At the White House this week, President Bush welcomed 200 mostly Muslim exchange students from across the Middle East, North Africa and Southeast Asia. The teenagers are part of a larger group that is wrapping up a 10-month long program sponsored by the State Department in which they lived with American host families and studied at American high schools.
It was a pretty spectacular ending to their American adventure. President Bush welcomed the students Monday at the Rose Garden where he thanked them for giving Americans a better understanding of their culture and their faith.
"Many of you have shown young Americans how Islam inspires you to live, to lead lives based on honesty and justice and compassion. Because you came to this country, thousands of Americans better understand your faith and your heritage, and that's really important," said Mr. Bush.
The students shared their heritage with their American community through various projects and presentations. Ruba, 16, from Iraq, who spent her year in the eastern coastal town of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, organized a Middle Eastern banquet to introduce her culture to her new community.
"They were all dressed in Arabic costumes, we decorated the whole gym with Islamic decorations,” she recalled. “I also wanted people to see our food, so I got Arabic food recipes, and I asked the parents to help if they wanted to make the food, and it was just amazing how much food we got. Everyone loved the food. It was so great."
Saad, a 17-year old Iraqi Kurd who spent his year at Santa Rita High School in Tucson, Arizona, said Americans were very interested to know about his homeland because of the war there. He said he felt the exchange program helped him to give people a bigger picture about Iraq.
"Every one of us is acting like an ambassador to come and to represent their country and to tell them what is going on really, and not to just look at the news and see the bombings and stuff, because there is a lot more going on there," he said.
In addition to attending high school classes, participating in sports and other school activities, the students also performed volunteer work in their communities, including working with children and the elderly.
Several of the students said that before coming to the United States their only perception of American culture came from Hollywood movies. Now their English is peppered with American slang and many of the teens were sporting trendy rubber bracelets in a variety of colors inscribed with inspiring words.
Saad was wearing a bracelet inscribed with the word "hope."
"Because I have hope for the whole world, but especially for Iraq and Kurdistan," he added.
Ahmad, a 17-year old Egyptian who lives in Kuwait, spent his year in rural Lancaster, Pennsylvania, which has a population of about 55,000. He said he learned a powerful lesson about what makes America special.
"It's not the government that makes the country, it's the people," he noted.
Ahmad said he was really touched by all the kindness he experienced, both from his host family and his community. The teens agreed that living with a host family was the highlight of their American experience.
Botan, a 17-year old Iraqi Kurd who studied in the eastern Pennsylvania city of Reading, said his host family is what he'll miss most about the United States.
"My host family, they were amazing. They treated me just like their own son," he said.
Botan's host brother recently joined the Marines, and will soon be deployed to Iraq.
This is the program's second year and a total of 455 students participated. Adam Meier, a Public Affairs Advisor for the State Department's Bureau of Cultural and Educational Affairs said the program provides an exceptional way to reach young people.
"They come in with one understanding, one set of beliefs about what the United States is, and living with host families here in the United States and spending time with American students, they get a much deeper, broader, understanding,” explained Mr. Meier. “And at the same time, their American counterparts are learning about their countries and their cultures."
President Bush said he knew the students were looking forward to returning home to their families, and he left them with his hopes of what they will take with them.
"When you get home, I hope you remind people about what you found here -- that the people of this country care deeply about others; that we respect religion, that we believe in human rights and human dignity; that we believe every person has worth; and that we do want to have a world that's more peaceful and more free," added Mr. Bush.
The president said he hoped they would use their American experience to build bridges between their countries and America.