On May 23, former Syrian Ambassador Robert Ford gave an interactive talk at Essex High School (EHS) as part of the Global Leadership Program’s speaker series.

The Global Leadership Program is an academy within EHS, and seeks to connect students with the global community through education in leadership development, communication and cross-cultural competency, and foreign language acquisition.

Perks from participating in the Global Leadership Program, include an international exchange program, internship opportunities, and the  speaker series.

The Ambassador approached his time slot by engaging students and asking questions, trading a strict speech for a looser, discussion-based style. “Why should we care?” Ford asked regarding the Syrian conflict, walking back and forth in front of a crowd of students and teachers. “I know you’ve been studying this issue, what do you think we can do about Syria? What ideas do you have? First I want to hear yours,” he continued.

Ford served as US Ambassador to Syria from 2011 to 2014, right as the Syrian conflict was escalating, and when Syria suspended diplomatic relations with the US. Prior to serving as Syrian Ambassador, he served as Ambassador to Algeria, Deputy Ambassador to Iraq, and Deputy Chief of Mission in Bahrain.

While Ford continually asked questions of the students, engaging them in discussions about the refugee crisis and what makes a good diplomat, he also told a story about one of his biggest regrets while on the job.

“My boss asked me to lie,” said Ford.

The Ambassador described a time during his tenure in Bahrain when his boss instructed Ford to lie to a state official. Ford then said that he ended up confessing to the lie, calling it one of the most horrible moments of his career. “After that, it took a long time for that Secretary of State to ever speak to me again; he didn’t trust me,” said Ford.

“What should I have done?” Ford then asked the students. “This was 15 years ago. I’ve thought about this almost every day. What do you think?”

“It’s a lose-lose situation,” offered up a student. Ford nodded, following the point. “And in a lose-lose situation, what kinds of things make something worse than another?”

One student suggested job security, putting one’s family and country above everything else. Another suggested considering weighing the amount of guilt. Ford listened to all answers, nodding, “There’s no single right or wrong answer,” he concluded.

Ford also focused largely on the refugee crisis, arguing that the “bad guys had already won,” but that hope for refugees still existed.

“Diplomacy is not going to end this war,” said Ford bluntly. “I don’t think that we can fix this.” Instead, he argued that providing aid to refugees in Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, and other effected areas would save thousands of starving people, as well as alleviate national security threats.

“Would refugees be more interested in extremism growing up; someone who is desperate and has nothing?” He asked the students. “I would argue against the current president: if only 1% of those five million refugees become interested in extremism, we have a problem.”

In preparation for Ford’s visit, students of the program were required to study both the Syrian conflict and Ford extensively, as well as draft possible questions.

One student asked what Ford was most proud of. “Whatever my job, I stood up for human rights,” responded Ford. “I got a lot of backlash for it. But to this day refugees along the Turkish border are still getting food and medicine because I convinced Obama and the UN to ignore international law and get resources to people.”

Creator of the Global Leadership Program, Jill Prado, is excited for next year’s cohort, which will see about 20 more kids than this year. “I think it is imperative to be connected to the world,” said Prado, who first launched the program in the fall of 2017 after she was inspired by student’s interest in other parts of the world. “These are kids that have truly distinguished themselves; who want to make a difference.”