letter exchange would be simple and doable, she thought.

Fesler found an Iraqi organization to partner with War Kids Relief when she visited Iraq in August 2008. After returning home, however, Fesler realized the huge amount of organization and planning the cultural exchange program would take.  In a moment of exasperation, Fesler felt close to giving up when Middleton offered to take over. At the time, Middleton was already working with Fesler on the CCC board as the director of operations.

“It was a moment of insanity,” Middleton joked when I asked her why she decided to take on the position of executive director. While her job does involve a lot of organization—“It’s complicated!” Fesler said of Middleton’s job—Middleton is thrilled to be a part of the program and passionate about its mission.

“I have a strong belief that if we get kids talking to each other and relating with each other the future will be much better,” she said. “War Kids Relief is a peace building mission through building relationships and exposure [to other cultures].”

Visit to Iraq

When Fesler adopted the War Kids Relief program in July 2008, she was excited about the program’s potential to make a difference. Her search efforts to find a partner organization in Iraq, however, were failing. Around the same time, someone made a large donation to War Kids Relief. With the money to fund a trip available, Fesler decided that if she couldn’t find a partner organization from the United States, she would go to Iraq herself.

 “I was sick of the fact that I wanted to make a program work, and I couldn’t get anything to happen,” she said. 

In August, Fesler hopped on a plane and embarked on a nine-day journey to Iraq. Photographer Paul Corbit Brown accompanied her to document the trip. Sandra Hakim, who Fesler met in the spring, also joined them. Fesler says Hakim, a makeup artist who immigrated to the United States from Baghdad at age 13, made the trip happen. Hakim not only provided much-needed contacts in Iraq, she also speaks Arabic and was the translator on their trip. (Hakim now serves as the assistant program director of War Kids Relief.)

During the trip, Fesler was determined not only to find a partner organization, but also to expose herself to as much of the country as possible. “I didn’t want to come home with a tiny perspective,” Fesler said. “We interfaced as many kids as we could because we wanted to fully assess the situation—to really come home and say we’ve seen as much as we can possibly see to tell you what it is like there for the kids.”

By the end of the trip, Fesler found a partner organization: the Darstan Media group. Founded five years earlier by a man named Ayoub Allain, the group shares the same mission of the War Kids Relief, striving to create peace building through letter writing.

Traveling around Iraq wasn’t easy, however, and being stopped at the various police checkpoints were always tense moments. At one checkpoint in Kirkuk, police yanked the group out of the car, grabbed their passports, and started yelling at them. With police and guns surrounding her and no idea what they were saying, Fesler had to stand by and hope things calmed as Hakim talked to the police.

Finally, the guards let them go back to the car. Hakim later explained the guards were angry with the group because they were traveling without enough security. Fesler admits the travel was dangerous, but said, “I have this travel karma fairy that always comes along.”

Once the trio arrived in Suleimaniya (a city in Northern Iraq governed under the autonomous Kurdistan government), and were off the roads, the travel tensions eased. Here, they spent time with kids in schools and community centers. They also visited an Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp where many former Baghdad citizens took shelter. (Fesler explained the IDP camps differ from refugee camps because the residents still live within the boundaries of Iraq.)

The IDP camp they visited had no running water and no amenities, but for the most part the residents were welcoming of the trio. One family even invited the group into the tent they lived in to have lunch. Hakim was weary, but Fesler couldn’t turn the offer down and they joined the family.

While they were eating lunch, a neighbor came in suddenly and started yelling. Soon, the whole household was in a shouting match. As Fesler stood in the midst of the fight, helpless again because of the language barrier, she noticed some kids in the corner watching the opening scene from The Terminator 2. The particular scene playing, Fesler remembers, was from the beginning of the movie when the terminator walks into a bar and starts killing everyone in sight.

Fesler remembers thinking, “This is a surreal moment…all these little kids lined up watching [the TV]…it looked like the most violent America trash.”

The man eventually left, and Hakim later explained to Fesler that he was angry Americans were visiting. He tried to convince the family hosting them to lunch that they were evil Americans who were using the children’s program as a way to trick Iraqis. For Fesler, this was an especially telling moment.

“When you think about it…that’s how these kids are going to grow up, listening to him…everybody is very paranoid [of Americans].”

Note: Pictures and artwork of the children they visited in Iraq are displayed in the Hideaway Café downtown.

Young Ambassadors Program

After both witnessing and hearing about the negative images Iraqi children see about Americans on a daily basis, Fesler knew more than ever how important a cultural exchange program was.

“If we can help kids connect they won’t be listening to that guy. They are going to feel hope,” Fesler thought.

The pen pal exchange program soon morphed into the Young Ambassadors Pilot Program. The program was designed quickly and efficiently by Middleton, who was told by Allain of the Darstan Media group in September that he wanted 500 American students to participate in the program—by October. Knowing this was impossible for a pilot program they were in the beginning stages of organizing, Middleton and Fesler managed to boil that number down to 25 students in each of the three American cities participating in the pilot program—Washington D.C., New York City, and Northfield. (Kids in these three cities correspond with Iraqi children in Baghdad, Kirkuk, and Suleimanya.) They also asked to push back the start date of the Young Ambassadors Program and letter exchange to January.

