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Muslim Exchange Students Wrap Up Academic Year at American High Schools - 2004-07-08

A group of exchange students from largely Muslim countries is returning home after completing an academic year at American high schools across the United States. The students learned about the United States and also helped educate residents in the small and large towns they went to that not all Muslims are terrorists.

About 70 students from Egypt, Indonesia, Malaysia and Turkey took part in the first year of a State Department-sponsored program to bring young people from predominantly Muslim countries to the United States.

After talking to eight of the students, the adjective used most often to describe their experiences was a popular American slang expression: "cool." The people they met were cool. The places they stayed were cool, despite too much rain in Portland, Oregon. Cool, which literally means nearly the opposite of hot in English, was an especially appropriate description for snow. An Egyptian student who went to Maine and an Indonesian student who went to Minnesota experienced the cold wintry phenomenon for the first time.

Titis Andari, 18, came from Jakarta, Indonesia, with her head scarf clearly indicating her belief in Islam. She considered herself lucky to have been sent to San Jose, California. She was most impressed with the diversity, pointing out that more than 30 languages were spoken at her high school.

"I used to live in Indonesia, and all I see [are] Indonesians. Well, I admire how people can just live next to each other and respect all the differences and everything," she said.

Mohamed Hossny, 16, went from the teeming metropolis of Cairo, Egypt, to the very small town of Columbia City, Indiana, which only has a little more than 7,000 people. He said being the only Muslim in his school made him a bit of a star.

"Even the teachers, they come and say, "Oh, Mohamed," the world history teacher, "Oh, Mohamed, can you do a presentation about Islam? Oh, can you do a presentation about the Middle East?" Yeah, they like to open discussion a lot, and I think that was interesting. There was no hatred, but [they] wanted to know what's exactly the point of Islam, and other things," he explained.

Seventeen-year-old Omer Ongun, from Turkey, went to Beaver Dam, Wisconsin, a small farming community less than one-fourth the size of his Turkish hometown. He says he also gave presentations about Islam in the town of 16,000 people, in hopes of dispelling some popular American misconceptions about Muslims.

"People were still, like, questioning because all they know about, they know [about] Muslims, I met some people that only thought that Muslims were kind of terrorists," he said.

He adds that his being Muslim didn't stop him from taking part in the extracurricular activities that are a major part of American high-school life.

"I was manager for hockey [team], which I learned different sport,? said Omer. ?And then, I was prom king at my school, which was pretty cool. I thought it was really, really sweet [good]."

Omer complained, though, that he felt people in Wisconsin were not as close to their families and neighbors as they are in Turkey because they live farther apart from each other, on farms.

Similar wide open spaces and a sparse population didn't bother 15-year-old Jaziel Tun, though. He came from the dense urban center of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and went to live in Garden City, a rural town of 28,000 people in southwest Kansas.

"It's really different,? Ms. Tun said. ?We [are] used to live in a city which is really busy and everyone is just rushing here and there, and traffic jams everywhere. But in Garden City, you can hardly find a car, if you're driving outside of the city. And it's also really peaceful, which I'm always hunting for, for someplace quiet and not many people, and lots of space."

Jaziel says he has faced prejudice at home in Malaysia, from his classmates because he is one of the few Christians in a largely Muslim country. He says it was ironic because classmates in the United States initially thought he was Muslim.

"I think when I came here, it's just the same,? Ms. Tun said. [People said,] "You're from a Muslim country. ?Are you a terrorist?" That's what they always ask me. It's not an insult, it's not a point of curiosity. It's more like a joke. And I think being from a Muslim country, it's not really that hard. People here [in the United States] are more understanding and more open-minded."

Openness in American society is what struck 17-year-old Hannah Kamal, who also came from the Malaysian capital to a Maryland suburb outside of Washington.

"One of the main differences is just the way people express their opinions. Just everywhere I go, I meet people and next minute, you know, you're talking about who they support, what they think about on a certain issue, and everyone's just free discussing these issues. Whereas at home, we just don't do that," Ms. Kamal said.

Muhammad Fitriady, 17, made a different kind of transition, from a small rural town with no street addresses in Indonesia's Sulawesi islands to a suburb of Minneapolis, Minnesota, a relatively large city. He took advantage of his opportunity to speak out about Islam, at Sunday church services.

"And I just tell them that Muslims aren't always dangerous," he said. ?You can see me now. I live with you. I never want to kill you. We are all peace religions. And I just talked to my pastor, and it was incredible. It was an incredible experience."

Other young people who participated in the first year of the exchange program came from Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Nigeria, Tunisia, Pakistan, Syria, West Bank and Gaza, and Yemen. The second year of the program will also include students from Afghanistan, Algeria, Bangladesh, Iraq, Morocco, the Philippines and the Arab community in Israel.