‘Bridges’ Brings Islamic Youths to U.S.

Posted June 15, 2007 at 5:20pm

John Lennon considered world peace in song, and third-graders try to achieve it through bake sales. Sens. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Dick Lugar (R-Ind.), meanwhile, are using a different approach to work toward achieving understanding, reconciliation and camaraderie between the United States and other regions of the world in an age of global terrorism.

Their mechanism, established in response to the events and aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, is Cultural Bridges: Youth Exchange and Study Program, which brings teenagers from the Islamic world to the United States on full scholarships to live with American host families and attend American high schools. A celebration on Capitol Hill last Wednesday was the culmination of a 10-month residency in the states for 250 of the 675 participants; Kennedy and Lugar attended to congratulate them personally.

“The general concept was introduced as a way of really building bridges between us [Americans] and a predominantly Islamic world,” said Mary Karem, the director of the grant program at AYUSA International, one of many organizations that solicit grants to sponsor Cultural Bridges exchange students. “It’s definitely working. These students become junior ambassadors for their countries; they’ll get an increased understanding of the U.S. and will be able to communicate their experiences when they go home.”

This was the case for 16-year-old Mohammed Fatayer from Jordan, who was placed for his studies in Louisville, Ky.

“This experience was all about introducing my culture to Americans and giving them [a] picture [other] than the one they see on TV,” Fatayer explained. “The Americans I met didn’t think I lived in a modern country just like they do, with technology.

“But I learned a lot about America, too,” he continued. “Before I came here, I thought most Americans were rich, that they all had alcoholic problems. That’s what I saw in movies.”

Sixteen-year-old Mona Kharroubi from Lebanon, who had a home-stay in New Mexico, said the most important lesson she learned was that “people are people no matter where they are.”

Waleed Nasir, a native of Pakistan who spent the year in Crystal Lake, Ill., delivered a speech at the reception in which he praised the United States’ permission to let people define themselves: “In America, you can call yourself anything you want — Pakistani-American, Chinese-American … you can’t do that everywhere.”

Since the program’s launch in 2003, students from predominantly Muslim populations in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia are selected based on academic achievement, leadership skills and community service experience. That they possess these qualities is essential to program organizers. While Cultural Bridges gives participants an opportunity they may not have had otherwise in the absence of financial, educational and emotional support, a broader goal of the program is to cultivate large numbers of young people to serve as messengers of positive American values.

Both Kennedy and Lugar touched on this point in their addresses at the reception, emphasizing participants’ obligation to “give back” to America, as well as to their own countries, by spreading their love of the United States.

Kennedy emphasized the importance of amity between nations by sharing the story of the long friendship between his brother, former President John F. Kennedy and David Ormsby-Gore, which resulted in Ormsby-Gore’s appointment as British ambassador to the United States: “Our nation was never closer during that period.

“The best way you can thank [the United States] is to be a real friend to this country and to be dedicated to your country and try to help it,” Kennedy continued.

He did not indicate whether he was explicitly encouraging students to help their countries through the propagation of “American values” like democracy, or if he specifically wanted them to quell anti-American sentiment abroad. It was, however, resonant of an earlier statement about the importance of recognizing the humanity in others: “Hopefully you have found what we believe, that American people and American families are good — we expect we’d find the same in your country.”

Lugar has been active in working to combat terrorism; in fact, he came straight to the reception from the White House, where he was meeting with President Bush and others to discuss the global war on terrorism and the crises in the Middle East. In an interview following the reception, he spoke more about the crucial role the exchange students will play in bringing an end to violence in the United States and abroad.

“We need them in huge numbers,” Lugar said, referring to people who know and appreciate America. “Large numbers are bound to have an extremely positive impact.”

While the need for familiarity and appreciation of American culture and values in the Islamic world was the major focus of Wednesday’s festivities, there also was acknowledgement that Americans must learn from the Muslim exchange students. One common observation among many of the participants was how little Americans knew about their respective countries prior to their first meetings — during an orientation meeting, organizers warned students to be prepared for the fact that people in their new American communities may not have ever heard of their hometowns, let alone be able to locate them on a map.

In an interview on Wednesday, Kennedy stressed “the important impact for Americans” of getting to know people from the Middle East and North Africa on a personal level: “They can have the experience of hearing about the Muslim world and forming warm friendships.”

Karem said a “huge part of the program” is devoted to “work[ing] really closely to orient host families about some of the cultural considerations” with which they might be confronted over the 10-month period.

“More of these person-to-person individual exchanges would be really valuable … sending more American youth to that region of the world would be the next step,” she said.

Leila Kabalan, who hails from Lebanon and had a home-stay in Greenbelt, Md., was one of the participants who noted she often became frustrated with Americans who were not knowledgeable about her country. In the end, though, she recognized the importance of introducing Americans to her culture and sometimes a little goes a long way, particularly at a time of international unrest.

In the conclusion of her speech at Wednesday’s celebration, she said, “For my classmates … I am Lebanon. For me, I am honored to be remembered for my country.”