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Young Visitors from Muslim World Soak Up American Culture

Starting a new school year is an exciting experience. But for nearly 300 teenagers who just arrived in the United States from across the Muslim world, the coming nine months will probably be the most exciting school year they have ever had. This group of high school students left their families and friends behind for one academic year in America.

Finding out first-hand what life is like in the United States was one of the many reasons Zahra Khalid decided to join the Youth Exchange and Study, or "YES," program. The 16-year-old Pakistani student knew about YES from an older friend who participated in it last year. "She was very excited," Ms. Khalid says. "She said, 'It's a good experience to go to the United States, study there and live with an American family.'"

Those great expectations are shared as well by program participants who came from other Muslim countries, including Jordan, Kuwait, Iraq, Oman, Yemen and the Palestinian territories. "I'd like to meet new people," says one. "I expect it will give me some leadership skills and how to communicate better with people," says another. A third Muslim teen notes, "Our English language will be improved. I'll also have more self-confidence. I'll have friends from another culture." And another visiting student says, "I want to clear all the misconceptions here about my country and tell the Americans that Pakistan is a peace-loving and a peaceful country."

"Academic Year in the United States of America," or "AYUSA," is one of the organizations that helps implement the YES program. AYUSA spokeswoman Mary Karam says YES began in 2003. She notes that the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, highlighted the need to increase understanding between the Muslim world and the United States. "The YES program brings students from the Islamic World, anywhere from the Middle East and North Africa to South Asia and South East Asia," Ms. Karam says. "It's a very diverse program. We started in the first year of the program with 67 students, and we've expanded to this year's class of 277 students."

Ms. Karam says the program has been a life-changing experience for the students who've taken part. "We do a number of activities to build their leadership skills," she says, "and to introduce them to concepts of community service, to get them involved in their host communities in a number of ways. They come being -- some of them -- uncertain of themselves, a little bit shy. And they leave really feeling empowered by this experience, more mature and more self-confident."

And they leave behind an equally transformed host family. According to Laura Hillstrom, the YES program director, such visits also affect the local communities: "I see the tremendous impact on small-town America, on the host families, on our own area representatives and coordinators who, I'll be honest, were a little bit resistant, some of them, and they turned 180 degrees and are just so in love with these kids, they just would do anything for them."

Most of the students accepted into the YES program say they are excited and prepared for the academic experience ahead of them. However, Luby Ismail, who represents "Connecting Cultures," a group that offers programs to promote understanding across cultures, says the students also have some concerns. "I think the biggest concern is, 'Am I going to feel comfortable with my host family?'"

Ms. Ismail's company presented an all-day orientation for the YES students before they headed off to meet their host families. Cross-culture experts talked with them about the kinds of adjustments that would help make their stay in America a positive experience. Luby Ismail says, "We keep saying it's essential that you open up communication from the beginning, asking the family, 'What do you expect of me? What house chores should I be doing? How can I be a better member of your family?' We talk to them about breaking the ice, as we say, taking the first steps, not waiting for Americans to introduce themselves. But you introduce yourself. You say, 'Hi, my name is . . . and I'm from Syria or Lebanon or wherever the country'. They have to step out of the cultural framework of their home countries and change some of the behaviors in order to survive and be successful."

By the end of the nine months, AYUSA's Mary Karam says, the bonds between the visiting students and their classmates, teachers and host families are usually very strong: "One Iraqi student that left last year actually said, ' I didn't cry when I left my natural family, but when I left my host family I cried like a baby."As the visiting students embark on a journey to find family, friends and home away from home, many of them say they will do their best to make this school year as memorable and successful as they can.