As Iraqi teenagers pleaded for peace on a nearby TV monitor, Santa Clarita eighth-grader Brittany Wilkins wrote out a hardball question for them in bubbly handwriting.
“Do you like Saddam Hussein?” she scribbled, punctuating the question with a stylized heart.
Wilkins and a dozen other Santa Clarita students had hoped to ask such questions Monday during “Project Voice,” a live videoconference with Baghdad prep schoolers sponsored by the Global Nomads Group, a nonprofit agency dedicated to fostering understanding among young people.
Due to technical problems, the Californians’ questions went unanswered. Instead, they watched from a Santa Clarita computer room as the Iraqis swapped comments and cultural cues with a group of Connecticut teenagers via satellite.
The two-hour interchange felt at times like a macabre take on MTV’s “Total Request Live.” Amid some innocent trans-global flirting and anodyne discussions about pop music, both groups expressed grave fears about the looming war. And from the Iraqis, there was a unanimous insistence that a U.S.-led coalition should not attack their country.
“No more hunger, no more sorrows, no more pain,” said one Iraqi girl. “All Iraqis love peace. No one here wants war.”
The idea for the conference was to “create bridges” between Iraqi and U.S. children, according to officials of New York-based Global Nomads, which has sponsored similar youth conferences on terrorism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“Youth hear a lot about Iraq in terms of conflict, but in fact little is known in America about this country and its people,” co-founder Mark von Sponeck said in a statement. “By the same token, how much do Iraqi children really know about the United States and its youth?”
The local organizers of the event -- including officials from the nearby California Institute of the Arts -- admitted that it was difficult to judge how genuine the Iraqi children’s opinions were, given the record of the Hussein regime: According to Human Rights Watch, as many has 290,000 Iraqis have been “disappeared” since the late 1970s.
But Global Nomads board member Beth Rickman said it was important for American students to learn firsthand about the Iraqi students’ everyday lives. “To find out [if] they play racquetball or do they play squash,” she said. “Little things that alter the perceptions we have.”
After the presentation, Wilkins and friend Crystal Martinez, both students at Placerita Junior High School, said that the Baghdad students seemed careful with their statements. But they said the event was worthwhile because it put human faces on the Iraqis, a people most Americans know only from TV sound bites and stand-up comedians.
“I kind of think it helped us find out what they thought about us,” said Martinez, 13. “From what the media tells us, we thought they’d dress weird and talk funny and stuff.”
The 30 or so Iraqi students spoke from Baghdad College -- in the “Saddam wing” of its library, according to the Associated Press. The boys were dressed in suits and ties, while about half of the girls wore chadors.
The Iraqis impressed the Santa Clarita students with their affable demeanors, flawless English and up-to-date knowledge of American pop culture. One Iraqi student said he wanted to visit America so he could see a Lakers game and attend a concert by gangsta-rap producer Dr. Dre.
A third said Iraqis were upset by the Sept. 11 attacks, and said the terrorist acts were “just like the Gulf War” because so many innocent people died. “We don’t want that to happen here,” she said.
Most of the Connecticut students’ comments were either antiwar or apolitical.
One student said, “You have to believe in what your government is saying. Because we have to have a strong front.”
Samantha Fernandez, a senior at Santa Clarita’s Hart High School and an opponent of the war, said the American students seemed to fear broaching some of the most difficult political topics for fear it would spoil the friendly spirit of the event.
Fernandez noted that the amiable Iraqi moderator, a boy named Omar, read a poem at the end of the broadcast that called Baghdad’s enemies “mice” and “the symbol of infidelity.”
“I think it would have been interesting to ask him about that,” she said.