Column: How we can open the world, in spite of bans and walls


Three generations of the Kerr family have devoted themselves to amity and understanding between people of different nations, especially the United States and the Mideast: Ann Kerr-Adams and her first husband, Malcolm Kerr; his parents, who taught at the American University of Beirut in Lebanon; and Ann and Malcolm Kerr’s four children, whose careers stretch across agricultural economics, English politics and “Brexit,” national security, and professional basketball. In 1982, Malcolm Kerr left his 20-year academic career at UCLA to become president of the American University in Beirut, the city where he was born. He was assassinated there in 1984, evidently by Iranian-backed extremists of the emerging Hezbollah group.

Kerr-Adams now heads UCLA’s Fulbright Scholar Enrichment Program. Her family was recently awarded a settlement in its lawsuit against Iran over Kerr’s assassination, and put it to use for a UCLA scholarship for students from the Mideast. Now that the Trump administration’s travel ban has been upheld, what becomes of international exchange and enrichment programs for students from the five majority-Muslim countries on the banned list — and of the Kerr family’s hundred-years-long work and hopes?

Tell me what your program is all about.

I have two main programs at UCLA. One is running a Fulbright Scholar Enrichment Program, which brings visiting Fulbright scholars into our local cultural scenes. The purpose is also to bring them together so they meet each other and form international friendships. Along with running the Fulbright Scholar Enrichment Program to bring visiting scholars into the community, I teach two courses using Fulbright scholars as speakers.

That class is called “Perceptions of the U.S. Abroad: Discussions With Visiting Fulbright Scholars.” It’s a wonderful opportunity for our UCLA freshmen and sophomores to learn from the international Fulbright scholars from around the world.

We started these courses after Sept. 11 to bring a different kind of subject matter into the curriculum to serve the needs of post-Sept. 11 young people. These students coming in were 1 or 2 years old when Sept. 11 happened, and they've grown up on the U.S. engaging in preemptive war. Before Sept. 11, students more or less follow the narrative of the U.S. as the outstanding democracy in the world, and everyone would want to be like us, and we could take democracy to the rest of the world. So it’s an about-face for the contemporary students.

In the early years after we started this, we had a Fulbright scholar from Japan, and she told us how surprised Japanese people were when they heard American comparing Sept. 11 to Pearl Harbor, when Japanese people compared it to the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

That was kind of a real awakening. Seeing ourselves as others see us or seeing others in the way they see themselves is what we’re after.

The students are particularly fascinated with Fulbright scholars from post-communist countries. They're so curious about what communism was like, what some of these people grew up with. Some of the older scholars — we have professors and researchers, not just graduate students — who grew up when their countries were under communism had to learn Russian as a second language, and they had to be very careful about what they said. They do remember the austerity of those days. That’s been something that I hadn't expected.

From a young age, you had a curiosity about other countries, and it became a lifelong interest and an abiding commitment to the Middle East. How did that happen?

That's quite a romantic story. I set off as a junior-abroad student from New York on a 17-day journey across the end of the Mediterranean to Beirut, Lebanon. Our only stop was in Casablanca, where we spent a day on the mainland. I was fascinated with the mixture of French and Arabic. And then I heard the call to prayer, and it was so mysterious and haunting, and I guess that romanticism took hold then and has stayed with me ever since — a fascination with the area and its history, and why we have what we see there today. It could have been so different.

That must make it all the more poignant for you to think about the might-have-beens in the Middle East.

It's just almost unbearable to think about these people, isn’t it? And from all parts of the world now — the Rohingya and the Africans from Central Africa, where the drought is, and the Syrians and the Yemenis. It's unbearable, really, to think about how this is happening and what we can do about it. The mood of the world is to keep the immigrants out.

You asked me why my attraction to the Arab world? I met, in Beirut, in the same Ottoman history class, my future husband. We had a natural connection by meeting there. I also lived with four Arab women in the dorm for a whole academic year, which was wonderful. And I've kept up these friendships all these years.

In so many countries, they have their own Trumps.

Ann Kerr-Adams

I was in the Middle East for a long time. My husband was president of the American University of Beirut and tragically he was a victim of the civil war that was raging then. However, when he was asked to be president, we had thought that the war might come to a close, or at least ease off. We wanted to believe that it would be better. And of course it wasn’t. He was assassinated in 1984, near his office on the campus.

After that time, my younger son and my oldest son and I went to Cairo. So we had a little family unit there, and I stayed for five years. Loved it. Cairo was a wonderful place, a wonderful city. I hope it can come back soon.

There’s a phrase, “Yankee go home — but take me with you.” Have you heard that before?

There’s still an element of that. The United States is still a place where people think they can work hard and make their way in the world. But indeed, there’s less and less of that spirit, I think, particularly under this administration.

Friends of mine from the university, Lebanese who might come here for a conference — just the difficulty in going through the airport here. Once they arrive, they're detained and in for hours and hours and being questioned.

