How a young girl’s vision brought two distant cultures together

Not long after the attacks of September 11, Iman, an American-born girl of Moroccan descent, expressed concern about the negative stereotypes of Arabs by the American media and of Americans by the Arab media.

The Grande Marshal for this year’s Salmon Days parade, Mustafa Ajjab, traveled thousands of miles to perform his official duties. He flew in from Morocco, a country in the northwest corner of Africa, where he serves as a councilor for the city of Chefchaouen. How was a city official from a small community half a world away chosen to be the Grande Marshal of our local festival?

It all started with a conversation between a 12-year-old girl and her dad. Actually, it was many conversations between Iman Belali and her father Mohamed.

Not long after the attacks of September 11, Iman, an American-born girl of Moroccan descent, expressed concern about the negative stereotypes of Arabs by the American media and of Americans by the Arab media.

“Americans believed that all Arabs had guns and bombs, and Arabs believed that Americans were going to come take over their country,” Iman said. “But I knew there’s good and bad people wherever you go.”

Instead of just complaining about the problem, Iman and Mohamed became proactive and formed the nonprofit organization called American Moroccan International Exchange (AMIE).

It started simply. Iman, who last year graduated from Liberty High School in Renton, used part of her college fund to buy school supplies for 80 students in Chefchaouen, a small city in northern Morocco where her grandparents were raised. It was just a small step, but it went a long way toward educating teens in Morocco and the U.S. about the kindness and generosity of people from both countries.

With her first endeavor a success, Iman wanted to take it to the next level and bring teens from the two countries together. In August 2005, AMIE’s first cultural exchange brought seven girls from Morocco to the U.S. They spent a week living with Issaquah families, visiting the University of Washington’s engineering department and attending Microsoft’s Digigirlz program.

The idea was to offer the girls more than just a trip to the U.S. and some intercultural fun. AMIE’s founders wanted to expose the girls to the possibilities of technical and scientific careers because, as Iman said, girls in both societies are not pushed to pursue math and science.

The next year, 10 students from Issaquah went to Morocco for a two-week exchange and learning trip. And that has become the structure of AMIE’s summer program – one year Moroccan students visit America, and then next year Issaquah students travel to Morocco.

In just two short years, Iman’s desire to combat ethnic stereotypes had sprouted from a kernel of an idea into a full-grown, international exchange program. But this high school freshman wasn’t content to rest on her laurels. Instead, she wanted to establish an official relationship between Issaquah and Chefchaouen.

At the age of 14, this petite teenager stood in front of the Issaquah City Council and Mayor Ava Frisinger to request that they declare a formal sister city relationship with Chefchaouen.

“It was slightly intimidating,” she chuckled, referring to the fact that her presentation was being broadcast live to Issaquah residents via cable channel 21. Her nervousness must have been well camouflaged, because on December 4, 2006, the city council passed a resolution declaring Chefchaouen Issaquah’s newest sister city. The relationship was then formalized in April the following year.

Chefchaouen has many similarities to Issaquah – population size, proximity to mountains, and popularity with hikers and backpackers. Having grown up in Issaquah and spent much of her childhood visiting family in Chefchaouen, Iman describes them both as “small, quiet place(s) near the mountains.”

Iman is no longer a youngster with thoughts of bridging the cultural chasm between Americans and the Arab world. This fall she started college at the University of Washington. But that doesn’t mean she’s abandoned the mission she and her father started six years ago. The whole family was on hand at AMIE’s Salmon Days booth, including her mother Malika, her little sister Sara and her aunt Nezha Benjdya.

Today, AMIE members still work toward the same vision that initially inspired Iman – a world where cultural diversity offers peace and understanding, and where teens achieve their full potential in mathematics, technology, science and engineering.