Make new friends

I made friends with some people this summer I don’t want to forget.

Every summer Montana State University hosts a group of students (ages 20-24) from the Middle East and North Africa in a six-week U.S. State Department program called the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI).   It’s a highly competitive program, and the young people accepted into it are extraordinary future leaders of their diverse countries. Part of their leadership development in this program includes meeting people in the local community, which is how I gained access to the group. Six weeks later, I remember several with whom I had significant conversations.

  • H., a young man from Morocco who is studying business marketing, who wants to benefit communities as much as the companies for which he will work. His smiles, laughter, and adept English defied the stereotype of the angry young Muslim man.
  • L., an Arab Christian young woman from Israel, who immediately hugged me when she learned I was a pastor. “You are the first woman pastor I have ever met!”
  • J., a young woman who consistently introduced her national origin as “Kurdistan,” followed by the explanation that she lives within the borders of Iraq. Yes, she responded with smiling eyes, she hopes for the day when Kurdistan will be its own nation.
  • W., from Libya, who passionately told me that radical Islamists are being recruited from those Middle East and North African countries which have strayed from Islamic tradition, and not from Libya. In her country, she explained, people understand that violence is not true Islam.

Each summer’s MEPI group represents the diversity of the region. They are equal numbers of men and women. The twenty students come from 12-15 different nations, and from varied ethnic groups within those nations. They are Muslims, Christians, Jews, and secularists. Their interests and fields of study are as diverse as a similar number of American students’ would be. Some dress in whatever style of jeans is popular that year; others wear traditional clothing. They form a community of future leaders, who will make change happen in their countries and regionally. Every summer, they give me hope.

It would be interesting to see the State Department’s budget, to see how much is devoted to programs such as these. My guess is that, as a percentage, it is tiny. One might also compare this program’s budget to the money spent each year by the Department of Defense to develop weapons systems, or to train our young people in the skills of warmaking. Imagine what the world would look like if we shifted our priorities. We could invest in young people from many different places in the world, with the goal of helping them gain a global perspective and encouraging networks of leaders who are friends despite differences. This is not an idealistic dream, it is a proven and successful model.

Imagine what a difference friendship can make.

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