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Thursday, June 21, 2012
Education Toolbox

From surplus equipment room to Iraq

By David Burns

Thomas Edison once said, “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.” I spent last fall living this adage, and I couldn’t be prouder.

In June 2011, I was in Amman, Jordan, participating in a UNESCO-sponsored workshop on updating journalism curricula across Iraqi universities. My fellow consultants and I were assisting Iraqi university journalism administrators and faculty along with representatives from the Iraqi Ministry of Higher Education to revise journalism education to better reflect the profound changes affecting their country and their educational institutions. We regretted that security conditions did not allow us to meet in Iraq as intended, but I enjoyed the chance to return to Jordan, where I had previously lived and taught journalism at Yarmouk University.

The news from the Iraqis regarding the state of journalism education in the war-torn country is sobering. Not only does the curriculum need to be revised to include usage of the technological tools of today’s reporters, the universities lack those tech tools entirely. Despite promising laws passed by the new Iraqi government guaranteeing free speech and press, educational institutions do not possess basic audio and video equipment or even enough computer workstations to teach students how to exercise those new freedoms through the creation of multimedia news stories.

On this somber note we broke for a much-needed coffee break, during which I read an email from the media engineer at Salisbury University, where I teach, noting that the university would be decommissioning some unneeded video equipment. In other words, it was likely heading for the trash. What could be easier, I naively thought, than donating this equipment to Baghdad University instead? I sent an email inquiry.

The university’s administrative wheels turned quickly. Salisbury University Chief Information Officer Jerome Waldron brought the project to Diane Allen, Salisbury’s provost. The provost said yes, but with one caveat: The equipment was solely for student educational use.

I now needed funding to cover the thousands of dollars it would cost to get the equipment to Iraq. George Papagiannis, then the director of the UNESCO Iraq Office, approved it.

Dean Hashim Hasan of Baghdad University’s journalism school was ecstatic. Hasan had already paid a heavy price for his defense of press freedom, having spent time in prison for opposing the regime of Saddam Hussein. With a promise from Iraq’s Ministry of Higher Education to expedite the equipment through customs once it arrived, everything looked rosy by early July 2011. Salisbury University support, UNESCO funding and an Iraqi government commitment were accomplished within two days of that coffee break. I was on a roll … or so I thought.

Once back in the U.S., I began the paperwork. The instructions for UPS’ benignly titled “Shipper’s Letter of Intent” was only three pages long; the form itself had only 31 boxes to fill in. I would have it done by lunch. Then I learned the combustible camera batteries had to be packed and shipped separately from the rest of the equipment, doubling the paperwork.

I contacted the U.S. Department of Commerce to find out whether a license was required for the equipment. It didn’t need a license, but the Commerce Department needed to verify that none of the gear could be stripped and re-purposed to wage war.

Last, I had to obtain a 10-digit commercial code from the U.S. Census Bureau for every piece of equipment. It seems everything has a number and is included in the Census Bureau’s searchable database of over 8,000 commodities, including elephants.

With the paperwork and permissions complete, Salisbury University media engineer Ray Fantini and multimedia engineer Michael Camillo carefully packed the four boxes for the 6,000-mile journey from Salisbury to Baghdad via Baltimore, New York City and Dubai. The boxes contained three video cameras, two tripods, two PortaBrace camera bags, seven rechargeable batteries with charger, one computer workstation with a pre-loaded non-linear editing software application, a flat-screen monitor, custom keyboard and accompanying cables.

The equipment left Salisbury on Dec. 22, and after extended layovers in New York and Dubai, it reached Baghdad airport. As promised, the Iraqi Ministry of Higher Education expedited the equipment through customs, and the gear was delivered to Baghdad University on or about Jan. 20 — nearly seven months after that coffee break in Amman.

Salisbury’s donation now gives Baghdad University’s journalism students the opportunity for hands-on training on equipment, for the first time in the journalism school’s history. “We will never forget this gift,” Hasan wrote. “It has enormous meaning for us, and it will be the motive for cooperation (and) trust (as we) achieve together (our) joint humanitarian and scientific goals.”

Making this donation happen required good-hearted people all along the way working as a team to get those cameras in the hands of Iraqi journalists. Would I do it again? Absolutely. And I would encourage others to seek out similar opportunities. While it takes a lot of work, all of us will benefit from a better-trained journalism corps around the world holding governments accountable.

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