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Muslim High School Exchange Students on Their 'American Year'

Over the last year, 454 secondary school students from nearly 20 countries with large Muslim populations have been attending American high schools and living with American families. It's a U.S. State Department program set up in 2002 called the "Partnership for Learning, Youth Exchange, and Study." About half the group was recently in Washington for a week of activities before returning home. Carolyn Weaver caught up with three of them to hear about their experiences.

A high point of the week for the Muslim exchange students was being commended by President Bush at the White House.

"Because you came to this country, thousands of Americans better understand your faith and your heritage, and that's really important. So I want to thank you," Mr. Bush told the gathering.

Among the students in the audience were three 16-year-olds who took a few minutes out from their visit to the State Department the next day. They talked about their year in American high schools-and how it changed their views of the U.S. and their future plans.

Abdulrahman is from Syria and spent the year in Grayling, a town in northern Michigan. Fatma, from Yemen, lived with a conservative Christian family in San Antonio, Texas, and Kaoutar from Morocco, was a student in Ashland, Oregon. They had the following remarks:

"Americans are so friendly. You just sit next to them and they start talking and having a conversation with you. It's so wonderful. I was really surprised."

"A lot of people were friendly but at the same time, high school was totally different from the other society. I guess because the Muslim community in San Antonio is really small, so I went to a school that had nothing to do with Muslims, and I was the only Muslim girl with a scarf on."

"They made me absolutely feel like at home. I didn't feel I'm strange or anything. I had a lot of friends at school. I became so popular at school, I knew pretty much everybody in the whole school."

"I feel like I'm from the Middle East, so maybe we'd be an issue or something, that's what I heard before I came here, but it wasn't an issue at all."

"That was kind of hard at first. I had to kind of take the first step and I had to do everything as the first person in the school. I had to go and talk to them and change their thoughts about me. Because I guess after September 11th and stuff, they would look at me in a different way. So I had to work hard to change their thoughts about people like me.

Do you think you succeeded?

"I think I did. People in high school, by the end of the year, were more open to me, and some people would come up to me and say, where are you from, or why do you have a scarf on your head? So, I could see the effects."

"You know everything I knew about the United States was what we see in the media, what we hear in the news, what we see in the movies -- but now my idea about the United States has totally changed. People in the United States are not, you know, as they look or as we hear [in the media in the Middle East]. There are some people in the United States who are really nice, who are open-minded, understanding of other cultures and religions."

"I was so surprised how my host family, they were totally understanding of my religion. They already had a background about Islam. And they let me like pray, and they totally respect my religion, and my host family really supported me in Ramadan. My host sister, she fasted two days with me."

"After this year, I'm probably going to have a lot of work to do back home. I'm going to have to transfer all the experience I got to my country. And I'm going to have to show people that the image we had about the American public is different than the reality."

"I've learned so many things, and I feel like I'm more mature and more responsible here, and so independent. Because in Morocco I used to be with my parents and I've never traveled before by myself, even to a small city out of my town. Here I feel like I'm more responsible and more aware of what's going on in the world."

"Now I have a lot of plans about helping certain parts of the society, like the women in jail in Yemen. So, I never really thought about that until I came here. And I participated in a lot of community service, so now I really know what I'm going to do when I go back."

This August, the Partnership for Learning, Youth Exchange and Study will expand to 650 students from more than 20 countries. As for Fatma, Kaoutar, and Abdulrahman, they say they'd like to return to the U.S. for college.