WINSTON-SALEM JOURNAL Sunday, May 18, 2008  
Section: A Edition: METRO  
Page: 23 Column: John Railey  
                         Debra Dillard (left) and an Iranian Friend

Debra Dillard of Winston-Salem went to Iran last month to make new friends.
That sounds pretty crazy, doesn't it?
About as crazy as Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee for president,  singing "Bomb, bomb, bomb .bomb, bomb Iran" last year - even as America troops were  paying the ultimate price for the poorly planned Iraq war, just across the border from Iran. And they're still paying the price.
About as crazy as Sen. Hillary Clinton, campaigning in Pennsylvania last month for the Democratic presidential nomination, responding to a question about what she would do if Iran attacked Israel with nuclear weapons: "I want the Iranians to know that if I'm the president, we will attack Iran. In the next 10 years, during which they might foolishly consider launching an attack on Israel, we would be able to totally obliterate them."
She sounded like she was talking more to the Iranian people than to their president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Dillard, a 27-year-old Salem College graduate, was hanging out among the Iranian people in Iran last month when she heard about Clinton's words. She said that most of the Iranians she met while traveling with Neighbors East and West (a small, grass-roots citizens' group from America) were friendly and smart enough to differentiate between Americans and their leaders. They know all Americans aren't like President Bush, they told her, just as all Iranians aren't like Ahmadinejad.
"We can't sit around and let our government, let our administration speak for us," said Dillard, who is the peace and justice coordinator for the Greensboro office of the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker group. "If our government refuses to have a direct talk with the government of Iran, then the people are taking on the role of being the diplomats."
After all, Ahmadinejad does have a dismal record on human rights. It's easy to hear or read his hate-filled speeches and know he's not a nice guy. We could dismiss him as a wacky hatemonger if the threat he poses to Israel weren't all too real.
But what are the Iranian people like?
Dillard, armed only with gifts of artwork from Winston-Salem students and knitted items gathered by Quakers in High Point, had the guts to try to find out.
"It was peacemaking, peace-building, friendship-building," she said.
Group members raised their own money for the two-week trip. They had a few Iranian contacts before they left, Dillard said, and met a lot more in the country. They had guides, she said, but they were travel guides, not "minders" checking up on them as they drove past snow-capped mountains and lush gardens.
She never felt that she was in danger, she said. In fact, she said, the Iranians were anxious to meet and talk with her and her friends. The group visited with Iranians and exchanged e-mail addresses with them.
And in November, she said, her group hopes to return to Iran. She might not be with the group then, she said, but she does hope to return to Iran one day.
Individuals who brave trips to countries their governments are opposed to can usually find kindred spirits. We all know that governments wage wars, not individual citizens. And there's sure no end to war. A mighty chorus of citizen voices can end a long-running war, but such choruses never form in time to prevent a pending war.
So friendship missions such as Dillard's probably sound crazy to many Americans.
But they're nowhere near as crazy as the very real prospect of America spending thousands of lives and trillions of dollars on another war in the Middle East, one with Iran.
- John Railey writes local editorials for the Journal.
He can be reached at