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Saturday, August 13, 2005

The Godfather

Shortly after 9/11 I teamed up with Mohamed on something we called "Project Understanding." It was an effort to allow high school students in the heartland to meet an Arab Muslim. We hooked up with schools for a live two way teleconference. The goal was to get beyond the images of 9/11. I'd like to think we made some kind of difference in the wave of hate.

The students wanted to know what life was like for a teenager in Mo's native Egypt. They had questions about the Muslim faith and how it matched up with the violence of 9/11.

Mo is my best friend and we've gone through a lot since September 11th of 2001. He became the godfather of my newborn son. He has became an American citizen and he's been back and forth to Egypt twice trying to keep his family together with the backdrop of anger focused at Arab people in this country.

Despite it all Mohamed may be this country's most outspoken supporter. Teaching at Misr International University in Egypt his students call him American Mo. He's a representative of the real American Dream. He worked three and sometimes four jobs when he came to this country supporting his wife and three children. When I asked him about how hard he worked he would say, "In this country you can build a life and have a dream; it's not that easy where I come from."

Without knowing that Mohamed is an Arab Muslim, if you would judge Mo simply by how he treats others, the bond of his word and the way he talks about this country, you would want him as your friend, your brother and co-worker. For those who claim to be "Christians" and "Patriots", no one I've ever met keeps the faith and lives the spirit of this country as fully as this man.

There are 580,000 foreign students studying at American universities. Applications are down 28 percent in the past year alone. This is just the latest number in a trend that started after 9/11. Despite senate hearings earlier this year and a U.S. State Department PR campaign, some of the best and brightest foreign students are staying home or going to countries that have a more open policy.

Earlier this year, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Richard Lugar, admitted "many foreign students still view the United States as an inhospitable place to study, despite recent improvements in granting student visas."

Even the most mossback reactionaries who wrap the Amercan Flag and Bible around their actions are getting this one. We need foreign students. US Education is a big export, 13 billion dollars a year. In the Washington D.C. area alone according to the Institute for Education, foreign students spend $230 million dollars a year on everything from rent to pizza. Mo believes one of his students, as a foreign exchange student, would be more effective in promoting U.S. policy in the Middle East than 100 tanks.

Businesses, particularly Silicon Valley technology companies, rely on foreign students educated at U.S. universities in math, science and engineering; fields that haven't attracted enough U.S. students to meet demand.

In the flat world that Thomas Friedman describes in his latest book about the world economy, the United States needs every resource we can tap to stay competitive. The UC Berkley Director of Services of International Students and Scholars, Ivor Emmanuel puts it this way, "the visa issue has improved considerably over the past six months." Nevertheless three years of delays and uncertainty have "created a perception that the U.S. is unwelcoming."

Recruiting foreign students is going to be tougher as other countries improve their own education system. Look at what India and China are doing in the education of engineers and scientists.

My friend Mo has a plan for his adopted country. He wants to build an exchange program for his students in Egypt. He wants them to see what he has seen and share his dream. It would be a remarkable achievement if we all understood what Mo sees.