Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Art of War: Public Forum and Art Show

On May 6th, Iraq War veteran and United Theological Seminary student Luke Leonard will hold a public discussion about the situation in the Middle East. The forum is in conjunction with the ongoing show Art of War: Artists in Dialogue, currently on display at UTS. See flyer below for more information.

Salir a la luz

This looks like a fantastic show about the interconnectedness of the world. It's open until July 5th, Tuesday-Sunday 12-6pm or by appointment. Location is the Blair Arcade Building (lower level) at the corner of Selby and Western, St. Paul, MN. If you can go, go!


April 24 – July 5, 2009

Opening Friday, April 24 ● 6 pm – 9 pm
Wine and hors d'oeuvres

Paintings by Kelli Bickman, Photog raphy by Connie Bickman, and Mixed-media by Iraqi War Kids Relief

Everyday we are reminded of our how our lives intersect with others at home, at work and in our communities. This show brings to light how that interconnectedness extends around the world by encouraging us to bring home the playfulness of the Buddha and other deities, share the stories of women from around the world, and enter into the lives of children in war-torn Iraq. Come see yourself in the lives of others and then, like these artists, envision the role you play in making this a better world.
Watch for the many special events during this extended 10-week show!
To preview the current show, click here.

After the opening, come visit us:
Tues - Sun 12-6 or by appointment
Salir a la Luz is located in St. Paul in the Blair Arcade Building (lower level) at the corner of Selby and Western (map).
Or visit us on the web at:
Handicapped accessible. Please call for information (651.340.1957). Additional parking across=2 0Selby courtesy of the St. Paul Urban League.

Top: K. Bickman, Christ Buddha, 5' x 7 '
Middle: War Kids Relief, Doll #17, 11 x 14
Bottom: C. Bickman, Aboriginal Dance, 11 x 14

Main Gallery
Kelli Bickman is a multi-media artist who has traveled the world extensively and been fortunate to study with several spiritual masters, including the Dalai Lama and Geshe Micheal Roach.
In 2007 she ventured to India and spent several months living in a Tibetian Buddhist Nunnery studying tangka paintings and temple art. Come see the influence of these experiences in the “Images of Enlightenment” paintings on exhibit at Salir a la Luz. Special events to follow.
Left: Naga Om, 34 x 22
Minnesota Gallery
Children's Gallery

We are pleased to carry over the popular exhibit by award-winning photojournalist Connie Bickman. With photos and stories from around the world, Connie let's us enter into the lives of others to better see our own.
Watch for coming events where Connie will share her own story and life-changing experiences!
Above: Golden Offering, 11 x 14

The children's art exhibit is from the War Kids Relief (WKR) program. WKR connects American and Iraqi youth through a program centered on a pen-pal and art exchange. Come learn how they empower children to become Youth Ambassadors for their countries, leading towards a more peaceful understanding between nations.
Special events include mini-Youth Ambassador workshops and A Soldier's March for Peace!

165 western avenue, suite 10 • saint paul, mn 55102 •

Thursday, April 23, 2009


IARP and War Kids Relief (see below) have had an initial meeting to talk about collaboration and exchanged some exciting ideas. Seems like a perfect fit: we both work with kids and students in Iraq and the U.S. to build friendships and peace. If current distrust between Iraqis and Americans is left unaddressed, it could "lead to a future generation of tension among these two groups, and the price paid could be extremely high." What if there had been programs like War Kids Relief and Water for Peace 40 years ago, throughout the U.S. and Iraq? Would the same war have happened? It's much harder to go to war with your friends than your "enemies."

War Kids Relief
War Kids Relief was founded in 2005 by Capt. Jonathan Powers, former artillery platoon leader in the Army's 1st Armored Division, as a way to help Iraqi children deal with the adverse effects of the war. Now an in-house program of Children's Culture Connection, War Kids Relief is harnessing the creative potential of children in both Iraq and the US to promote peace, tolerance and respect for different cultures through their newfound friendships with one another.

