While working on a novel in 2007 about survivors of the Iraq War, Baltimore resident Justin Sirois posted a request on an international website for Iraqis to answer his questions about the country's culture.
Questions ranged from "Where do you shop?" to "What kind of pets do you have?" Or, for those who had fled the country, he asked, "Why did you leave?"
Seventeen-year-old Haneen Alshujairy, an Iraqi refugee who had fled with her family to Egypt, responded and the two opened up an e-mail dialogue. When the project ended, Sirois came away with more than a book—he had a deeper connection to Middle Eastern people.
"I'd be in an airport and see someone with Arabic on a T-shirt, and I'd be concerned for that person," the 32-year-old Sirois explains. "I'd wonder if that person was going to be held up by security or if they were going to be targeted."
Thinking back to his budding friendship with Alshujairy, Sirois thought things could be different if people from the two cultures would simply talk to one another.
"I was asking her things like, 'Do you guys like chocolate?' and she would come back and say, 'I just got back from TGIF's, and my favorite dessert is the hot fudge brownie sundae,'" Sirois laughs. "She goes to the mall, she has a BlackBerry, she's just like anybody here."
In fact, the way Middle Easterners were often portrayed in the media was so different from Alshujairy's reality that Sirois eventually asked her to collaborate on the novel with him. Falcons on the Floor, about refugees fleeing from war-ravaged Iraq, will be released this fall by the local indie outfit, Publishing Genius.
Thinking more broadly, the two friends decided they could tackle prejudice. If they could form a cross-cultural bond, why couldn't others?
So they launched the Understanding Campaign, an effort that would ask Americans to commit to learning just one word of Arabic, which would open up a dialogue between the two cultures. The word they decided on was fhm (pronounced "fuh'hem"), which means "understanding."
As a graphic designer and graduate of Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), Sirois knew that art had the power to inspire people to take action. Since Arabic script is written in a cursive style from right to left, and has little resemblance to American letters, Sirois saw an opportunity to turn the Arabic representation of the word fhm into pieces of artwork and invited other artists to do the same.
"People see it and say, 'I like this design' or 'This particular color is cool,' but they're also learning something," he says. "If you're having fun and learning something, then I think that's a success."
When Sirois and Alshujairy started the Understanding Campaign in 2010, they wondered if they could garner enough support for the idea to sustain a nonprofit organization that would eventually support cross-cultural literary projects.
It was easy to find examples of misunderstanding between Americans and Middle Easterners, ranging from Florida pastor Terry Jones burning the Quran to charges of profiling Arab-Americans at airports. And, of course, just last month, the cultures seemed further polarized by the worldwide reaction to the death of Osama bin Laden.
To test the waters, last fall, Sirois and Alshujairy launched an online fundraising campaign—using the website Kickstarter with the aim of raising $10,000 in six weeks. The money would be used to create buttons, stickers, and other promotional items with the word fhm emblazoned upon them. The effort garnered $10,874, and, more importantly, gave Sirois a better idea of how the Understanding Campaign could be most effective.
"I was always surprised by the conversations I would have, specifically with strangers," Sirois says. "People would ask about the T-shirt I was wearing or the button on my hat and that would spark a five- or 10-minute conversation where people wanted to know more."
One of the strangers who was inspired by the campaign was Courtney Gardner, director of the Community Play School, a preschool with about 25 two-to-five-year-olds in Hamilton.
"I saw the buttons and pins on people and the bumper stickers," she says. Intrigued, Gardner went to the website to learn more and decided that the Understanding Campaign fit in perfectly with her desire to teach her young students compassion. "I made the connection and thought, 'This is what this whole campaign is about—empathy—and I think it will translate really well with the preschoolers.'"
Gardner started by talking with the children about what the word "understanding" means. "I showed them the Arabic word and taught them how to say it," she says. The idea of reading from right to left really took off among the toddlers. "Kids at that age do a lot of writing backwards so it was an interesting connection."
