A group of students from Islamic countries has spent the past year in the United States as part of a new U.S. program to forge understanding between the Muslim world and America. It has been a learning experience for both sides.
One Pakistatni student says, "It has cleared up so many misunderstandings between us and Americans."
This Pakistani student is one of 150 who has lived in the United States over the past year as part of the Partnerships for Learning Youth Exchange and Study Program, established last year by the State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.
Many of the students attended a reception on Capitol Hill as they prepare to return to their home countries.
They had an opportunity to meet with U.S. lawmakers, including Senator Richard Lugar, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Senator Lugar, an Indiana Republican, played a key role in the creation of the program after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States. He spoke at the reception.
"The United States, if you ask people in many of your countries, is not well-thought of. Sometimes people respond, 'Well, we like Americans, but we do not like the American government,' or some distinction is made. But sometimes, none of the above, there is just an alienation that is profound. That really will not work very well for any of us in the world, but it requires somebody to form some bridges," Senator Lugar said.
The program aims to expose visiting students to American principles of democracy, free market economy, civil society, and community service.
Another speaker at the reception, Senator Ted Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat who also helped create the exchange program, said he hoped the students have a better understanding of the United States, its strengths and its shortcomings.
"We hope that when you go back, you will tell both the best about our country and also point out its problems. The real challenge in our country is we fail if we do not address those problems," Senator Kennedy said.
Many of the students said they will return home with fond memories of Americans. This Kuwaiti student, who spent her year in California, was taken by the friendliness of Americans.
"For me being a Muslim and wearing a scarf on my head, I thought people would label me as a terrorist or something like that,? she said. ?But when I came here, people did not even say anything. They welcomed me, they kept me in their hearts. I loved that. That surprised me, actually."
Many students also were surprised by the diversity in United States. Lianour is a student from Syria who spent her year in the southern state of Georgia.
"You find all kinds of people from all different countries. I like that. You can find all kinds of food, too. There (are) all kinds of nationalities and cultures. Americans like that," she said.
But Lianour also said she was taken aback by how little Americans seem to know about the part of the world that she calls home. "I think Americans, they are very nice, very friendly, but they ... know nothing about the Middle East. In my school, nobody knew about Syria."
Amy Chamberlain, the director of Student Services for the exchange program, known as AYUSA, says the program provides a learning experience for Americans, as well as for visiting students.
"This program has entered rural communities, suburban communities, cities across the country, places that have never met Muslim students before,? she explained. ?For the first time, they are able to redefine their stereotypes and their impressions of the Middle East through their students."
In informal conversations, students recalled the most memorable moments for them during the past year. For some it was a school event held in their honor. For others, it was the very congressional reception they were attending.
But for Ahmad from Lebanon, it was a winter afternoon in Wisconsin. ?The lake was frozen. It was about minus six degrees," he recalled. "We jumped in it and we were frozen the whole time. We jumped in the lake. I will never forget this!
Another group of Muslim exchange students will be welcomed to the United States in August for the start of a new school year and to begin collecting memories of their own.