With donor support we will replicate this program all across the U.S. and Iraq in a sustainable, long term program.

Young Ambassadors Pilot Program

In 2009, War Kids Relief will be launching the first Young Ambassadors Program to promote peace, tolerance and respect for different cultures among Iraqi and US youth.

The Need in Iraq:
Iraqi youth lack exposure to other cultures. Many have negative impressions and ideas about Americans. On a daily basis, Iraqi youth are negatively influenced through magazines and books that contain extreme ideas encouraging violence. Rarely are young people exposed to alternative viewpoints. These disengaged Iraqi youth are more vulnerable to military recruitment, depression, alcoholism, drug abuse, and radicalization. Many have lost their families and homes in the current war and have no constructive outlets to express their pain, fear and frustration.

The Need in the US:
In America, young people have little knowledge of the realities of life for young people in war-affected areas. Many have an inaccurate understanding of the current war in Iraq, believing that all Iraqis are the enemy, and leading to negative stereotyping, fear and distrust of people of Arab descent. Many American children have also lost their own parents, relatives and loved ones in the war. Currently there are almost no channels of communication open between Iraqi and American youth. This lack of communication and misunderstanding, left unaddressed, will lead to a future generation of tension among these two groups, and the price paid could be extremely high.

War Kids Relief, in partnership with the Iraqi NGO, the Darstan Group, is changing that. Together we will be conducting a program that will:

-Create a friendship bridge between the Iraqi and USA children by pairing middle school students in the US with their peers in Iraq through a creative cultural exchange.

-Expand the cross-cultural understanding and tolerance of the US/Iraqi youth to help them understand and appreciate one another's cultures.

-Promote tolerance, peace and the principles of human rights among the selected Iraqi youth to enable them to work for social changes among their families and communities by acting as focal points for peace education.

-Educate US youth about the Iraqi cultures and people, and build compassion towards their peers living in war-affected areas, with a realistic view of how they can help.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Free Educational Materials Promote Friendship Among the Peoples of Iraq and the US

My friend, children of America,

I’m your friend from Iraq. I love you and love all the children of the world. My people love to live in peace. I want to play and grow up looking to the sun of freedom. Please I don’t want war. Let us be friends. Let our both people be friends loving each other.

Your friend, Hind, age 10, Karbala, Iraq

Dear Iraqi brother,

I really wish this war would be over. I dream of a day when there is no war or killing. I want peace throughout the world. I am 12 and in seventh grade. I hope that one day you can play freely.

Love, your brother, Wilson K., St Paul, MN, USA

Letters for Peace - first sparked by letters written by Iraqi teens to their peers in the US, the Letters for Peace program has generated approximately 800 letters back and forth from US schoolchildren to their Iraqi counterparts. Iraqi letters are translated into English; American letters into Arabic and all are distributed to age-appropriate schools in each country and placed on a website for mutual viewing. The need for translators has brought spouses of Arab students at a local college in MN into the project; as an extra dividend, these volunteers get to read heartfelt desires for peace emanating from US schoolchildren.

Water for Peace – a project initiated by Vets for Peace in response to the deteriorating water sanitation problems, Water for Peace is a service-learning project that raises funds to provide Iraqi schools with potable water. Available to US schools, clubs, and religious institutions, this project links a US organization with a recipient school. Photos of the installation process and the resulting happy, healthier children help to build bridges across our cultures that have been torn apart by war.

These projects are sponsored by the Iraqi & American Reconciliation Project (IARP) of MN whose mission is to promote reconciliation between the people of the United States and Iraq in response to the devastation affecting Iraqi families, society and culture.

IARP’s projects offer simple means to enable the people of both countries to shed layers of immobilizing fear, to see beyond the notion of “enemy” when they consider each other. IARP works in tandem with the Muslim Peacemaker Teams (MPT) of Najaf, Iraq. The Najaf MPT chapter is directed by Sami Rasouli a US citizen for 26 years, who returned to his homeland after the US invasion of Iraq to help his people pull together to survive the chaos of occupation. Mr Rasouli, with strong roots in both cultures, serves as a bridge-builder, helping to explain the peoples of each country to each other.

