Thursday, March 31, 2011

Yemen youth eager for closer Western ties

By Matt Duda

March 31, 2011 at midnight

TAIF, Saudi Arabia — Walking the streets of the walled old city of Sanaa, Yemen, can be a time-consuming adventure for a Caucasian American.

An American visitor can’t walk more than a few feet among the stalls displaying jewelry and spices for sale without being accosted by Yemenis calling, “Hello! Welcome to Yemen!”

Even before unrest in the region thrust Yemen into the daily headlines, sporadic activities of the rogue al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) organization reiterated the widespread belief that any Westerner to enter the country would surely succumb to kidnapping or a violent death.

But as I discovered during my year living in Sanaa, the Yemeni people are eager to forge a closer relationship with Western culture. The Yemeni youth, in particular, long for Western assistance in improving their educational opportunities to strengthen their teetering nation.

The present revolution raging in Yemen’s cities has the Obama administration watching nervously, as the days of allied President Ali Abdullah Saleh appear to be rapidly reaching an end after more than 30 years in power. Concerns have arisen that Saleh’s successor could be sympathetic to AQAP’s ideals. However, my firsthand experience living with the Yemeni people leads me to believe this is highly unlikely.

I spent 2009 teaching English for a Washington, D.C.-based nongovernmental organization called Amideast. Amideast, which operates cultural centers throughout the Middle East, administers the Access Microscholarship Program for the U.S. Department of State to provide English language instruction for underprivileged teenagers. At the completion of the program, a select few enjoy the opportunity to study at American high schools and universities.

My young students shared a common, insatiable thirst for knowledge of the language and American culture. They constantly questioned me about life in America; What do Americans do for fun? What do Americans think of Islam? What’s the weather like? I could easily fill an entire class responding to their curiosity about the most benign facets of daily life that Americans take for granted.

But the real proof of the Yemeni teens’ respect for America was delivered to me in the form of an anonymous survey conducted by the Access program. In it, the teens were asked to give their impressions and opinions of America. I expected to read scathing comments about American values in the unsigned pages, the true feelings that my Yemeni students held but which they were too respectful to tell me face to face.

The overwhelmingly positive tone of their remarks stunned me. “Americans are very nice and friendly,” read one. “America does a lot of good for a lot of people in the world,” read another. Literally hundreds of pages expressed the same admiration, while less than a handful disparaged the American government’s unwavering support for Israel.

The pro-American sentiments weren’t limited to the young either. Every time I responded to a cab driver’s inquiry as to my nationality, my “Ana Amreeki” reply was met with a thumbs-up and a “Amreeka kwayis” – “America is great” – gushed while munching on a mouthful of qat, the addictive, mildly narcotic plant chewed daily by 70 percent of adults.

Yemeni strangers would buy me tea at one of the many local cafes. They invited me off the street and into their homes to feed me a feast of traditional dishes. One young girl in Aden insisted on paying my 20 riyal bus fare. Their overwhelming generosity was constant, and not once did I ever fear for my safety.

Last year, America contributed $155 million in military aid to Saleh’s regime in order to counter AQAP, an exorbitant sum considering the State Department estimates the terrorist organization’s enrollment to number fewer than 1,000 members. Meanwhile, the remainder of Yemen’s nearly 24 million population continues to subsist on less than $5 a day.

America is presented with the opportunity to attain a key ally in the Yemeni people, whose numbers are anticipated to double within a few decades. By satisfying the Yemeni youth’s thirst for quality education and helping to provide solutions to the country’s poverty and dwindling supply of potable water, America can strengthen its image as a friend to the world’s needy and diminish the negative stereotype of an oil-hungry, imperialist enemy of Islam.

Source: Sign On San Diego

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