My fellow Veterans told me I was crazy to go back. My fellow teaching artist and I were the only Americans who boarded the bus that would take us from the Erbil International Airport to the parking lot to meet our contact. I was a bit anxious given my history in the country and the situation. A family of four boarded the bus, and the young mother looked at me the same way the young mother in Fallujah did, before we searched her husband and their car for weapons. Unlike Fallujah, however, when I helped her lift her fallen suitcase, she smiled at me.

From April 1-7, I, along with Battery Dance Company Artist and Teaching Artist Robin Cantrell, conducted a Dancing to Connect workshop in Erbil, Iraq. Facilitated by the US Consulates in Erbil and Kirkuk, we were on a mission of Cultural Diplomacy using the art of choreography and dance. Attended by two teaching artist trainees and 30 students from the Performing Arts Institutes in Erbil and Kirkuk, Iraq, the four-day intensive program challenged the teaching artists and students to construct a dance-piece for a final performance that communicated themes that were important to them.

The students ranged in age from 17-21. Most of them could be labeled as MAM’s, or Military Aged Males. The first day, a few of their faces held the stern looks that resembled the pictures on the intelligence bulletins we posted in our COC in Fallujah. As we delved into the curriculum, and started moving, talking, and creating, we were surprised. The students were dedicated, hard-working, creative, and kind. They rose to the challenge and created a dance work that talked about their life, hopes, fears, dreams, obstacles, and the desire for a better Iraq.

Working with the students, they taught us just as much as we taught them. I wanted to bring them hope, instead we discovered hope. I wanted to bring them understanding, instead we developed mutual understanding. They have taught me some Kurdish and Arabic. My favorite word has to be hewa, hope. It is halou or jwuan, beautiful.

The final performance followed a locally produced play about the Kurdish Civil War. During the performance, I gave a speech that was translated into Kurdish and Arabic. I told the audience about my service, my new mission of Cultural Diplomacy, and the triumph of the students. Representatives from the US Consulate in Erbil, people from the local communities, and dignitaries from Erbil and Kirkuk filled the audience.

At the end, a few more things happened that didn’t happen in Fallujah: women smiled, children gave me flowers, and Iraqi people said – “Welcome to Iraq.” I learned that Cultural Diplomacy isn’t about dictating and lecturing, it is about the mutual search for knowledge and understanding.

Roman Baca is a current Fellow at The Mission Continues, a national nonprofit that engages veterans to serve as community leaders. He served in the United States Marine Corps from 2000-2008.

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