Middleton and Fesler didn’t just want to have the kids sit down and write letters, however. Equally important was ensuring that the young American ambassadors knew the significance of their roles and were sensitive and knowledgeable about cultural differences. Because of this, the Young Ambassadors Program involves three two-hour long sessions that the kids are required to attend.

The Young Ambassadors Program targets American and Iraqi kids between the ages of 12 and 15. In Iraq, insurgency terrorist groups target kids this age, Fesler explained, because they are impressionable but skilled. The hope is that by teaching both sides how to respect other cultures and discover similarities amongst each other, they will not be brainwashed by hate.

Northfield Involvement

Pam, Ben, Olivia, and Dina.

Fesler and Middleton wanted a diverse group of cities in the Young Ambassadors Pilot Program, and Northfield proved a good fit. Northfield provides a contrast to the other two large cities involved, New York and Washington D.C.

“Northfield represents middle America, and it is such an engaged community…[it’s] very civic minded and really wants to make the world a better place,” Middleton said. Northfield is also convenient: Middleton, a Tennessee native, has resided in Northfield for nine years, and Twin Cities native Fesler lives in nearby Dennison.

To get started, Sarah Swan McDonald, the service learning coordinator and a teacher at Northfield High School, helped recruit kids in Northfield from four different schools: the Northfield Middle School and High School (9th graders only), Art Tech, and home schools. Twenty-six students were accepted ranging from 6th to 9th grade.

Northfield youth want to know what’s happening in Iraq without the media filter, Middleton said.

“With the news you don’t get to know them [Iraqi kids] on a personal level,” said sixth grader Ben Andrew.

“A lot of people think badly about them [Iraqi citizens] because of what we see on TV,” Olivia Paulsen, an 8th grader at Art Tech, told me. She wanted to join the Young Ambassadors program because, she said, “I don’t know anything about Iraq…so I wanted to know a kid’s point of view, because I don’t know how I would feel if people I knew were getting killed.”

First Session

Like all the kids accepted in the Young Ambassadors program, the Northfield youth participate in three sessions geared towards helping them learn about Iraq and teaching tolerance and peace making skills.

Charles London, author of One Day the Soldiers Came: Voices of Children in War and program director of War Kids Relief, designs the lesson packets and instruction guides for the sessions. As someone who has studied how war affects children, London designs the programs with sensitivity and understanding.

The Northfield chapter attended their first session on January 10, where students in the program met fellow ambassadors and started to learn about the culture, religious background, and history of Iraq. Larry Fowler, a retired Rochester high school social studies teacher and St. Olaf education professor, facilitates the sessions.

“There’s no political agenda except for helping people know people and making links [to one another],” Fowler said in a phone interview Monday evening.

The sessions are about “relationship building and educational awareness, learning about diversity and how to get along with one another,” said Middleton.

During the first session, the students also received their first letters from their Iraqi pen pals. The Northfield students correspond with Iraqi children from Suleimanya and Baghdad.

One letter a Northfield student shared with me read: “I am a 14 year old boy. I live in Zayona, Baghdad…I would like to learn about world culture. I like swimming and soccer…my hope is to see things get better in Iraq and other countries. My dream is to be able to help all people in need. My fears are bombings and war. I would like to be successful in my work and help people and see peace around the world.”

Almost all of the letters are translated by Hakim, who is “mindful ways of getting points across,” Middleton said, adding that the aim is not to censor but to ensure that the letters remain culturally sensitive.

Middleton, Fesler and Fowler all hope to see the Young Ambassadors Pilot Program inspire others around the country to do the same.

“[We want to] to provide a template for others to help establish programs [that strive] to establish peace,” Fowler said. “As long as there are going to places in the world with conflict we think, fairly idealistically, that these programs will help work towards a better world.”

Currently, the program is in Phase I: completing the three-month pilot program that involves the three sessions and begins to connect kids in Iraq and America. In the second session, students will continue to learn about Iraq as well as create artwork to send to their pen pals. The goal for the final session is to have the kids tape videos that they will send to their counterparts so they can see who they are corresponding with.

The hope of the War Kids Relief program is that the children currently involved will help spread the word and recruit fellow students to the program by talking to friends and family about what they learned and experienced.

Another hope of War Kids Relief is to organize a young ambassador center in Northfield. The center would serve as a middle ground to connect children and adults in the United States with other areas of the world (through means such as video conferencing) and help people continue to build peaceful relationships.

In a few weeks, War Kids Relief will add another member who will help expand their program. Gunnar Swanson, an Iraqi war vet, will join the team when he moves to Northfield from Key Largo, Florida.

Eventually, the goal of Phase II is to recruit around one thousand student ambassadors (from the cities already participating and surrounding areas) who will continue to open the channels of communication between American and Iraqi kids and kids around the world.

“There are a lot of kids in Iraq who want interaction with Americans as well [as kids here],” Middleton said. She added the adults who are helping translate the letters in Iraq are “thrilled, and saying the kids there are so excited to be making a friend.”

Fesler added, “I think every letter of love and good will can go as far as a toy.”

“My hope is to settle down the current situation in Iraq and the world. When I go to school everyday I am afraid of explosions. I’d like to be successful in helping others [to achieve] peace and faithfulness, love and equality and freedom…”
(letter excerpt from Baghdad boy)

“I am here to be your friend and I hope that my letter will bring you a smile” (letter excerpt from New York boy)

To learn more about the War Kids Relief’s Young Ambassador Program and how you can help, visit the website at: