Three Middle Eastern high school students are experiencing life in Southeast Alaska. They are here through a U.S. State Department program established in response to the September 11th attacks. The program’s goal is to bring students from Muslim countries to the U.S. to learn about American values and culture. In turn, the students teach Americans about life and culture in the Middle East.
The students recently gave a talk at University of Alaska Southeast called, “Translocal Muslim Identities around the World.”
When 16-year-old Abdulla Husain from Bahrain learned he was coming to Alaska, he had visions of endless snow. So did his fellow exchange students.
Màhâ Abdulrâzzàq, 18, says she was excited to be accepted into the competitive U.S. exchange program, which meant leaving her home country of Yemen and going to school in America for one year. “I went to my family, I was like, ‘I got a host family.’ I was so excited and they were, ‘Where?’ I was like, ‘In Alaska.’ And my dad was, ‘What!? You don’t have to go.'”
16-year-old Haytham Mohanna from Gaza Strip says he didn’t even know people existed in Alaska.
In the same way the exchange students and their families had preconceived notions about Alaska, the students found that Alaskans had preconceived notions about them. Abdulla says more than once a friend has introduced him like this, “This is Abdulla, the terrorist.”
Another student recently asked him these questions:
“‘Would you ever bomb America?’ And I told him, ‘No.’ And he was like, ‘Do you know anyone in your family who would bomb America?’ And I was like, ‘No.’ And he goes, ‘Do you know anyone from your country who would bomb America?’ And then I just got pissed and then I was like, ‘What’s up with the third degree?’”
Despite these incidences, experiencing America and Alaska has been positive for all of them. Aside from attending high school, making friends, and living with a host family, the students get to travel to other parts of the country, try new activities, and have classic Alaska experiences.
“I have tried cross-country skiing for the first time and I fell 15 times! That was crazy. I was counting,” says Màhâ, who’s attending Thunder Mountain High School. She also can’t wait to tell her friends in Yemen about homecoming:
“And I will tell them, I danced. I danced like crazy. I have never danced in my life.”
Abdulla recounts a run in with a bear. “I was texting and looking down and listening to music and so all of a sudden I looked up and maybe twenty feet away, there was this big bear looking through this garbage. And he looked at me and I looked at him and I know they say don’t run, but I couldn’t help it. I didn’t run; I walked backwards faster than running maybe,” he says laughing.
While in America, Màhâ doesn’t wear a traditional long black abaya that covers her whole body. Instead, she wears dresses with leggings. But she still wears a hijab, a religious head scarf. “I can’t show my hair for guys, except for my father, brother, future husband, future kids, and uncles and grandfather,” she explains.
Màhâ says it has been a culture shock to see so much interaction between boys and girls. In her home country, schools aren’t mixed. “So, like, in Yemen, we’re not allowed to have girlfriends or boyfriends and we are not allowed walking and holding hands with guys and hugging them and stuff. That’s crazy.”
Haytham says the biggest difference between living in America and living in conflict-ridden Gaza Strip is, by far, the weather. And freedom:
“Like being here in America, it’s very different, having your freedom, having your choices, do whatever you want to. I can’t explain it. Like from a siege, or under siege, to having many choices and many stuff to do, it’s so different.”
He says the program is affecting his life in more ways than he ever imagined, “This program opened many doors and many choices for me. Also it will do many things for me even in the future, for my future job, for my college, for my life, how to react, how to deal with many people, how to communicate.”
Haytham, Màhâ, and Abdulla have a tip for Americans – if you want to know about another country’s culture, travel there, meet people, and talk to them.