Local Arab Students view the war with anguish and bitterness WAR IN THE GULF


February 27, 1991|By Randi Henderson

For H. T., an Iraqi studying business at an area college, watching his country's troops surrender to allied forces this week has been heart-wrenching -- but not surprising.

"They've been in a combat position and bombarded for a whole month," said the 30-year-old, who has friends and relatives in the Iraqi army. "It's terrible. It works to knock down morale. And now, since they heard that Iraq is willing to give up Kuwait, they'd

rather surrender than fight for something that would be given up anyway."

H. T., who asked to be identified only by his initials, came to the United States last April to pursue a master's degree and work at a local investment firm. He is one of 37,000-plus Arab students now studying at American colleges and universities, who have watched with anguish as the war unfolded.

Though these students' opinions are as diverse as their personalities and the countries they come from, interviews with several Arab students in the Baltimore area found a strong consensus on these issues:

*They think war could have been avoided and wish the United States had never sent troops to the gulf.

*They feel U.S. policy ignores the pivotal role of Israel and the

Palestinian issue in Middle East politics.

*They are quick to point out that the Kuwaiti government, which the United States has pledged to restore, never even pretended to be democratic.

*And even though they may deplore the actions of Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, they cannot deny a grudging respect for the man who has dared to stand up to the armies of the United States and the Western world.

Many Arab students, fearful of reprisals, are reluctant to express their feelings. Many declined requests for interviews. But those who did speak talked of the pain of divided loyalties. They pleaded with Americans to see this crisis in human terms.

"I'd like to see Americans understand the Arabs," said Shukri Abdallah, a 29-year-old Palestinian graduate student who is studying computer sciences at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "We are not just men with camels. We are well-educated, multilingual."

Mr. Abdallah emphasized that few Americans have much insight into the Arab psyche, and that leads to breakdowns in communications.

"Saddam is saying he will make the Americans swim in their own blood," he said. "The American mind sees that as violent and threatening. But you have to understand the Arabic language is very expressive. We are a very passionate people. . . . One has to spend time in the Middle East to understand what makes us tick."

Firas Raad, a Jordanian who is a senior at Johns Hopkins University, agreed there are things Americans need to know about Arabs -- particularly the feelings Arabs have about U.S. troops waging war in the Middle East.

"When Western troops came in, it rekindled subdued feelings about colonialism and imperialism," said Mr. Raad, 21. "The West is here to kick us around and keep a cheap flow of oil."

Added Mohammed, a Syrian sophomore at Loyola College (who asked that his last name not be used), "A lot of Arabs feel all this could have been solved by Arabs and really resent the intervention of the U.S."

"It's scary, it's getting worse," Hala Kfouri, a Towson State University freshman, thought this week as she watched coverage of the ground war. All autumn she could think only of death as she watched the U.S. troops build-up.

"No one will back up until they are crushed," was the sad assessment of this 18-year-old Lebanese-French woman, whose family lives in Jordan.

None of these Arab students said they had experienced discrimination in the United States because of their nationality. But the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, a Washington-based group, has reports of 10 incidents against Arab students around the country since August. "They range from threatening phone calls, to offensive things printed by student newspapers, to assault," said Scott Easton, director of media for the committee.

H. T. -- who grew up in Baghdad with an Iraqi father and American mother, and moved here with his wife and baby -- said that on an individual basis he has found Americans to be "magnificent, very understanding." But he added, "I don't go screaming in the streets, 'I'm Iraqi.' "

And, as far as he could tell, the positive feelings were once mutual. "Before this mess started, Iraqis had absolutely nothing against the U.S.," he said.

But H. T. grows bitter when speaking about the war.

"I feel bitter, angry, terrible about all this," he said. "Americans didn't know where Iraq or Kuwait were prior to Aug. 2. Now they're on TV acting like experts."

H. T. and the other students also remind Americans that the U.S. alliance with most of the Arab world is an uneasy one.

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