For a brighter future for children everywhere, as one step to move nations beyond war, please join us in writing letters and / or providing clean drinking water to the youth of Iraq. Let your teacher friends know about this project, too. Meet us at

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Mpls artist illustrates new book on extraordinary Muslim women

Minneapolis artist Heba Amin was recently featured in a Star Tribune article about her work illustrating a book on female Muslim heroes (some of her illustrations are above). Amin says, “I’m very aware of cultural stereotypes. The image of Muslim women in the United States is of veiled, oppressed people who have no voice. But in fact, Muslim women have a long history of remarkable achievements.” A little-known but very true fact.

The book, “Extraordinary Women from the Muslim World,” was awarded a National Best Books 2008 Award and a Moonbeam Peacemaker Award. More info on the book can be found here.

On a (kind of) related note, recently published an article on Muslim feminism and Muslim women in Minnesota: "For Muslim Women in Minnesota, Complex Identities".

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Shape of Change

The Shape of Change is an expanded sculpture project, investigating Iraqi and American concepts of political change, independence and civic agency. People across both countries are answering questions ranging from the meaning of democracy to the importance of national identity. Answers will be collected in an open source data base and interpreted in several ways: as online data visualizations, physical sculptures, and a series of dialogues between paired Iraqi and American cities. Data will be publicly available for collaborations between Iraqi and American artists. As content evolves in response to political events, artistic renderings of the data will function as evolving representations of change.

The theme of change was ubiquitous throughout the US presidential campaign, and now that a new American president and many new regional Iraqi leaders have been elected, the need to discuss what political change actually means is imperative. The piece will explore if/how these concepts differ across cultures, and how desire for them is manifested or displaced.

If you are interested in the project, you can read more information here and fill out the questionnaire here. Pass the request along to people in as many different locations with as many different view points as you can.

Shape of Change Questions

  1. In the current US elections, both political parties and voters across the country have cited the need for change, but people are seldom specific about what they feel change means. How do you define political change?
  2. What do you feel would constitute meaningful change in your country? Do you feel this is possible?
  3. What changes do you feel are required to improve the relationship between Iraq and the United States?
  4. What do you feel constitutes true independence?
  5. What do you feel needs to happen for Iraq and the United States to be fully independent of each other and when will you know that this has been achieved?
  6. What do you feel constitutes true individual freedom? Do you feel this is possible in a democratic society?
  7. Are you free to exercise choice in your life? Do you feel you have the ability to choose between meaningfully different political options in your country? If not, how might this situation be improved?
  8. Do individuals have a political voice in your country? Do you enjoy freedom of expression? Do you feel that expression should ever be curtailed by government?
  9. What is the potential for individuals to affect political change where you are?
  10. Is national identity important and/or necessary? How would you describe your nation’s identity? Is it defined in relation to other countries?
  11. What do you feel is the meaning of the word democracy?
  12. What country and what part of that country are you from?

Monday, April 13, 2009

Maliki's crackdown on Awakenings: a hint of larger ambitions?

Yesterday, Foreign Policy's Marc Lynch discussed the recent tension and violence between members of the Awakening Councils (as many as 100,000 former insurgents who cooperated with the U.S. in 2007-2008 against al-Qaeda) and the Iraqi government. Led by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, the Iraqi government has cracked down on a number of Awakening leaders in the past few weeks, arresting some on charges of planting roadside bombs, extortion, robbery and links to al-Qaeda. Many Awakening members contend that they are being targeted because of a sectarian agenda in the Iraqi government (most Awakenings are Sunni, while Maliki's government remains Shiite-dominated). Members also fear "betrayal" by U.S. forces, who had been paying them but recently turned over management of the Awakenings to the Iraqi government, which has failed to pay or find promised jobs for many Members. In response to the arrests and perceived betrayal of the Iraqi government and U.S., some Awakening members are reportedly responsible for or linked to the recent spate of bombings in Iraq. If this tension continues, Iraq could see a return to higher levels of violence and insurgency.

