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Turkish Exchange Students Remember 9/11 Attacks - 2002-07-12

Each year, high school students from around the world come to the United States to live with American families. These exchange students get a chance to see American culture close-up. Many teenagers returning to their homes now were in the United States during the September 11 terrorist attacks. Some of the students found themselves caught up in the aftermath of the attacks.

Ugur Eskiocak can tell you all about profiling. The 19-year-old from Turkey said ever since the September 11 attacks, he has never made it through an airport in the United States without security officials pulling him aside for closer examination. "When everyone [was] going to the plane, just because I look Middle Eastern, they always checked me," he said.

Mr. Eskiocak was one of several Turkish students chatting about their experiences as exchange students as they waited with a few hundred other teenagers for busses to take them to Chicago's O'Hare Airport for the trip back home. They arrived in the United States in August for an 11-month stay organized by the exchange student organization American Field Services. Esin Erkal was assigned to a family near St. Louis, Missouri, but was placed with a second family after someone in the first referred to her as "bin Laden," in the aftermath of September 11.

Despite that setback, Ms. Erkal was impressed with how most Americans responded to the attacks. "Americans tend to get over bad things quicker, compared to Turks. That is my view. Go on with their lives, try to change whatever bad thing happened and get over it," she said.

On September 11, 16-year-old exchange student Louis Goldstein of Minnesota was just settling in for his stay with a family in Istanbul, Turkey. He saw the attacks against New York's World Trade Center on television. "At first, I thought it was a huge hoax. I just did not believe it," he said. "I thought it was some insanely cruel joke show."

His friends from the United States e-mailed him, concerned that he was unsafe living in a Muslim country. But Mr. Goldstein said he was never in any danger. "People mostly were very apologetic," he said. "They wanted to talk about it a lot, but many people thought because I was American, I knew everything that happened. They thought I knew every little piece of information."

Mr. Goldstein said he was surprised to return home recently and find news broadcasts in the United States talking about the attacks as if they had just recently happened. He also said his friends have a newfound, but strong, sense of patriotism.

The Turkish students say despite occasional awkward moments, they were treated well by most Americans they met. They say after the attacks, many people wanted to talk to them about Islam.

The students say they enjoyed their stay in the United States. Some say they are going home with a better understanding of American culture. Esin Erkal said her time away from home was life-changing. "I have self-confidence. I believe I gained self-confidence," she said. "I know what I can handle and what I can not, and how much I can do by myself. It gave me a chance to discover myself."

Another student says he probably will not realize how much he has changed until he gets home to Turkey. Emrah Aslaner said his experiences in the United States will affect the rest of his life. "We all have gained a lot of wisdom and courage while we were here. These are all power. I think the toughest thing will be deciding how to use this power," he said.

The Turkish students say they were looking forward to being reunited with their families and friends back home, but all agreed it has been difficult leaving their new friends in the United States.