A cultural lesson
By SHARI CHANEY GRIFFIN
May 31, 2008 -
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
Some of the questions weren't completely serious, but people expected answers,
"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
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
"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
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.
CONTACT THE WRITER: 636-0394 or firstname.lastname@example.org
To learn more about the Youth
Exchange Study program, visit www.AYUSA.org or call 1-888-55-AYUSA (29872).