Palisadian Supports Democracy in Iraq

Since Palisades resident Jim Hake created Spirit of America in the summer of 2003, the Palisadian-Post has been covering the rapid growth of the not-for-profit organization, which helps Americans serving abroad to assist people in need and aids ‘those advancing freedom and peace’ in areas such as Iraq and Afghanistan. ”Most of SoA’s projects have involved fulfilling requests from American personnel for goods that improve the lives of local people, such as water barrels, sandals, clothing, sewing machines, hand tools, sports equipment, and medical and school supplies. The organization has had more than 10,000 supporters contribute to these projects. ”In the Post’s latest article about SoA (‘Hake Brings Spirit of America to Iraq,’ June 24, 2004), we reported on Hake’s first trip to Iraq in May as a guest of the Marines and civilian representative of his organization. Just a month earlier, SoA had gained national attention when The Wall Street Journal ran an editorial page feature on Hake’s campaign to raise $100,000 to help Marines establish Iraqi-owned TV stations in Al Anbar province, west of Baghdad. The article by Dan Henninger generated an enormous donor response, and SoA received $764,408 from over 4,000 donors in five days. ”As a result of the outpouring, Hake decided to increase the scope and scale of his organization’s activities in Iraq, which included working with a network of Iraqis to support their ideas and efforts for democracy. ”One of the projects born out of this new network is ‘Friends of Democracy,’ which supports efforts to ‘(1) increase voter participation in Iraq’s January election; and (2) encourage the Iraqi people to make informed decisions on the candidates.’ ” The Iraq democracy project got its name from the Iraqi bloggers (Internet publishers) Hake met with in October in Amman, Jordan. They are three brothers from Baghdad’Mohammed, Ali and Omar, graduates of Baghdad University who a year ago started an English-language Web site called ‘Iraq the Model’ (www.iraqthemodel.com). ”This blog encourages freedom of expression and provides a view into life in Baghdad as well as a means by which Iraqis can communicate with people throughout the world to discuss issues of democracy, such as next month’s elections. ”Under the ‘Friends of Democracy’ initiative, Spirit of America is supporting efforts like this with direct funding, equipment and technical assistance. For example, the organization provides Internet access, blog hosting, copiers and paper to support a network of pro-democracy student groups and community organizations. ”Other projects include the creation of an Arabic blogging tool, since the blogs are currently only in English, and the production of radio and television public service announcements by the Iraq Ministry of Women’s Affairs to encourage women to vote. SoA has earned about $110,000 for ‘Friends of Democracy’ to date. ”In order to give its supporters a chance to learn more about the Iraq democracy project, SoA has been hosting a series of events featuring the organization’s team as well as the Marines and Iraqis they’ve been working with and supporting. ”One of these events was held Monday night at Loew’s Hotel ballroom in Santa Monica. SoA brought Iraqi bloggers Mohammed and Omar to share their perspectives, along with Lt. Col. Al Burghard, who was one of the first Marines Hake worked with in the summer of 2003 and during his trip to Iraq. ”Dressed in jeans and a red plaid button-down shirt, Mohammed, 35, said that Iraqis are ‘hungry for information’ and that providing them with blogs will ‘let many Iraqis express themselves and tell their stories about what’s going on on the ground.’ ”He added that after only one year of Internet service, Iraq already has 100 blogs in English. Most of the bloggers are students since ‘there’s Internet [service] in each university in Iraq.’ ”Omar, 24, explained that there are ‘islands of freedom over Iraq’ and that the goal of Iraq the Model and ‘Friends of Democracy’ is to ‘bridge the islands.’ ”He said that blogs that ‘incite violence and hatred’ will not be accepted, and will be controlled by ‘conditions or terms of use’ for the sites. Hake added that ‘if you break the law, we’re not going to give you a free blog.’ ”Spirit of America is ‘different from any other humanitarian organization I’ve seen because it does not just supply food and clothing,’ Omar said. ‘It helps people help themselves to build their own lives and own future.’ ”Both dentists, Mohammed and Omar said they do not feel that they have faced opposition in establishing their blog or working with Spirit of America, though Col. Lt. Burghard pointed out that ‘because of their valor, they’re at risk’ since they’re ‘a threat to terrorists.’ ”For Hake, working with Mohammed and Omar has been a ‘confirmation that person-to-person connection is so important.’ ”For more information on Spirit of America projects, visit www.spiritofamerica.net.