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A cultural lesson

Lebanese girl dispels stereotypes about Muslims in year at Doherty through exchange program

May 31, 2008 - 12:43AM




Diana Kamakh doesn't wear a veil. She doesn't pray five times a day. And she's definitely not a terrorist.

But she is Muslim, and during her yearlong stay as an exchange student in Colorado Springs, the Lebanese teen tried to answer questions and break down stereotypes about her dress, culture and religion.

Some of the questions weren't completely serious, but people expected answers, Diana said.

"I understand," she said. "They don't know."

The 16-year-old answered questions with a bright smile and a contagious laugh. It was, after all, her mission: sharing her culture is a big part of coming to the U.S. through the Youth Exchange and Study - YES - program.

The program, funded by the U.S. State Department, provides a bridge between the U.S. and countries with significant Muslim populations. Started after the Sept. 11 attacks, the program's aim is to improve Americans' understanding of a culture that's unknown in much of the U.S.

A "reverse" program - American students living in Middle East countries - will begin in fall 2009.

The Muslim world has a distinct impact on the U.S. and "there's a need for greater understanding," said David Beiser, director of grant programs for the exchange program.

Diana had a few of her stereotypes about Americans shattered through her time in Colorado Springs.

"I thought that everybody was for war," she said.

Diana stayed with Deborah and David Woodrow and became close to her host sisters - Rebeccah, 17, and Rachel, 16 - hanging out at the mall, watching movies, having coffee at Starbucks.

She went to Doherty High School in Colorado Springs School District 11, cheering from the stands at football and baseball games and working on the school newspaper.

Choosing classes and activities was new to her. In Lebanon, she said, "you don't get a chance to choose the classes."

But classes in Lebanon are more difficult, Diana said; it's common for students to know multiple languages.

"People here don't even know what Middle East is," she said.

Another difference: In Lebanon, teachers rotate through classrooms, not students, making it nearly impossible for students to skip classes as they do here, Diana said.

She shared as much as she learned, especially about her religion.

Diana says she is close to God but not strict with her religion. She doesn't pray five times each day or fast through Ramadan.

"I don't wear a veil," she said.

In Lebanon, much like in the U.S., each family decides how religious they will be, Deborah Woodrow said.

Diana said she believes she's made a difference in what people think about Muslims.

"I think now they have better image of us," she said.

Research shows there's a positive impact on how people think about each other's culture when they have a direct experience with the other culture, Beiser said. It's harder to be angry toward Muslims when one is a friend, neighbor or fellow student.

As Deborah Woodrow learned, Diana is a teenage girl, with experiences that are similar to her daughters'.

"Basically, she found out we're almost the same," Deborah said.



To learn more about the Youth Exchange Study program, visit or call 1-888-55-AYUSA (29872).


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