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Cedar Rapids man's social experiment on Facebook shows 'people are people'

An Afghan refuge, approximately 7 or 8, watches the sunset from rooftops above a bazaar in Kashan, a city in the northern part of Isfahan province in Iran on or about Oct. 1, 2019. (Photo contributed by Eric Gutschmidt)
An Afghan refuge, approximately 7 or 8, watches the sunset from rooftops above a bazaar in Kashan, a city in the northern part of Isfahan province in Iran on or about Oct. 1, 2019. (Photo contributed by Eric Gutschmidt)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — In his first day in Tehran, the capital city of Iran, during a two-week expedition this fall, Eric Gutschmidt, of Cedar Rapids, climbed the rooftops above an enclosed bazaar to watch the sunset.

He found a young Afghan refugee, estimated to be 7 or 8, doing the same. They did not share the same language but could still enjoy each others’ company.

“It was a very human experience,” said Gutschmidt, 35. “Even though we couldn’t speak, we could still joke. It was a light moment and he was a super fun kid. He genuinely just wanted someone to play with.”

Gutschmidt, a home remodeler by profession, has developed a lengthy resume as a world traveler with some 50 countries under his belt and has come to understand perceptions often portrayed in the media and elsewhere doesn’t match reality of who people are.

During his most recent trip, he tried a social experiment through Facebook to show how much in common people have, even in Iran, he said. He was partly motivated by messages from friends and family worried about his plans to visit a country viewed as hostile toward the United States.

Rather than post pictures of landscapes and buildings, he would focus more on the people he met.

“I am going to try to take more selfies than usual and I am going to try to take selfies with people, in the streets, in the shops, in the taxi, whatever the case may be,” he said in a video message introducing his plan. “And, if you see the selfie you should know and trust I am taking a selfie with a person who is a real person who doesn’t have any ill will toward me.”

He tagged his posts “People are People and “We are all the same,” and encouraged followers to like and comment. The idea was that through one degree of separation, friends back home could feel a connection and dispel a notion that Iranians hate Americans, he said.

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During his trip, in which he used an Australian-based guide service and was part of a small group of travelers from around the world, Gutschmidt carried out his plan, gathering hundreds of “likes” and dozens of comments. He had encounters with a tea shop owner, a teenager who approached Gutschmidt to take a selfie and a student who was trying to practice speaking English, among others.

“I’ve been to a bunch of places with reputations for hospitality, and this is almost certainly one of the nicest places,” he said. “When I got there I discovered these are literally the nicest people. Because there are not many people visiting as tourists, you stick out, which makes people more curious. They want to know who are, where you are from, and why you are there. It starts a conversation very easily.”

Gutschmidt’s hope is by humanizing people thought to be enemies, it can help break down barriers.

“I want to show family and friends it is an awesome place with awesome people,” he said. “I wanted to humanize Iranian people and show how much like us they are. They get tattoos and piercings. They enjoy having a drink and a good time. They enjoy good food and family like we do. ”

Comments: (319) 398-8310; brian.morelli@thegazette.com

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