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Cultural Communicator

For Janine C. Khayali, BBA ’00, MBA ’06, one key to U.S. success internationally lies in knowing what to say, how to say it, and how to behave. That is: having competency in foreign languages and cultures. Toward this goal, Khayali is an important asset at the U.S. Air Force’s new Office of Culture and Language Training Policy.

Janine Khayali, BBA ’00, MBA ’06, who speaks at least four languages fluently, is part of a U.S. Air Force effort to increase cultural awareness and foreign language competency within the U.S. military.

Julie Woodford

“Our ultimate goal is to create policy that increases cultural and language competency within the Air Force so that it becomes the leader in these areas for the Department of Defense,” Khayali says.

Why America needs such competency is apparent if recent events in Iraq are considered.

“Because we don’t fully understand the Iraqi culture, we’ve made mistakes, and this has created problems. One example is what occurred at the Abu Ghraib prison,” Khayali explains. “Americans didn’t fully understand how offensive these actions were to the Iraqi people.

“No matter how noble your cause, if you are making cultural mistakes that are deeply offensive, you are not going to keep people on your cause. As a result of such offensives in Iraq, anti-American sentiment is growing—not just among extreme Muslims, but also moderate-minded Iraqis. This is not only my opinion, but it is the prevalent opinion among Iraqis and the Arab world.

“On the other hand, a little cultural etiquette will go a long way in bringing people back on our side. If a few Arab minds see cultural sensitivity from Americans, that gets spread around quickly. Marketing campaigns using media like television and newspapers are not as effective as good deeds that would influence the Iraqi households through word of mouth. This is how we should capture the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people. That would change their perception of America from an occupier to a liberator.”

Khayali’s qualifications come from her heritage, training, and experience. She is the daughter of a Swiss-American mother and an Iraqi-born American father. Until Khayali was 10 years old, she lived in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and spent her summers in Spain. The family then moved permanently to the United States.

When Khayali entered GW, she was fluent in Arabic, Spanish, French, and English, and seeking a degree in international business and finance. After earning her bachelor’s degree in 2000, she joined management-consulting firm BearingPoint. Recognizing her talents, the company sent her to Baghdad to work on international development of economic recovery and reform projects after the defeat of Saddam Hussein.

In early 2004, she returned home and did consulting work for PriceWaterhouseCoopers before jumping back into the international arena in June 2004 with Management Systems International. This job returned her to Iraq, where she monitored and evaluated more than 20 U.S. Agency for International Development projects to rebuild Iraq.

Back stateside in August 2004, Khayali again worked for PriceWaterhouseCoopers while pursuing a master’s in international business and development at GW. She also got married—she met her husband in Iraq; he was working in the U.S. State Department’s Diplomatic Corps.

In March 2005, Khayali began working at the Air Force Office of General Counsel, helping create a center to teach multicultural negotiation skills to future general officers. The development was directed by negotiation expert Joseph McDade (a Senior Executive Service officer).

“In August, Mr. McDade was chosen to create the Office of Language and Culture Training Policy. He brought me with him,” Khayali says.

“It is going to take years to increase culture and language competency, but this is a priority and it’s happening because of people like Brig. Gen. Robert Allardice [Air Force director of Airman Development and Sustainment, deputy chief of staff for Manpower and Personnel] and Joe McDade,” she states. “While everyone needs to have some language capability, building up culture knowledge is the major focus.

“To do this, we are examining existing initiatives to ensure we are all on the same page. Then we will write the policy of where we need to go. Next we’ll bring in subject-matter experts—this is my specialty—to meet our goal.

“We are also leveraging lessons learned from nongovernmental organizations, like the U.S. Institute for Peace, that have successfully worked overseas. And we are looking for people who are not considered ‘military’ to help us—like individuals who have worked for the private sector.

“Our program is also trying to bridge a relationship with GW, in that we want GW professors and students with international backgrounds to participate in specific projects. This would include not just individuals from the Elliott School of International Affairs, but from all GW schools.”

Khayali guarantees the work will be rewarding.

“I’ve been able to work for a group of very bright folks on the cutting edge of thought when it comes to building cultural knowledge,” she says. “As an Iraqi American, I’ve brought the perspective of the Arab mind and the Arab American mind. They are taking my opinions into account, and that has been the most energizing function of what I’m doing.”

—Kathleen Kocks