For Gardner and the Community Play School, learning the word was just the first step. They also used artwork and cooking to expose the kids to Arabic culture.
"When Arab culture comes up later for them in their elementary or middle school careers, the seeds will have already been planted," she says. "This is a huge world concept that's coming right out of their neighborhood, which makes it even more valuable for them."
The leap the Community Play School made from the word fhm to lessons in humanity is exactly what Sirois is hoping to create on a broader scale. He points to how anti-Vietnam war protestors rallied behind the peace symbol and thinks fhm could have a similar impact.
"When you think of all the imagery that came out of that particular peace movement, there's nothing like that right now," he says. "If we work hard enough, maybe this can become that."
Sirois may be onto something, as one of the stars of the Vietnam-era peace movement, Yoko Ono, sent a tweet last October urging her followers to check out the Understanding Campaign. "That was really cool," Sirois says with a laugh.
Other celebrities that took note of the Campaign include Emmy-winning actor William H. Macy and his wife, Desperate Housewives star Felicity Huffman, who each supplied the Kickstarter campaign with a modest check and an endorsement.
One of the strengths of the Understanding Campaign is the amount of collaboration it has sparked, as artists test their illustrative chops on the word fhm. When the owners of Baltimore graphic design firm Post Typography found out about the campaign, they were sold on the concept and the challenge to contribute to the designs.
"Fostering an understanding between cultures is something I believe in personally," says Post Typography cofounder Bruce Willen. "We tried a few different approaches to the word, but actually wound up doing one that was basic and stripped down. Art can help create the associations in people's minds that you might not get by reading a newspaper article. Art is open to interpretation and has that visual element. It can be the basis for humanizing one another."
Sirois made use of his MICA connections when enlisting the support of another Baltimore business. Squidfire, a clothing and accessories retailer launched by fellow MICA graduates Kevin Sherry and Jean-Baptiste Regnard, not only created its own interpretation of the word, but they made T-shirts that the Understanding Campaign was able to hand out to financial supporters.
The campaign also sparked partnerships with other social advocacy groups such as the Iraqi Student Project, an organization that brings war-displaced Iraqis to the United States to get a college education and offers financial and emotional support in the process.
"The two groups have complementary missions," says Alessandra Manfre, secretary pro-tem for the Iraqi Student Project. "We physically bring students over here to get their education, but a huge fringe benefit and side effect of them being here is that Americans interact day in and day out with Iraqis. The Understanding Campaign is also about better communication and breaking down the stereotypes."
The two groups have worked together as part of an informal agreement, with the Understanding Campaign providing buttons, T-shirts, and other promotional items to Iraqi Student Project fundraising events. Manfre and Sirois are exploring other ways that the organizations can work together for their common cause.
Sirois is actively seeking out other nonprofits and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to set up similar arrangements.
"Hopefully, the Understanding Campaign will become this hub for tons of Middle Eastern NGOs and nonprofits that are working toward the same goal and rallying around one central symbol," says Sirois.
To do so, the organization wouldn't need money so much as it would need enough artistic support to take the concept viral, he says.
"Once the energy is there and we have enough physical stickers in the world, it will, hopefully, sustain itself," Sirois says.
In short, Sirois is hoping the art will spark a movement.
"Artists and writers can show that there's nothing to be afraid of," he says. "I would love it eventually to be less about T-shirts and more about people sharing."
To this day, Sirois and Alshujairy have never met face to face. Their relationship is relegated to e-mail exchanges and Facebook posts, yet they share so many details of each others' lives that Sirois can hardly remember a time when he didn't to confide in Alshujairy.
Most recently, he worried when he didn't hear from her for a couple of weeks during the Egyptian uprising in January and February but later found out she had been in Jordan the entire time. Though their friendship took mere hours to develop, it stemmed from Sirois's desire to understand more about a culture he knew little about.
"If I can create the same experience that I had with Haneen for other people, then I'm happy," he says. "And it can all start with one word."