05/27/2014 12:00AM ● Published by Carrie Schmeck
Photos: Betsy Erickson
“It’s just like in the movies!” exclaimed 16-year-old Mohammed Al-Salehi after his first day as a student at Shasta High School. This kind of youthful wonderment of all things America steals Ann Corrin’s heart and reminds her of the many reasons she invited this boy into her home.
A Yemen native, the young man is living with Corrin and husband, Den, for a year as part of the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange & Study Program (YES). The program, funded by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, provides scholarships for high school students (ages 15 to 17) from countries with significant Muslim populations to spend up to one academic year in the United States. Families volunteer to host students, giving them a day-in-the-life perspective of the American way, as well as exposing them to community activities, vacation destinations and, most important, a citizen’s perspective on life, politics and religion.
“The purpose of the program is to break down the barriers between us and the Muslim population,” says Jessica French, regional director for the American Cultural Exchange Service who administers the YES program. “This particular Muslim-focused exchange helps promote cultural understanding of both cultures. The hope is kids come and learn about the United States, realize we aren’t as horrible as they might think, and go back and share that with their communities.”
To insinuate Americans have a “horrible” reputation may pique some, but the truth is, kids in Muslim countries can’t know anything about the American people apart from what they see and hear from news and governmental sources. The same can be said from the American perspective. Short of traveling to those countries and spending time with the people, it’s difficult for Americans to know how an average person might think about world events. “A good percentage of our teenagers never leave the United States,” says French. “This gives that global perspective and adds cultural diversity.”
The students selected for the program submit to a rigorous screening process that includes a year of intense cultural training. “They have to be all-around superior students and proven leaders,” French says. The cultural training emphasizes language skills but also demystifies potential barriers to integration. “Dogs are disgusting in Muslim cultures and it is one of the big barriers when they come here, so they plaster pictures of dogs in their classrooms and bring them in for the kids to pet.” They also discuss seemingly benign topics such as appropriate humor. “Living where they do, they make light of war and bombs, for instance,” she says. “Understanding that doesn’t go over as well in America will make a huge difference.”
Once they are accepted, the program places students in clusters of at least three per community. During their year-long stay, they are required to do enhancement activities such as volunteer work and community service.
The North State may seem an unlikely mecca of cultural diversity for student placements, but French explains that is exactly the point. Over 90% of the YES students live in small, rural areas. “The big cities are already full of culture and the desire to host is less,” she says. “Families there tend to be far busier and we crave the diversity more.”
Families volunteer to host students and come in all dynamics and form. The agency requires an extensive application and home visit, where representatives can see the living environment and witness interactions between family members. “It’s best when everyone is on board,” says French.
“Hosting is a big commitment for the families. You’ve added a family member 24/7 for a whole year. It’s easy to have the kids around but it requires energy, for sure,” says Corrin. “But it always pays off. Your world view gets broadened in a way it wouldn’t without hearing him talking about Yemen day after day. It’s the best thing we can do to create a better world.”
it always pays off. Your world view gets broadened in a way it wouldn’t without hearing him talking about Yemen day after day. It’s the best thing we can do to create a better world.”