Crossing Borders CoverCoordinators asked the participants to introduce themselves, state where they were from and perhaps tell us about the media outlets they worked for. We went around the room, in a circle, as each person stood and spoke.

“My name is Kholod and I live in occupied Palestinian territory in Israel.” Some people snickered. The next student stood.

“Hi, my name is Doron, and I live in UN-occupied Tel Aviv, Israel.” More laughter.

“My name is Qamar and I am from beautiful Haifa.” Lots of laughter.

“Hi, my name is Mohammed, and I live in Jordan as a Palestinian refugee.” Silence.

Students from Egypt, Yemen, and Denmark introduced themselves with less controversy, but the tension in the room remained. After brief introductions, I handed them a Susan Orlean essay. Although it suddenly seemed horrifically Ameri-centric, trivial and inappropriate, we read it together out loud and discussed the power of personal essays. I asked them to put aside everything they’d learned in journalism school about avoiding the “I” perspective, and to think about essays they could write for the Crossing Borders magazine—a way of showing the world their unique individual situations. Some seemed skeptical while others seemed game. Just before the class was dismissed, a giant chocolate cake was brought out, and after the entire room sang Happy Birthday to me in English, they sang it again in Arabic. An Egyptian student gave me a mini 2009 calendar entitled “The Hidden Life of King Tut.” A young woman from Yemen wearing a brown hijab (head scarf) gave me a keychain of Al Katheri, a temple in her homeland. People laughed over coffee and cake, and suddenly things seemed to be ok.

Over the next two weeks, the students played conflict resolution games, had political discussions, were visited by guest speakers, visited Copenhagen, ate, drank, cleaned and danced together in the evenings. We were housed in dorms at Vallekilde—a folk high school in the Danish countryside.

APThere was lots of laughter and dialogue. I bonded with some of the students over hummus, bellydancing, Hunter S. Thompson, and the Ramones. They discussed terminology—using the word “terrorist” versus “freedom fighters.” We discussed freedom of speech (one of the CB participants even had a chance to interview Kurt Westergaard, the cartoonist responsible for the controversial Muhammed cartoon that was published in Denmark in 2006. The student’s story ran in the Jordan Times the next day.) I heard about mandatory duty in the Israeli army when one of the participants expressed jealousy at the fact that a 20-year-old Dane was traipsing through Europe while he was forced to serve his country. I learned that most of the newspapers my students wrote for were owned by their governments and heavily censored; writing against the president or royal family was forbidden, and some stories never made it to print, with no explanation.

I felt astounded and sometimes helpless in listening to these conversations. What could I possibly offer to a part of the world so torn for so long? Plus, as one of the students pointed out, “America’s got its own problems.”

Garba Diallo, a Danish citizen originally from Mauritania, founded Crossing Borders 10 years ago, believing that everyone has something useful to contribute to the world. “As almost all the violent conflicts and other socioeconomic, political and cultural problems are the direct results of human’s own negative thinking and fantasy, it is necessary to start looking for and finding durable solutions at the level of our own positive thinking, attitudes and imagination,” he told me. He remains convinced that cultural diversity is “ as vital as the biological diversity of the universe.” He shared an African saying with me: “I am because you are; you are, therefore I am.” His hope is that participants go home to their communities to “actively participate in charting more positive development directions of globalization.”