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In Qatar, building education and democracy eclipses the anxiety of war.

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Today, to most of the world, this picture is obscured by a tiny independent country — a sheikdom — that has become an inevitable, if not wholly serene, companion to the war in Iraq. Thousands of troops have descended upon the U.S. Air Force base at Al Udeid. The Arabic-language network al Jazeera that, after Sept. 11, broadcast Osama bin Laden's video threats and continues to provide reportage from the Middle East, is transmitted from Doha. And Qatar has been identified by some as a place where al Qaeda cells could flourish.

Yet in the midst of mounting unrest and global attention, Doha manages to thrive modestly as a place where opportunity means importing virtually everything — from skilled hands to innovative ideas. This includes a campus of Virginia Commonwealth University. To the country that has come to see it as a harbinger of hope and of access, and to the 25 faculty from Richmond committed to its mission, the university's presence has never been more vital.

On a recent Thursday afternoon, Mary McLaughlin sits in her office on the fifth floor of the VCU School of the Arts' Pollak building, engrossed with a colleague in planning this year's graduation in Qatar. It will be the second one. McLaughlin, associate dean of academic affairs at VCU-Qatar, is in Richmond to champion the progress of the program that began in 1997. On March 13, she arrived in Richmond after a 24-hour plane trek from Doha — via Amsterdam and Detroit — to convince the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools to accredit VCU's Middle Eastern campus that boasts an enrollment of 120 Qatari women.

Currently, the program is open only to females and offers Bachelor of Fine Arts degrees in communication arts and design, fashion design and merchandising, and interior design. VCU's auxiliary campus is funded by the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development, an effort led by Her Highness Sheikha Mozah Bint Nasser Bin Abdullah Al-Misned, wife of His Highness Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani, emir of Qatar.

Like much of VCU's far-flung faculty, McLauglin has been in Qatar since the program's inception.

"The minute they announced they were opening a campus there, I knew I wanted to go," she says. "It's a new adventure."

Now the adventure has thrust her, and others who've volunteered to go, perilously close to the war in Iraq.

McLaughlin insists the climate is safe. With motherly assurance, she calls it home, trading fear for optimism. The country's leaders — the sheik and his wife — are "moving together toward making Qatar the center of democracy in the Arab world," she says.

Still, conflict swarms around them, soldiers roam the streets, the state department provides constant updates, and her bosses in Richmond, VCU's president, Eugene Trani, and Richard Toscan, dean of the school of the arts, apprise her and her faculty about what to do if the situation becomes alarming.

For now, though, it's business as usual, which means cultivating an education for the young women the school has pledged to teach and, eventually, equip with a career. In Doha it seems war is not the point of anything.

There are 600,000 people in Qatar, 90 percent of whom live in Doha. Two-thirds of them have migrated to the country as expatriates from such places as Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. Or they are laborers from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and the Philippines who have come to work in a region that, thanks to its seemingly endless supply of natural gas, is quickly moving toward becoming the richest nation in the world. Mostly, they are Sunni Muslims. But other religions are represented, too. Next year a Catholic church will be built in Doha, the first non-Muslim place of worship. The Qataris, both nationals and transplants, wear religion like a skin.

"Religion is not just a component of their culture. It is their government, it is everything," and politics is routinely discussed at mosques, McLaughlin says. "Religion is everywhere and all the time."

VCU-Qatar students reflect this sentiment even as they move in their education toward greater independence and expanded cultural ideals. They cover themselves in black wraps called abbayas and most wear veils, or shaylas. Once inside the classrooms of the alabaster VCU campus, though, many doff the shells, revealing Western-style clothes, jewelry and even makeup, she says.

In the five years that VCU has been in Qatar, a relationship of trust has emerged between students and faculty. Still, as Sept. 11 proved, tumult has a way of exacting unwanted change in the surest of places.

"Students immediately were concerned after 9/11 and were afraid we would leave," McLaughlin recalls. Those sentiments were expressed recently when U.S. officials put the nation at a code-orange alert. Even so, says McLaughlin, VCU has plans to stay. "Now, more than ever, our faculty feel extremely committed," she says.

The reason they are devoted to a country 6,000 miles away is simple, she says. It's a matter of finishing what was started, of seeing development come full circle.

The Qataris call it "Education City." It's the Doha of the future. VCU is among the pioneers. This year Cornell University set up an undergraduate program for medical students there. In the next few years other universities such as Texas A&M and Carnegie Mellon will establish sites in Qatar. And for teachers, McLaughlin notes, the climate is exceptional: a low student-teacher ratio, excellent facilities and good pay.

The aim of the VCU program now is to create a design industry in Qatar where graduates can build careers. The school hopes to do this, at least in part, by building on the 2006 Asian Games that will be hosted in Doha. It could be an international occasion, competition and celebration, much like the Olympics. As McLaughlin speaks of it, her eyes seem to glint. After all, Qatar already is home to Masters golf tournaments, world-class tennis — why not bigger designs?

Her dreams are imperative, she says. "If we don't create an industry, there's no reason for our school." As soon as she says this she pauses and seems to reconsider. It's as though thoughts of war among those in Doha have never seemed more ironic or conflicting.

McLaughlin considers her students and what their fate may become. "By contrast, they reveal so much about ourselves and Western culture that we have never questioned," she says. "You think of Qatar as a desert wasteland. But it's not. Our students are the next generation," she says. "We have freedom of speech here. Our school is a little piece of America." S

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