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More Americans Studying Abroad in the Arab world

Interest in the Middle East has been on the rise on many American campuses over the past several years. Catering to that college trend, a private educational group known as AMIDEAST is developing new study-abroad programs in the region for American undergraduates. As we hear in this report written by Mohamed Elshinnawi, they have responded to a growing awareness that, in the aftermath of 9/11, many Americans know too little about this important part of the world.

Launched in 1951, AMIDEAST has provided English language training, educational counseling, and academic testing services to hundreds of thousands of students and professionals in the Middle East and North Africa. The private, not-for-profit group has also administered academic exchange programs.

"The U.S. government wants to see the current number of students who study abroad annually – 225,000 or so – increased at least 4 times to one million, if not more," says AMIDEAST president Theodore Kattouf, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria, who adds, "[the government] would love to see more of these students going to the Middle East region."

Kattouf says AMIDEAST, with more than half a century experience and 23 offices throughout the region, can help make that happen.

He says growing numbers of young Americans have been enrolling in graduate-level studies of the region, to learn about Arab culture and in some cases, to learn the Arabic language. Kattouf believes that is good for national security.

"I have always believed that if people are exposed to each other's culture and societies, for the most part they are going to leave with a lot more understanding, a lot more tolerance, a lot more (affection) for that culture or society than they had before that experience," he says.

Thomas H. Kean and Lee H. Hamilton, the former chair and vice-chair of the 9/11 Commission (the official panel that studied the causes and lessons of the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States), support that view.

In a recent U.S. newspaper column, the two men described the gulf in understanding between the peoples of the United States and the Middle East as a serious threat to U.S. national security. They recalled that the Commission's final report urged the United States to "rebuild the scholarship, exchange and library programs that reach out to young people and offer them knowledge and hope."

The new AMIDEAST programs, its organizers believe, support those goals. They will offer language instruction as well as courses in history, politics, culture, society and religion of the region. Some programs will have students living in-country with Arab host families and interacting with their local communities. Program-related excursions throughout the Middle East will help develop students' cultural and geographical awareness.

A study-abroad program started in Morocco last year and this summer a program in Tunisia was added. Jerry Bookin-Weiner, who is in charge of AMIDEAST's study-abroad programs says next year they will over study in Egypt, Jordan and Kuwait.

"We are publicizing these programs to students here in the U.S. in a number of ways, first and foremost through contacts with their professors of Arabic and Middle Eastern studies," Bookin-Weiner says. He adds they are also working with study-abroad offices at American universities, and they are creating "a very extensive website with information about our programs."

Bookin-Weiner says that while the number of schools offering Arabic studies in the United States has doubled since 2002, there is still a shortage of quality study-abroad programs available to American students. He believes the new AMIDEAST project will help fill this gap.

By offering unique opportunities for American students to connect with the Arab world, AMIDEAST educators are confident they are empowering the next generation of Americans with a deeper capacity to understand the culture, people, and politics of the Middle East.