“Everyone knows there are good and bad things all over the world,” Junaid says. “There are some bad people in Pakistan, too. Just like in the US.”
Such incidents underscore the divide between Americans and the people of Muslim countries. That is why the US State Department created the Youth Exchange and Study (YES) program (www.yesprograms.org). This competitive program sends some of the best and brightest teens from Muslim countries worldwide on one-year stints to high schools across the United States.”
“About 3,000 Muslim students from nearly two dozen countries have participated in the program since its inception in 2003. In the 2007-08 school year, it brought 750 students to the US.”
“The State Department is planning to expand the program. Next year, it will add 25 more students and one country, Suriname. Mr. Beiser says the program hopes to take this even further. And starting next year, American high schoolers will study in some of the Muslim countries in a reverse exchange.
“Exchange programs are not the only way to mend relations between the US and Muslim countries, but they are an important one,” Beiser says. “Every time a YES student and an American family have a successful program together, a minisummit takes place and helps relations a little at a time.”
“Diana Kamakh, a Palestinian YES participant from Lebanon who spent the past school year in a high school in Colorado Springs, says that those who’ve been to the United States have a much more favorable opinion of the country than those who have not.
“If you’ve been to the US, you must fall in love with something in it,” she says. “Plus you’ll get a chance to know that the government and the people are two different things.”
“Anderson says that the US has not done enough to reverse its bad image in Muslim countries.
“I think most of us involved in higher education in the United States have been dismayed by the US government’s failure to seize on educational exchange … as a way to ameliorate the damaging consequences of our increasingly onerous visa policies since 2001,” she says, adding that student exchanges are a way for the US to brighten its tarnished image.”
“Until this decade, it wasn’t unusual at all for Muslim students from the Middle East and elsewhere to study in the US.
But since 2001, Anderson notes, Muslim parents abroad are much less likely to send their children to study in the United States. The parents are concerned that their children could be harassed at US airports and unwelcome on campuses.
“Many, many national elites around the world studied in the United States when they were young,” she says, “but that pipeline is drying up and we will regret it in 20 years.”
But despite these social bridges, images often drive opinions more than dialogue. “I think the images most people have of the Muslim world come from the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and, of course, from Sept. 11,” Beiser says.
“But it can come as a shock to American students to learn that their own country’s image in the Muslim world is not particularly flattering either, he adds.”
“She met another exchange student (not from YES) who asked if she carried a gun. “I was kind of mad,” she says, “but I understand that he doesn’t know any better. Every time someone knew I’m a Muslim from the Middle East, they ask me questions like that.”
“Junaid says that some of his beliefs about the US were debunked when he came to the US as part of the YES program. Before arriving, he thought American life was a perpetual fraternity party.
But he learned differently during his stay, says Katherine Migliaccio, his host mother. He discovered what it’s really like to be an American. And that’s the image he took home to Pakistan with him.
“They all think it’s like ‘Baywatch’ here,” she says. “He realized that’s not how Americans are.”