You recently concluded another session of the Algerian Youth Leadership Program. How would you rate the individual session, as well as how far the program has come, now in its 11th year?
This was the first time since I’ve been here that we worked [together] with American kids, and I think that that added a lot to the program. I mean … the overarching goal is for different cultures to meet and to be able to break down stereotypes. And I think that really goes a lot better when there’s American youth. So, in that regard, I think the program went really well this year. And in terms of us being in our 11th year, we’ve learned so much more about the culture … understanding the country a lot better, the intricacies of it. … It’s gotten better every year, and I think we’re able to serve the kids more every year as we understand their context better.
In terms of the bigger goals of trying to foster better relationships between countries—how impactful do you think this program has been toward that?
The more Americans come in contact with the kids, the better. So, for this year, having American participants and American host families … there was more exposure to Americans. So, this year, I feel that it was particularly effective. Over the last decade, I would say that the Algerian people, through dissemination do have a much better idea of the U.S. and its culture. Unfortunately, the duration of the program means that they don’t get full exposure to American culture, obviously. The thing that is [often] said is ‘they’re just teenagers.’ I think that surprises people. They think that there’s going to be a different ideology or they are going to be very fundamentalist [but] no matter their degree of religious beliefs, they’re all just teenagers and that comes through no matter what.
Spending a lot of time with teenagers can be an emotional roller coaster. What was your favorite moment, and on the flip side, your most awkward moment?
I don’t know that there was anything awkward this year. … But you did say my favorite moment. … I definitely have that. So, one of the participants … her glasses were destroyed, and I had to take her to an optometrist. … She was, first of all, very surprised at the, I guess, the quality and quantity of testing mechanisms that we have in the U.S. So, she went through the whole eye exam, which the optometrist did for free because we had called and explained the situation. When she got her glasses, she put them on and just started sobbing because she had never seen before, that well. … So, she put these glasses on and just was overwhelmed … like, “Oh, my gosh, is this what the world looks like? Is this what you guys see all the time?” And she had just never seen … leaves on trees and the nuance in the clouds. So, that afternoon, driving her around and her noticing these things that she never even knew looked like that or possibly even existed, was insane. That was definitely the coolest experience, I think that I’ve had, in all the four years I’ve done it. And just the kindness of the doctor as well.
So, do you think this cultural exchange model can work with places where the U.S. has more tense relationships?
Absolutely, yeah. And we do have an Iraqi youth program. [NNIC] doesn’t run it but the United States. There is an Iraqi youth program, a Russian youth program. I have heard about Palestinian and Israeli youth programs.