We noticed that at the Middle East Studies Assn. meeting in Washington in March that there seemed to be fewer people than usual. A lot of people from the Middle East just didn't want to come. We had applicants for the Kerr family fellowship that we started recently, and one of them didn't want to come because of the current situation.

So there’s certainly been a change, and I hope it's not permanent. We need to separate the people from the actions of their government.

In your classes and the seminars at UCLA, what kind of myths and misconceptions do you encounter on both sides, about Americans and about the rest of the world?

I like that question! Aside from the fact that the scholars want to be polite and they're a little hesitant to make critical comments, they do say that their opinions have changed to some extent when they come here and see us, especially if they can [stay] with families. Because they come with the impression that we don't have any family life, that we don't go to church on Sundays.

They also find that we're not all rich. They're always shocked at the homelessness. From movies they get the impression that Americans are rich.

The Fulbright scholars often have the impression that Americans are very friendly and make very easy friendships, but they don't go as deep as they might in other places. Except for one German scholar, who said, I love the United States because we can make small talk! He said that in Germany, they don’t make small talk. It’s fun when that kind of thing happens, the surprise comment like that.

At a Fulbright dinner, one of our opening dinners, a young man from Africa was here. I asked him how he was doing in in this country — he’d just arrived three months earlier — and he said, Well, I haven't seen a gun yet, as if everyone in America was going to pull out a gun the minute he saw them.

This isn’t as amusing now, because it does seem like everyone has a gun. But at the time — it was maybe eight years ago — it seemed he'd been watching too many Wild West movies.

And the converse is that people think that the rest of the world is carrying bombs.

Right. And that actually every Muslim is evil. It’s sad. It’s so, so sad.

You spoke about the seminar having its genesis after 9/11. How have you seen the regard for or about the United States change in those years since, and now with the new administration?

This is an important point. In so many countries, they have their own Trumps, and it was reassuring, strange as it sounds. At the beginning of the Trump administration, I remember when Fulbright scholars told us that they have their own situation, with populist candidates running for elections, and the threat of a much more authoritarian government. So we’re not the only ones in our current situation. And we purposely don’t talk about that. We want to concentrate more on the cultural differences between us that make up the national character.

People from abroad think they know a lot about America and American culture, because they watch American movies and television. And American students perhaps — because popular culture doesn't flow the other way — know virtually nothing about these other countries. So on one side you’re dispelling misconceptions, and on the other you're kind of filling a void.

That's exactly the goal. It’s really gratifying to do that, and you see the scales fall from their eyes.

What effect do you think this travel ban that’s now been endorsed by the Supreme Court is going to have on your programs, on perhaps many of the foreign student programs in colleges and universities?

It's unbelievable — and so damaging.

Your family took settlement money from a lawsuit against Iran for your husband’s murder, and put it toward a fellowship for students from the Mideast.

It was something that was a long time in coming. There was a financial settlement after a trial for state-sponsored terrorism that many of the victims of Iran-sponsored terrorism had against the Iranian government. And only recently, some money actually came through, which we didn't anticipate. It was something that was going to be hard to deal with emotionally. I could come to terms with it by thinking of bringing this full circle and creating a scholarship for the greater Middle East.

We have a young woman coming in September and she will be getting a full ride for a PhD in the Middle East Studies Center in the field of sociology. She's working on refugees. That’s exactly what we want.

This scholarship says it has to be in the liberal arts, humanities, but not medicine or engineering, where they [already] have more money than the liberal arts. She’s actually from Lebanon and went to the American University of Beirut.

Your children have taken up international interests, too, in various ways.

My son John and his wife, Kim, teach at Michigan State University; they’re agricultural economists. Each of my children received a separate payout, and they have turned theirs into a scholarship for a student in resource sustainability.

It’s meant to perpetuate the kinds of work that a couple of generations of our family have done in the Middle East. I encourage anyone to learn about the rest of the world in whatever way is productive. And I’m certainly glad to be in a field and have my children in fields where they can.

And if anyone can now, it’s Steve, through basketball. [Steve Kerr coaches the Golden State Warriors.] I’m so proud of him, the way he’s speaking out on social issues. The globalization of sports has really been huge, and now he’s become internationally known and speaks out on social justice issues. I’m very proud that he can use his role as the coach of a championship team to do that kind of thing.

My other children are doing it in different ways. My daughter is county councilor in Cambridgeshire, in England. She is. She’s a member of the Liberal Democrats, fighting very hard against Brexit for a more open world.

If you could send a tweet to America — we’re anxious, we’re unnerved, we’re suspicious, we’re fearful — what would you say to your fellow Americans?

I'd say there’s so much to learn about the world and to try to create opportunities to do that. Let’s travel as much as we can, let’s learn what the rest of the world is like, and see ourselves as others see us, and fill our minds with a broader picture and broader horizons.

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