Student exchange program helps break down cultural barriers

Student exchange program helps break down cultural barriers
young people gain new insights, perspectives on each other’s countries
YES program provides country’s youth with a chance to experience diverse

By Linda Dahdah
Daily Star staff

Thursday, July 15, 2004

METN: Falak Tinawi, 16, is all excited, almost frenzied when she
speaks about her experience last year. After spending a full academic
year in the state of Washington, she is back with a new view of the
world and the kind of strong self-confidence that makes her one of
those with a wide and promising future.

“This experience was truly amazing, in all senses. Before I went I was
very much involved into politics and had lots of ideas against the
US,” said Tinawi. “I used to think they have no interest in other
people and simply want to invade other countries.”

But she soon found out that the US consists of a diversity of opinions
and people, living in tolerance. “I met Pakistanis, Koreans, Arabs
… all living together, going to school together,” she said.

Although Tinawi was initially met with suspicion when she first
arrived in the US, sometimes being asked if she was a terrorist, she
gradually managed to change people’s opinion about her and Arabs. It’s
this willingness to hear the other out and to accept them that led
Tinawi to realize that Americans simply do not have access to the
right information about people in the Middle East. “They had the
wrong idea about us,” she said.

Indeed, Tinawi’s good impression of the community where she lived has
inspired her host family in the US to plan a visit to Lebanon during
summer 2005.

The dialogue which Tinawi had started between her culture and that of
the small community where she lived in the US is the premise behind
the “Partnership for Learning Youth Exchange and Study” (YES) Program,
which was started last year by the US State Department under the
Partnerships for Learning Initiative, following the US-led war in

Tinawi was among nine Lebanese students and 42 Arab students who spent
the 2003-04 academic year in the US as part of the program’s pilot.

The YES program, which is administered by AMIDEAST (American-Mideast
Educational and Training Services) in Lebanon and managed by a
consortium of organizations, plans to send about 200 Arab and Muslim
students by the year 2005.

This year, the program has recruited 24 students from all over the
country, selected from among 700 applicants.

“Spending a year of high school in a foreign country is a major
decision, and we are well aware that it would not be possible without
the support of the families,” said US Ambassador Vincent Battle.

“I was very nervous and worried at first. America is so huge, I was
scared she could get lost,” said Antoinette Tawk, whose daughter
Bouchra, 15, will leave in about three weeks along with the other

But realizing her daughter was in good hands, and seeing the way the
whole program was managed, she rapidly changed her mind: “It is an
extremely enriching experience, and I can’t offer her such a great
opportunity, somebody is doing it for me.”

“It is like jumping from a bridge: The excitement is maximum and so is
the apprehension,” said Bouchra. Originally from Bcharre, North
Lebanon, she will soon find a new home in Rockport, Maine.

Leaving her parents for the first time, she has already established
contacts with her host family through the internet.

Enrolled in a full academic year, the students will attend classes,
labs and extracurricular programs including community services, youth
leadership training and civic education program.

“I feel happy and scared at the same time,” said Mohammed Mustafa,
15. “I will as much as I can improve the image of Arabs and Islam
there. I want to show them that contrary to what they think, we are
educated, cultured and open-minded. I want to introduce them to

Like the first nine, the new participants will indeed act as cultural
ambassadors, “becoming invaluable resources for Americans,” said
Battle. Their contact will provide hosting communities “with an
opportunity to learn about the rich and vibrant culture of Lebanon.”

In return, students will learn a lot, too. Amal and Khaled al-Ilani
are definitely proud of their son Ahmed, who just returned with new
ideals and objectives. “He introduced his country, his religion and
showed them that we were peaceful and civilized people. In return, he
has learned many things from the American society,” said Khaled.

“He was impressed by the institutional and social organizations. Now
he wants to change the Lebanese society, and is eager to be an active
member in all kinds of social organizations like the Red Cross or
other volunteering associations,” Amal said.

“The beauty of the YES project is that it introduces the rich and
diverse people of Lebanon to those of America. … Lebanese,
Palestinians and Armenians … meeting Black, White and Hispanic
American Families … They all gain new insights and perspectives on
each other’s countries, cultures, life styles and traditions,” said
Barbara Batlouni, AMIDEAST’s director.

Imad Khali, who went to South Carolina, was the perfect example of
such an interaction. “As a Palestinian, what was most striking is that
there were many Jewish Israelis in my school. I was rather scared at
first and they put me aside,” he said.

But then little by little they all started interacting, and even
understanding each other’s different points of view: “One of them even
came to the airport when I was leaving,” he said.

Besides this first experience, another one was waiting for Khali. “It
was incredible; my family had three adopted children, two Hispanics
and a Korean. It was really a life experience and I can’t wait to go