By: Mohammad Abuajwa (YES 2017 – 2018, Gaza, hosted by AFS in Kansas City, MO)
When I first saw the announcement of a scholarship at my home country for those who can use the English language confidently, I thought to myself, “I must apply to this scholarship.” I didn’t know that I was taking the steps on a road which will change me forever. I filled my application with the help of my English language teacher and saw that the program included living in host communities with a host families and attended host schools. I was a little surprised by the idea of going abroad to study for a year in a foreign country. My neighborhood had never heard of someone who became an exchange student.
My best friend and I both qualified after the first test for YES, and he said to me “I am glad that I have reached the second test with you Mohammad but I don’t want to go yet abroad to study. I want to do it after I finish high school.” This experience has taught me my first lesson on journey - not everyone can become an exchange student. It’s not easy and it will never be so. Slowly over the selection process, I started to learn more and more about exchange students.
On the day I was informed that I was one of the finalists for YES, I was so happy that I giggled and smiled all the way home. My mom was stunned when I told her. My father was proud. My great teacher who helped me was happy, and all of my friends were asking me to bring them dessert (it's common in my culture to bring sweets when someone has great news).
Days passed, summer came, and a month before the travel day I was sent an email from my host family telling me about them and how excited they are to see me and that they can’t wait for my arrival. A week before the travel day I had a goodbye party that included some people from my family and some of my friends and my great teacher who helped me.
The night before I traveled, everyone was hugging me and saying goodbye to me like I am going away without coming back. This taught me another lesson - everyone around you will start showing their real love to you when you are about to leave them for a period of time.
Photo: Mohammed with the teacher who helped him prepare his YES application in Gaza
At the end of the night, my mother told me, “Mohammad… go to bed honey… tomorrow is going to be a very long day to you and you will need the rest for it.” I agreed and went straight to bed. From the day I submitted my application until the moment my mother told to go to bed, I wasn’t nervous at all about this program. In fact, I was excited for it. But the moment I put my head on my pillow, I had a strange feeling. I was shaking… and I was afraid.
I hardly slept that night and it felt like hours. That night taught me my third lesson - you never realize the true value of something until the moment you are about to lose it. But I also learned that no matter how long the night is, the morning will always come.
And so it happened, I headed to the bus that was supposed to take us outside of the country to Jordan, and on to the US. I looked back at all the moments that got me to this point. A year before, I could never have imagined myself traveling with people I don’t know, to a country I had only heard about on TV, to study a language I acquired from watching movies and playing video games, to build connections with new people that are as strong as my connections to my family, and to share my culture with other people from all over the world. I never knew that all of this is waiting for me when I submitted that application. I grew up mentally and physically, and now I understand that I can do great things despite me size or age.
Photo: Mohammed shares his culture at a middle school during International Education Week
My message at the end is, don’t be afraid of becoming an exchange student. It’s a small but hard step that will confirm that you are among a group of the great people. You will be an exchange student who is not afraid to leave his family and friends to go meet new a family and friends in a foreign country with a foreign language and be a young ambassador who spreads love, peace, and your culture with the world. That’s what it means to be an exchange student. It’s very hard. But in the end of it, you will wish to go back in time to have it all over again, and it will be worth it if you make it so.