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Rashid Abdu ’56 travels abroad to share experience as Muslim Arab in U.S. through Citizens Dialogue Program

Abdu, emeritus director of surgical education at Ohio’s St. Elizabeth Health Center, was one of four American chosen for the program, which was founded by Karen Hughes, former undersecretary of state. Abdu, a native of Yemen, was accompanied by Radwan Masmoudi, president of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy in Washington, D.C., originally from Tunisia; Wafa Hoballah, an attorney in California, originally from Lebanon; and Mark Davidson, a career diplomat with the U.S. State Department. The embassies arranged meetings and programs with educators, business and religious leaders, students, and officials.

The State Department approached Abdu after reading his autobiography, Journey of a Yemeni Boy, which chronicles his life from poor village boy in Aireem, Yemen, to successful U.S. surgeon. He was given no instruction on the meetings other than to be himself.

“I discussed the diversity, the generosity of the American people, their sense of justice, tolerance, and respect for other cultures, customs, and religions,” he says. “I cited examples, such as the Christian family who sponsored my pilgrimage to Mecca, another Christian family who gave me a copy of the Holy Koran for Christmas, and the Jewish physician who personally took my old, rusted car and had it painted at his own expense at a time when I had nothing. I talked to them about the scholarship from Lafayette College when I had no resources to go to college.

“I talked about the aftermath of 9/11, when people became angry and suspicious of Muslims. Personally, I had no problems. Out of concern, folks came and asked me if I needed any help or if I had been harassed in any way.”

Abdu’s travels with the program revealed many misconceptions about Americans in the Middle East. He reports there was bitterness over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Gaza, which many attribute as the root cause of 9/11. He also saw anger over the war in Iraq, the damage to the country, and the innocent people killed or forced to live as refugees.

“They cannot separate the people from the foreign policy,” he says. “Iraq and Palestine came up in almost every meeting in the three countries. While I was still in Yemen, rockets were fired at the U.S. Embassy in Sana’a, less than two miles from where I stayed. It missed the embassy but hit a girls’ school next door, killing one guard and maiming a dozen girls. One month ago, suicide bombers hit the embassy, killing 17 people, all Yemenis. I felt sad to see our embassies, which once were welcoming, safe, and friendly institutions, turned into little fortresses, draped in fear and uncertainty. I felt sad to see that the admiration, love, and respect people had for America are all gone.”

While in Yemen, Abdu inspected two hospitals and a medical school. He also has attended three Yemeni conferences in Washington, D.C., Dearborn, Mich., and Chicago, and is a member of the National Arab American Museum’s advisory board.

Recently, he attended the Carter Center’s advisory council meeting in Atlanta where he met former President Jimmy Carter.

“I gave him my book and I had him sign his book,” Abdu says. “It was a wonderful experience.”

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