As Lynch writes, some believe that,

"narrow, sectarian perspectives in Baghdad are winning out over the Iraqi national interest with potentially devastating consequences... Most Arab writers (for example, the Kuwaiti Shamlan Issa in al-Ittihad yesterday) point the finger at the continuing lack of progress on political accomodation and national unity -- which for them, generally means the accommodation of Sunni interests and the integration of the Awakenings. The "resistance camp" paper al-Quds al-Arabi has been covering the "coup against the Awakenings" as closely as have the Saudi-owned media (though with a bit more schadenfreude). Many of them are reading the crackdown on the Awakenings through as unmasking the 'true Shia sectarianism' of Maliki's government -- reinforcing their pre-existing, deep skepticism about the new Iraq...

I've been warning about the potential for trouble with the Awakenings project for a long time, and it would be easy to say that those predictions are now coming due. But I think it's way too early for that -- there is still time for these troubles to demonstrate the costs of political failure and to become the spur to the needed political action.

That's why it's really important that the United States not now begin to hedge on its commitment to the drawdown of its forces in the face of this uptick in violence. It is in moments like this that the credibility of commitments is made or broken. Thus far, the signals have been very good -- consistent, clear, and tightly linked to continuing pressure on political progress. President Obama reportedly pushed hard on the political accommodation front during his stopover in Baghdad last week, and General Odierno did very well to emphasize on CNN yesterday that the U.S. is firmly committed to removing its troops by the end of 2011. Maliki and everyone need to take a deep breath and strike power sharing deals before things go south, and understand that they will pay consequences if they don't."

I agree that things are still far from beyond repair, but I'm less sanguine than Lynch appears to be about Maliki's intentions. In the back of my mind, in the part focused on Middle East politics, I can't help but suspect the centralizing actions of Maliki over the last few years might point to a deeper ambition for power. For example, cracking down on militias and establishing two security forces (the Baghdad Brigade and the Counterterrorism Task Force) reporting directly to the prime minister have perhaps improved security, but they have also strengthened significantly Maliki's position. Improving security remains a priority concern for Iraqis (according to a Pentagon report, security is now the number 2 concern for Iraqis, having been passed in January, 2009 by the need for improved basic services), but security enforced by a strong central state is a double-edged sword. In the Middle East and North Africa, there are too many authoritarian leaders adept at ruling through the various tools of co-option and coercion. As Lynch says, "Maliki's government sees very clearly how fragmented, mutually mistrustful and competitive the Awakenings are." I think that can fairly be extended to the political parties and sectarian groups in Iraq.

With a divided political scene and civil society, it's all too possible for Maliki to play one group off the other and emerge as the final arbiter of political bargaining, granting patronage to some and punishing others who challenge him. This possibility is still only a possibility and Maliki has a ways to go before he has that kind of power, but after looking at Morocco, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Tunisia, Syria, etc., it would be a good idea, I think, for people to pay more attention to Iraq's possible return to authoritarianism (albeit likely a kinder version with the cosmetic trappings of democracy). Maliki is not yet "one of the guys" in the club of rulers in the region (a large reason why is that Maliki is Shia and nearly all of the Arab leaders are Sunni and suspect Maliki of a sectarian agenda), but he seems to be trying.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Iraqi Artists

Glad to see that the role of a Public Diplomacy Official in Muthanna, Iraq includes supporting Iraqis in their efforts to preserve Iraqi culture.

