Mideast Teens Get Insider’s View of America
State Department Program Is Part of Effort to Improve Relations in Volatile Region
By Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sixteen-year-old Ali Assiri’s Mohawk haircut doesn’t look strange in Las Vegas, where until last week he played guitar in a punk band called The Latest End.
But it’s going to look bizarre in Kuwait, where he’s about to return after almost a year away.
"They’re going to see me as a weird person, but I don’t care," he said. "It’s, like, my thing."
If that sounds like classic American teenager, it may be because Ali is one of about 650 Middle Eastern high school students who this month are wrapping up a 10-month exchange program in the United States sponsored by the State Department.
Coming from 25 countries, plus the West Bank and Gaza, students in the Youth Exchange and Study Program (YES) stayed in homes across the country, attending local schools and immersing themselves in American life.
The program aims to improve U.S. relations with a volatile part of the world, and the exchange students play the role of young ambassadors. For those from such places as Iraq, Lebanon or Gaza, the American towns they are leaving may contrast starkly with the homelands to which they will soon return.
But few seemed worried about that this week. On Tuesday, about 250 of them toured the Capitol, walking through underground tunnels, passing senators, representatives and aides in dark suits.
"They all look the same!" said 16-year-old Leila Kabalan of Lebanon, wearing big white Jackie-O glasses and fashionable pegged jeans.
"It’s kind of a dress code," said Dana Aljawamis, 15, of Jordan.
Many students are going home a little taller and a little heavier, and all are returning with an insider view of U.S. society.
They learned that Americans come from multicultural backgrounds and hold diverse political opinions, that they don’t all hate Muslims and they don’t all live in mansions.
They learned to be more responsible. More confident, able to handle money, do laundry. More ready live on their own.
They also taught Americans a few things. Some lessons were silly: "We don’t ride on camels," a few explained wearily. Some were deeper: "They thought that we really hate Israelis and we really don’t want to live with them," said Jawad Masri, 16, of the West Bank, adding that in Evanston, Ill., he made Jewish friends for the first time.
It also turns out that America isn’t just one long episode of "Friends."
"People think, when they watch TV, that Americans are partying and having fun all the time," said Yanis Akkache, 18, of Algeria, who stayed in Vacaville, Calif. "That’s kind of, like, unrealistic. . . . You have to go to school, you have responsibilities."
The YES program started in 2003 with 150 kids, and participation has increased each year since. It cost about $11.5 million this year and will cost $19 million next year because the program is expanding and adding five new countries: Bahrain, Mali, Senegal, Ethiopia and Brunei. Participation is free for students.
On Wednesday, the students were back on the Hill, meeting with representatives from their "home" states and attending a reception with Sens. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), who spearheaded the program.
Before the reception, several boys passed around an iPod headset, grooving to a song called "This is Why I’m Hot."
Mouloud Mouhoubi, 18, of Algeria, said the strangest part of his year in LaFayette, Ga., was attending a Ku Klux Klan meeting in Alabama with a friend whose father was a member. (He didn’t tell his host family he was going.)
"They said, ‘So black people are still here; we need to take them down,’ " he said incredulously. "I was like, the Civil War is still alive."
But Mouloud said he was struck by the kindness his classmates showed when he arrived. "They came to me; they’re like, ‘Hey, I’m Mick, I’m a football player, we’re real popular, we’ve got you covered.’ "
As students hurried from appointments to tours in their final days, their attire included headscarves and high heels, T-shirts and ties. Compared with when they arrived, there was more H & M clothing and less native costume. Gone was one boy’s Yemeni robe and curved dagger that caught the nervous eye of a White House security officer last August.
A few slipped into their native languages, but most chatted in English, describing their host families as "awesome" and worrying aloud if they would ever stop saying "like."
Some had taken on local accents. Sarwat Murtaza, 17, from Pakistan, picked up some pidgin English and Hawaiian in Kekaha, Hawaii. After living in Plymouth, Minn., Dana, from Jordan, now says "leek" and "boot" to mean "lake" and "boat."
They cheered wildly when Kennedy and Lugar addressed them and listened quietly as Leila, who spent the year in Greenbelt, described "the freedom you have here to state your political view without feeling the guilt of offending someone," and vowed to try to convey that message in Lebanon.
Waleed Nasir, 16, from Pakistan, spoke about how his host family’s 22-year-old son Ryan, a Marine, had been killed in Iraq a month before Waleed’s arrival.
"They were so sad," he said afterward. "Sometimes, I felt ashamed that it was one of us, maybe, he might be a Muslim" who killed Ryan. But he said his family did not blame him. Instead, "they thanked me a lot. Like, ‘You brought happiness to our house again.’ "
Umair Khan, 15, spent the year in Lenexa, Kan., where he started lifting weights, baking chocolate chip cookies and wearing shorts.
That last part may raise eyebrows in his small town in Pakistan.
"It’s going to be so hard for me," said Umair, who wants to be a politician someday. "To hear people say, ‘He’s so Americanized, like, he’s wearing shorts.’ "
He plans to wear them anyway.
Pour en savoir plus: