08/20/2010 06:14 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Getting to Know My (Br)other: U.S. Exchanges Build Trust

It was breezy Chicago day, the third week of an Egyptian-American cultural exchange, when two members of an Egyptian disabled delegation, emerged from a Sears store with wide smiles and holding T-shirts reading: "God Bless America!"

The delegation of eleven visiting Egyptians, many of whom were Muslim, was sponsored with the help of the U.S. State Department by Hands Along the Nile, a non-governmental organization based in Washington, D.C.

As the Egyptians showed off their prizes to the group, some in wheelchairs, another in their crew joked: "Do you want someone to kill you back in Egypt?"

This cheery picture of disabled Egyptians, chuckling and waving red-white and blue shirts amid friendly Chicagoans, looked strange when juxtaposed against a rising fear in the U.S. of Muslims and an American Imam of Egyptian descent, who says he intends to build an Islamic center two blocks from Ground Zero in New York.

In Manama Bahrain Friday, Imam Feisal Adbul Rauf, who is leading another U.S. State Department-funded tour to discuss Muslim life in America and religious tolerance, refused to comment on the growing controversy. The author of the book, What's Right with Islam is What's Right with America, sounded moderate enough, however, as he walked out of Friday prayers to tell the Associated Press. "This issue of extremism is something that has been a national security issue -- not only for the United States but also for many countries and nations in the Muslim world," he said.

The State Department's push for more cultural exchanges between America and the Islamic world -- articulated earlier this month -- comes at a time when public opinion polls suggest that U.S.-Islamic relations are fast deteriorating even after a slight improvement in the wake of the election of President Barack Obama. Americans often associate predominantly Muslim Arabs with violence, terrorism and hatred of American freedom.

Likewise, in Arab countries, citizens increasingly view America as a materialistic, threatening and as an oppressive super power, unfriendly to Islam and the entire Arab world. According to organizers, cultural exchanges work to disabuse both sides of false impressions. They break down distrust and refute stereotypes. Chicago, a city that shines in the field of opportunities for disabled Americans, turned out to be a great place for both Egyptians and Americans to learn more about one another this month.

The Egyptian delegation attended workshops sponsored by SCORE Chicago, a program of small business administration, which integrated the Egyptians and their Arabic translators directly into its regular course structure. "We were thinking to set up separate classes for the Egyptian group, but in the end we decided not to because the intercultural interaction would be lost," said Mark Goodman, SCORE's administrator. "We wanted the Egyptians to learn alongside their American counterparts and it turned out wonderfully."

The Egyptians, who spent three weeks in Chicago and left last week included persons in the business of deaf communications, education for children with disabilities and the creative arts. Typical of the group was Sabrin Zaki Mourad, who has her own stained-glass design studio in Egypt. She joined the exchange in hopes of increasing her own profit margins enough to open a parallel arts program for disabled Egyptian children. "This has been such a wonderful experience," said Ms. Zaki Mourad, sporting a cap with a replica Statue of Liberty crown.

Chicagoans in the classroom and on the street embraced the disabled Egyptians. They expressed their fascination with Egypt as a nation. In turn, the Egyptians made friends and embraced American culture and business know-how.

"The evidence of American affection for these folks was everywhere, not only in business workshops, but with people the Egyptians met on the street, at a disability pride parade and in the hotel," said Ivana Veselinovic, the Hands Along the Nile Program Director. "They were an unusual group - on crutches, in wheelchairs and always laughing -- but that did not deter Chicagoans from reaching out to them."

Earlier this month, U.S. Senator John Kerry announced an intensification of State Department programs that encourage exchanges of teachers, city planners and public health workers between Islamic world and the United States. Some of the new exchange programs will include groups of "fellows" between the ages of 21-40, including journalists, leaders of religious-based organizations and employees of nonprofit organizations.

Imam Rauf, now on a two-week tour of the Middle East, has been part of State Department exchange efforts, himself, since accepting an offer during the last Bush Administration to work towards improving American and Islamic relations. Critics have charged that he is inappropriate for the work as he has said U.S. foreign policy was partially responsible for the attacks at Ground Zero.

Christian, Muslim and Jewish supporters of the Islamic center near to Ground Zero -- many of whom see it as a possible bridge to cultural understanding -- point out that many of the leading critics of the center are painting moderate Muslim groups with a broad brush by blaming them for extremist attacks, which they, along with Imam Rauf, have disavowed.