Muslim-US diplomacy - one teen at a time
The US government sponsors a student exchange that brings young people from Muslim nations to America. Here's how Ruba, an Iraqi, spent the school year in Falmouth, Mass.
Sometimes diplomacy is as simple as a teenager's smile. In the halls of Falmouth Academy on Massachusetts' Cape Cod, the face of Iraq is Ruba - unveiled and unabashed as she gives out hugs and high-fives.Skip to next paragraph
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"I love answering questions," she says as she nears the end of her year here as a high school junior. "Someone asked if I have a refrigerator. They always ask me why I'm so normal - that's the best question ever!"
Along with 10 boys from Iraq and some 400 other high-schoolers from predominantly Muslim countries, Ruba has been studying in the United States through a program the State Department launched in the 2002-03 school year, in response to the fissures of 9/11. It's one of the modest steps by governments and educators to create a new tide of young ambassadors.
Many connections take the form of letters, e-mails, and joint projects online. As a token of friendship with counterparts in Afghanistan and Iraq, American classrooms have raised money and sent everything from school supplies to candy. But students old enough to travel find that meeting face to face is the quickest way to make stereotypes crumble.
So far, the flow has been largely in one direction - to the US. The State Department spent $11 million this fiscal year on scholarships, and wants $20 million to bring 600 high-schoolers here this fall. The hope is that when the students go home, they'll spread a better image of America, perhaps even acting upon the democratic ideals they've been exposed to.
"Teenagers rise to the challenge - the notion that they are the successor generation and that in their hands lies the future of their countries," says Bob Persiko, chief of the youth programs division at the State Department. "That may sound overblown, but it doesn't to a person who is 15. They can say, 'Hey, I wasn't part of the old regime ... so for me it's a fresh start.' "
The visitors tend to embrace the American spirit of volunteerism, Mr. Persiko says. Consider these examples from last year's crop of students, posted on a website for alumni of the program, known as Youth Exchange and Study (YES):
• A Pakistani student visited a hospital when he was in the US, taking candy and fruit to patients and wishing them "a merry Christmas and a very happy New Year from the whole Muslim world and from all the people of Pakistan."
• A Palestinian and a Lebanese student offered after-school Arabic classes during their year in Albuquerque, N.M.
• A Lebanese exchange student took this idea back to his own high school - an elected student council.
"Education is a crucial part of American public diplomacy," says Louis Cristillo, a lecturer in international studies at Columbia University's Teachers College in New York. "Unfortunately, public diplomacy in the last decade or two has fallen a bit by the wayside in terms of youth from the Arab and Muslim world in particular. And that's worked both ways."
In the 1990s, US exchanges focused on teens in the former Soviet Union, Persiko says. That program continues and counts more than 14,000 alumni. After 9/11, Congress asked the State Department to build on that model in Muslim areas.
To try to measure the program's effect, the State Department surveys students and hosts about cross-cultural understanding, and it checks in with alumni to assess their influence back home via careers and community service.