Muslim students say YES to the U.S.
Teens from Muslim countries spend a year attending high school in the US and dispelling cultural misconceptions on both sides.
When Junaid Bin Masood, a 17-year-old Pakistani exchange student studying in southern California, was asked whether he had a gun in his backpack, he was speechless. He had never been out of Pakistan before, so this question from a schoolmate was jolting. But he kept his cool and explained that most Pakistanis are not jihadists.Skip to next paragraph
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"Everyone knows there are good and bad things all over the world," Junaid says. "There are some bad people in Pakistan, too. Just like in the US."
Such incidents underscore the divide between Americans and the people of Muslim countries. That is why the US State Department created the Youth Exchange and Study (YES) program (www.yesprograms.org). This competitive program sends some of the best and brightest teens from Muslim countries worldwide on one-year stints to high schools across the United States.
"What both Americans and our students learn is that while there are difficulties and conflicts between our cultures, the overriding desire of both is very simple and the same: to live in peace," says David Beiser, director of grant programs at AYUSA Global Youth Exchange, who works with the State Department to carry out the program.
About 3,000 Muslim students from nearly two dozen countries have participated in the program since its inception in 2003. In the 2007-08 school year, it brought 750 students to the US.
The State Department is planning to expand the program. Next year, it will add 25 more students and one country, Suriname. Mr. Beiser says the program hopes to take this even further. And starting next year, American high schoolers will study in some of the Muslim countries in a reverse exchange.
"Exchange programs are not the only way to mend relations between the US and Muslim countries, but they are an important one," Beiser says. "Every time a YES student and an American family have a successful program together, a minisummit takes place and helps relations a little at a time."
Diana Kamakh, a Palestinian YES participant from Lebanon who spent the past school year in a high school in Colorado Springs, says that those who've been to the United States have a much more favorable opinion of the country than those who have not.
"If you've been to the US, you must fall in love with something in it," she says. "Plus you'll get a chance to know that the government and the people are two different things."
Lisa Anderson, former dean of the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University in New York and provost of the American University in Cairo, says that despite a few cases of visiting Muslims being appalled by what they see as a decadent United States, most have a positive experience.
"They [will] tell stories for the rest of their lives about their host families, their classmates, roommates, faculty, and even ordinary people who went out of their way for them," Dr. Anderson says.
But can one program really bridge the gap between the United States and Muslim nations?
Anderson says that the US has not done enough to reverse its bad image in Muslim countries.