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September 26, 2013

Young Students Come to US for Experience of a Lifetime

by Kokab Farshori

A U.S.-funded student exchange program is giving young people from around the world the chance of a lifetime - to study and live in America.  The state department’s Youth Exchange and Study program - known as YES - targets students mostly from countries with large Muslim populations.  The students compete to be selected, and if chosen, are brought to the U.S. to study for a full academic year and live with an American family.

The U.S. state department's "YES" program is bringing together families and students who may seem to live worlds apart - physically and culturally.

The young people travel from distant homes to see what it is like to live in the U.S. - with an American family.

The state department's education and cultural affairs bureau began the program after the September 11, 2001 terror attacks.  The goal was to create a better understanding about the United States in the Muslim world.

Rick Ruth, a senior advisor for the bureau, says the program has tremendous benefits.

"We know from decades of experience that bringing Americans together with people from all around the world of all ages and all backgrounds is one of the most effective means we have to create a world of mutual understanding, where violence and extremism are simply not welcome," said Ruth.

Soda Ndiaye is a “YES” student from Senegal.

“My dream was to come to America, learn about America, go to school here because I want to improve my English and also to know about American people," said Ndiaye.

Nada Omar, a student from Egypt, is staying with the same host family.

“Having experience to be independent and knowing how to manage your own things alone, YES program seems great for such things.  And it will actually help you later in your work or your career," said Omar.

Families do not receive financial compensation for hosting the students.  Randall Fiertz and his wife Carol say that doesn’t matter, because the program’s mission is so important.

“We have seen a lot of conflict in our world.  And why did that conflict start?  Mainly it’s because we don’t understand each other.  Anything that promotes understanding between the cultures is a good thing," said Carol Fiertz.

“Having lived overseas before and enjoyed interactions with Muslims, it was a great opportunity for us to show two kids what it is like in the United States.  It is easy for all of us to see when we have person to person relationship that we really are just the same," said Randall Fiertz.

Anti-American sentiment is high in many of the YES program students' home countries.  Rick Ruth denies claims that the State Department is trying to influence the students’ views.

“Participants see what they see, hear what they hear and ask what they ask.  There is no message being peddled to them," he said.

Students like Nada Omar say they learn not just about Americans, but about people from around the world.

“Our classmates are actually from everywhere, not just America and they are very friendly," she said.

About 900 students are brought to the U.S. to study under the YES program each year.  Program organizers say when they return home, they are better prepared to serve their own countries.