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Youth Exchange Program Aims to Build Bridges of Understanding

Youth exchange programs provide students with opportunities to learn and better understand different cultures and people outside their countries. Several hundred-exchange students from Middle East, Africa and Asia recently returned home after a year-long stay in the United States. A few of the students shared their experiences with VOA's June Soh before their departure. Carol Pearson narrates the story.

Exchange students from about 30 countries spent their final days in the United States on field trips and workshops in the Washington, D.C. area. They came to the U.S. through the Youth Exchange and Study Program, called "YES".

Leila Kabalan, from Lebanon, spoke about what she has learned by participating in the exchange program. "I learned a lot of things. People (Americans), if they want something, they don't consider it impossible. They just go out and try to do it, go to their senators and talk to their senators and to their representatives. So I learned that we as citizens, we shouldn't just sit around and complain. That's one of the most important things that I learned here."

Leila was one of more than 300 students from countries with significant Muslim populations. The students stayed with host families across the U.S., attended high schools and participated in various community activities.

Leila stayed in Greenbelt, Maryland. "In my English class when I asked, 'Does anybody know where Lebanon is?' there was only one person who actually knew where the country is. There were, like, more than a quarter of the class didn't even know there was a country out there called Lebanon. So I felt really such an accomplishment that now because of me some people know about my country."

Waleed Nasir, from Pakistan, says it was an opportunity for him to experience a true America, that he says is far different from the negative images reflected in the media in his country. He also says he did a pretty good job of portraying his own country as good and liberal. "I think in my little host community I made a good impression about Pakistan. What people thought about Pakistan first was really different from what they think right now after I have left my host community I think. While in the program he stayed in Crystal Lake, Illinois.

YES is operated by a consortium of private exchange organizations and sponsored by the U.S. Department of State to provide scholarships. Since the program was established in the aftermath of the terrorist’s attacks on the United States in 2001, about 2,000 mostly Muslim students have participated.

Mary Karam is an administrator of the YES program. "Change happens on a very personal and local level. And this program is one of those opportunities for change. People can interact one-on-one and really learn about one another, learn about one another's cultures and make a difference."

Many of the returning students expressed similar views. They say that they now feel it is their responsibility to make the world a better place to live, and they want to help promote understanding and tolerance among different cultures, religions and people.