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Overcoming prejudice in Iraq

F.E. Warren AFB, Wyo. -- When I deployed to Baghdad in the spring of 2004, I had negative feelings against Arabs in general.

I had never really known any Arab individuals back in the United States, and I blamed them for the 9/11 attacks.

Having grown up as an enlisted man's kid on Marine Corp posts with children of many different backgrounds, I never thought of myself as a prejudiced person.

I was fortunate to be placed in a job in Iraq that would allow me to spend time with many ordinary Arabs and change my perceptions of them.

I deployed to Iraq as a member of the Army's Program Management Office, or PMO. Our organization was in charge of hundreds of reconstruction projects across the country. My staff and I were in charge of facilities, office space, vehicles and billeting for more than 600 PMO personnel. Unlike many PMO and Coalition Provisional Authority personnel, my job required me to travel daily throughout the Green Zone in central Baghdad, interacting with many ordinary Iraqis on the streets and Iraqi workers at our PMO construction sites. I especially enjoyed speaking with the local Iraqi children, selling candy and souvenirs on Haifa Street. They reminded me of children back home in America.

My largest project was overseeing the refurbishment of a looted seven-story office building to be jointly occupied by the PMO and the new Iraqi Ministry of Planning. At one time, we had more than 500 workers restoring our building and related facilities. The building contractor had hired a caretaker, Nabil, to live at the construction site and look after the site after hours. Nabil made me feel welcome, and we became friends. We communicated through pantomime, my limited Arabic and his limited English. I become a fan of Iraqi tea prepared over the campfire and hummus on flatbread. Nabil and his co-workers were for the most part regular guys grateful to have jobs to provide for their families.

One of the construction workers at my job site, a painter, especially stands out in my mind. When I first met him, he rushed up to me and shook my hand, exclaiming "I love America! America is a tiger!" He showed me burn marks up and down both arms and explained how he had been tortured under Saddam Hussein's rule. I hadn't thought I would be willing to sacrifice my life for an Arab. The painter changed my mind.

I was alone at the construction site many times with hundreds of Arabs. I was never threatened or made to feel unwelcome. I am no longer prejudiced against Arabs. I hope to return to Baghdad some day when Iraq is at peace and experience more Arab culture and perhaps track down my friends. Aash al-Iraq! (Long live Iraq).