Iraqi Army officers in Besmaya raised a thousand dollars in donations for fire victims in San Diego, California, and the only place that seems to have reported the story is the military blog OPFOR. Author Richard S. Lowry learned about it in a press release from the Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq Public Affairs, so it’s unlikely he’s the only one in the media who knows something about it.
Sending a thousand dollars to California will be about as helpful as throwing a glass of water into the firestorm. It’s the thought that counts here. And what surprising thought it is. How many Americans expect charity from Iraq?
As Lowry points out, “most Americans do not consider Iraqis as people.” He’s right. Most of us only know them from sensational media reports about masked insurgents, wailing widows, and death squads. Most of us may instinctively understand that the majority of Iraqis are just regular people, but it’s hard to keep that in mind when the only thing we get Stateside is war coverage. I’ve met hundreds of Iraqis myself during trips to their country as a reporter, so it’s a bit easier for me to see them as just people. I’m still surprised that anyone in that broken impoverished land would even consider donating hard-earned money to Californians.
A thousand dollars is a lot in Iraq. The average salary is only a few hundred dollars a month. I can’t for the life of me figure out how entire families can survive on so little, considering most have so many children. Basic necessities are cheaper in Iraq than in the West, but not that much cheaper.
Some Iraqis have been learning a similar lesson about American generosity lately.
Two months ago I went on a humanitarian aid drop mission outside Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s Anbar Province, with American soldiers and Iraqi Police officers at four o’clock in the morning. The goods we delivered were paid for by the United States government. Sometimes, though, soldiers and Marines deliver items donated through American charities. “When we tell them that some of these packages aren’t from the military or the government,” a Marine told me, “that they were donated by average American citizens in places like Kansas, people choke up and sometimes even cry. They just can’t comprehend it. It is so different from the lies they were told about us and how we’re supposed to be evil.”
Sustained contact with the “other” isn’t a magic bullet against bigoted attitudes (see, for example, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict), but it usually helps. Iraqis learn about Americans through daily interactions, but most Americans have no contact, sustained or otherwise, with Iraqis.
Shopkeeper Was Nice to Embedded Reporter isn’t a headline, but donations from Besmaya to San Diego is a real story. Now would be a good time for major newspapers, as well as blogs and magazines like this one, to show Iraqis, for once, as generous and regular people.
UPDATE: CNN now has the story on their Web site. Good for them.