Muslim Peacemaker Teams, IARP's partner in Iraq, also recently hosted an art show for Iraqi artist Shaima'a Saad at the Youth & Sport Najaf Center. Below are some images from the show, which over 500 people attended. This is a good example, I think, of an Iraqi artist empowered by a peace-building non-profit organization and then helping to change others' perceptions and ideas through art.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Light a candle for the Iraq Museum in Baghdad

While the massive destruction of life and infrastructure in Iraq after the 2003 US invasion received much media attention (and rightly so), the damage to Iraq's cultural heritage has mostly left the spotlight. In the looting after the invasion, many invaluable objects in the Iraq Museum in Baghdad were stolen or destroyed. The loss of a part of a country's history and culture is often forgotten as a consequence of war. Looking back, we need to remember and accept our responsibility for this loss.

Saving Antiquities For Everyone is holding a Candlelight Vigil for the Iraq Museum this April 10-12, 2009. Click here to see how you can participate. In Minnesota, there is a Candlelight Vigil on April 10 at 6:00PM at Macalester College. Details can be found here.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Fallout from economic crisis and low oil prices in Iraq

Here's an excerpt from last week's Iraq Crisis Report about the fallout in Iraq from the global economic crisis and low oil prices. Funny how coverage about the domestic crisis always trumps the global repercussions (often worse than here in the U.S.).

Thanks to the Center for Excellence in Disaster Management and Humanitarian Assistance.

"The dramatic fall in global oil prices has already cancelled around US$600 million in electricity contracts and will now force Iraq to cut spending on basic services that its war-weary citizens need, such as sewage treatment and power supply. Last summer, oil prices were at US$147 per barrel, and have decreased to under US$50, resulting in the Iraqi government slashing its 2009 spending plans twice. Parliament then decided to slash more money, leaving the government US$58.6 billion to spend on rebuilding the war-torn nation. The parliament’s version of the budget has yet to be approved by the council of ministers. Meanwhile, Iraq’s plans to build and renovate infrastructure have been neglected. Initially, US$5 billion had been allocated for Iraqi municipalities for development, but 60 percent has been chopped off. They will get around US$340 million. (Reuters, March-31)"

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Sister City Project

For quite a while now, IARP volunteers have been working to establish Minneapolis and Najaf as Sister Cities. What does that mean? A Sister City relationship is a formal agreement signed by the governing bodies of each city committing to long term sharing of cultural, educational, and citizen resources.

I'll admit, I had no idea that Minneapolis currently has EIGHT Sister Cities (only two are Scandinavian). However, establishing such a formal relationship with an Iraqi city would have a large impact, I think, for a few reasons. Many people, myself included, feel strongly about the past, present and future U.S. relationship with Iraq; beginning a Sister City relationship would be a mutual statement of friendship and cooperation between the people of Najaf and Minneapolis. Looking at how damaged the U.S.-Iraq relationship currently is, the importance of making this statement official and "legitimate" should not be underestimated. It would be a big boost toward our large goal of reconciliation.

People on both "sides" who have doubts about the other would be exposed to exchange programs and events, in the media if not in person. While media coverage can play a large role in building support FOR war and vilifying the "enemy," it can also be effective in countering such attitudes. And those who actually participate in exchanges will experience Iraqi culture, and some will develop long-lasting friendships.

Currently IARP and its partner in Najaf, the Muslim Peacemaker Teams (MPT), run or are affiliated with a number of exchange programs that make the two cities de facto Sister Cities. These include Letters for Peace, Water for Peace, the Iraqi Art Project, and exchanges between the University of Minnesota and the University of Kufa. This fall, Sami Rasouli, an Iraqi-American who resides in both Minneapolis and Najaf and is Director of MPT, will lead a delegation from Najaf to Minneapolis. The Sister City relationship would highlight these current opportunities for people to connect with their neighbors in Iraq.

Also, importantly, having these programs already in place means that the official relationship would cost Minneapolis very little money (paramount on City Council Members' minds).

If you're interested in helping promote the Sister City relationship and are a Minneapolis resident, you can phone or email your Minneapolis City Council representative and ask him or her to join Council Member Betsy Hodges as a co-sponsor of the initiative to establish a Sister City relationship between Minneapolis and Najaf. You can find your Council Member's email address and phone number here.