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Iraqi University Students Learn Democracy

By Kathleen T. Rhem
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Sept. 23, 2004 – Scott Erwin went to Iraq a year ago to do paperwork in preparation for a major donor's conference, but soon realized Iraq was full of opportunities to help change people's lives.

The 22-year-old Erwin soon volunteered for a job that would take him outside the heavily fortified Green Zone, which houses Iraqi government buildings and the U.S. Embassy. His new job with the Ministry of Interior "allowed me to go into the city every day and interact with my Iraqi colleagues," he said.

He was particularly impressed with Iraqi policemen, "who showed their bravery by returning to their posts no matter what had happened the day before, whether their comrades had died or whether their police station had been blown up."

But, he said, working with local university students led to what he called his most rewarding experience in Baghdad. Erwin began a program called Ambassadors of Democracy, a program to introduce students to the basic tenets of democracy, at Baghdad's Mustanseriya University.

"I entered not knowing what to expect," he said of the Ambassadors of Democracy program. "What I found was these students had an amazing vision and an amazing understanding of what democracy was and where it could take them in their country."

Erwin explained that Iraqis understood concepts such as democracy and freedom of speech; they had just never been exposed to such lofty ideals.

But they quickly internalized the concepts, Erwin said. He noted that at the beginning of the program, students often couldn't explain what democracy meant to them. "They were speechless," he said.

Ten or 15 sessions of the program later, the students had a lot more to say. "They each spoke (about democracy) for five to 10 minutes," Erwin said, with obvious pride.

Erwin's work with the Ambassadors of Democracy program led to his being severely injured in an ambush June 2. He was shot four times during an attack that killed two Iraqi police officers escorting him back to the Green Zone from the university.

An Iraqi translator pulled him from the car and shielded him from small-arms fire until other Iraqi policemen could fend off the attackers. Even though it was Iraqis who attacked and shot him, Erwin said it's important to keep in mind that it was Iraqis that saved his life. "I would like to go back if given the opportunity and then try to stay as involved as possible," he said.

Erwin said a "sense of service" to his country -- instilled by a grandfather who he described as "a proud Marine who flew 64 missions in World War II and Korea" led him to Iraq as a way to do something for his country. But, he said, he ended up changed by the experience.

"You go over with a sense of service to your own country, but then you emerge and you try to give that same sense of service to the Iraqi people as well," he said. "Both of those then drive you to work and to continue and to have you stay and endure some of the conditions that we did."

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