Inspired by Arab Muslim Hero…Iowa Students go to Washington DC

What do a small town in Iowa and the North African country of Algeria have in common? You could ask Elkader high school juniors Bob Spielbauer and Joe McGreal, who just returned from an all-expenses paid trip to Washington DC, thanks to the Algerian Embassy. They won the award by submitting essays and artwork on precisely that question.

Joe and Bob hail from a town named after the 19th century Arab Muslim hero Emir Abdelkader. As they discovered, Abdelkader’s life story holds plenty of wisdom for Americans and others around the world today. After reading the biography, Commander of the Faithful…The Life and Times of Abdelkader by John W. Kiser, both students entered the essay contest and tied for the winning prize in Elkader. Their essays drew lessons from the emir’s moral and physical courage, humanitarianism, and tolerant world view.

The annual Abdelkader Essay Contest is based on Kiser’s biography along with other educational materials and is sponsored by the Abdelkader Education Project www.abdelkaderproject.org. This project spreads the message that Muslims and non-Muslims, Arabs and Americans, can all live in harmony if they practice the virtues of active understanding, empathy, religious tolerance and civility that Emir Abdelkader embraced.

In their own words, the students tell about their essay experiences and reflect on their Washington DC experience.

Bob Spielbauer:

Last fall, I made a decision that helped me grow immensely as a person. The Abdelkader Education Project offered an essay contest that got me involved in learning about the humanitarian Arab leader after whom my hometown, Elkader, was named. I love to write and hope to someday make it my career, so I decided to enter the contest. While reading John Kiser’s book, The Commander of the Faithful: The Life and Times of Emir Abdelkader, I learned a lot about Abdelkader’s inspiring life, his character, and what he held most dear—God.

Because I attend school in Elkader, I was given a special opportunity and along with that opportunity, came extra work. The Elkader portion of the contest entails both a written essay and supporting artifact, but at the same time offers the top essay student from the school a trip to Washington D.C. as well as a cash reward. For my artifact I created a painting of the emir on a framed 4’ by 8’ piece of plywood. It now hangs proudly in my school, promoting the awareness of our town’s connection to the Middle East.

My learning didn’t stop after I finished the essay. On the contrary, our journey through cultural learning was only just beginning. At the “Meet the Authors” event and The Forum in Elkader, I learned about the impact this book is having on the world and its relevance in our lives.

Since there were two Elkader winners this year, we were both awarded the all-expenses paid Washington D.C. trip provided by the Algerian Embassy. It was my first time on a plane, and it was an experience I will never forget. Kathy Garms and her project colleagues made the trip both educational and full of new experiences. The city was breathtaking and helped broaden my horizons in many ways.

We toured monuments, museums, and many historic sites. However, it’s not only the “places” that stick in my mind, but also the people. Even before we left the Minneapolis airport, we met numerous people with an interest in the project who shared their own stories.

Meeting with Algerian Ambassador Abdallah Baali and Iowa Congressman Bruce Braley, opened my eyes. By talking with them directly, I realized how much they are like everyone else.

I especially enjoyed the tours of the Capitol and White House West Wing because our guides had such great personalities. Once again, I realize, it comes down to the people you meet.

Just walking the streets of D.C. we saw thousands of people of various cultures and backgrounds all coming together as one. This trip showed me how much our nation truly is a melting pot of cultures, and completely reinforced the idea in my mind that we are all more alike than we are different. It could not have been a more beautiful experience.

Joe McGreal:

The Abdelkader Essay Contest trip to Washington DC was an experience I will never forget. It was the once-in-a-lifetime event that opened my eyes to options and potentials available to each individual. Through reading the book, writing the essay, and traveling to Washington DC, I learned about Abdelkader and how his ideas can be applicable today.

It all started by reading John W. Kiser’s book, Commander of the Faithful. This biography of Emir Abdelkader told of his life and his beliefs. It gave insight to Abdelkader’s world and his struggle for unity.

After reading the book, the contestants were required to write an essay. The essays cover a wide range of topics. I chose to compare and contrast Islam, Abdelkader’s religion, and Christianity. One of the best parts was the writing portion: brainstorming topics, searching for the right words, and editing. I finally finished my essay. A couple weeks later, to my surprise, I was informed that I had tied for first place in Elkader. In other words, I would get to go to Washington DC.

Washington DC was one of the most fascinating places I have ever visited, and fortunately my kind mentor Kathy Garms and my close friend Bob Spielbauer were with me on this amazing trip. After our arrival at the airport in Washington DC, we went directly to meet Algerian Ambassador Abdallah Baali. We talked to the ambassador, not only about Abdelkader, but of more current issues. He offered fascinating information and was very hospitable.

From then on, we toured with the nice and energetic Barbara Petzen visiting popular monuments and memorials, eating exotic tasty foods, and touring important government buildings.

One of my favorites was the National Archives Building where we viewed the Magna Carta, the Constitution, and the Declaration of Independence. There was also a movie theatre and museum/gallery. This building was very interesting because it contained documents that were so very old. Those documents are practically the birth certificates of our government today.

Another highlight was our visit to the White House West Wing which included many important rooms such as the Oval Office. It was very interesting because the rooms looked similar to those in movies and television shows, but not exactly. I was able to “see” it for the first time after having seen it many times through other’s eyes.

The entire experience, from reading the book, to writing the essay, to going on the trip, was educational. Through the trip, I learned of the many opportunities this wonderful country has to offer. I also learned not only about Abdelkader, but also about the need for unity in today’s world. This was a very unique and inspirational experience that will always stay with me.


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