Muslims Students Discuss Time Spent in American Cultural Exchange

Washington, DC: Most Americans wanted to know if we rode camels at home, said three students Waleed Nasir, 16, from Karachi; Dana Aljawamis, 15, from Amman; and Leila Kabalan, 16, from Beirut while talking about the year they spent in the United States as part of a post-9/11 culture exchange program organized by the US State Department for 675 Muslim students from around the world.
Nasir, wearing a ‘Chicago’ cap and talking like an American teenager, told interviewers that he did not mind answering people’s questions because it gave him a chance to correct misperceptions. “All they [Americans] really knew was the way the media portrayed Muslims as extremists,” he said, just before returning to Pakistan.
“They often asked me, ‘Have you seen Bin Laden? Are there tanks rolling in the streets?’” said Nasir.
“They asked me all kinds of questions that at home wouldn’t be deemed appropriate. But that’s OK that’s why we’re here,” he said after studying at a high school in Crystal Lake, Illinois. One such question was: “Is your dad married to four wives?”
Aljawamis, dressed in a T-shirt and sweat pants, said her year in the US offered a good chance to explain her religion and culture. But she often had to explain why she did not wear the Muslim headscarf known as a hijab. “They always asked me, ‘Are you wearing the hijab in your country but not here?’” Aljawamis had to explain not all women choose to wear the headscarf. She said she had really stuck out in the town of Plymouth, Minnesota, because there did not seem to be anyone there with dark skin. She said people used to stare at her and her ‘host mother’ whenever they went out together.
According to Nasir, US students seem to have no sense of geography, often confusing Pakistan with Afghanistan and assuming the entire area was a desert. “Some people had no clue. They asked, ‘Is Lebanon a country?’” added Kabalan, who attended a high school in Greenbelt, Maryland.
As challenging as it was to explain their countries and cultures, it might be even tougher to convince people at home that Americans aren’t so bad, they said. “It’s our responsibility to correct the misconception that all Americans are equivalent to their government’s foreign policies,” said Nasir.
The students, who struggled to get used to US customs like calling adults by their first names, said they were going home with the hope of, at least partially, bridging the cultural divide between their countries and the United States. “I have a more global view (of the Middle East) now,” said Aljawamis. “We need to move on. We can’t stay focused in our conflicts...It’s time to move on.”

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Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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