YES Programs



"On Exchange: Muslim Student Ambassadors Bring International Perspective to Juneau"


Article was initially published in the Capital City Weekly, February 15th, 2012

JUNEAU — In August of 2011, four young people left their sun-soaked countries in the Middle East and traveled more than 6,000 miles to attend high school in Alaska’s capital city. Six months later, each has a story to tell about their journey to America and the new experiences that awaited them.

“The rain and snow just keeps coming like it’s something

normal,” joked Yazan Jabr, an exchange student from Kuwait City, Kuwait.

Jabr is one of the four Muslim exchange students at Thunder Mountain High School (TMHS) on a scholarship provided by the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study Program (YES). For Jabr and the other students, coming to the United States was a dream come true.

“I grew up watching American movies, and I’ve studied English my whole life,” he said. “I’m so grateful to be here now.”

Exchange programs in Juneau are not new; however this year has been the first for YES students to study here.

“The YES program aims to break down unjust stereotypes formed by the mass media hype around Islamic cultures,” observed Rich Moniak, a host parent and local exchange program coordinator. “Juneau may be isolated, but students everywhere eventually become part of the bigger world. They take their high school experience with them and that includes any meaningful encounter they’ve had with a foreign student.”

The YES program was established to promote student diplomacy as a key component to building bridges between citizens of the U.S. and countries around the world in a post-9/11 era. Students come from countries with significant Muslim populations in Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia and Southeast Asia. The program is funded by the U.S. Department of State and sponsored by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.

This Friday, Feb.17, the public is invited to meet the Muslim exchange students from Turkey, Palestine, Kuwait and Egypt in a public forum at University of Alaska Southeast Egan Lecture Hall. During a panel presentation moderated by UAS professor David Noon, the students will talk about their culture, share their Juneau experiences and discuss their role as student ambassadors for their countries.

Berçem Eren, an ethnic Kurd from Diyarkbakir, Turkey, said she applied to the YES program for a learning experience that extended beyond the classroom.

“A culture and a language can change a person,” she explained. “I have learned so much by living in a different culture, and I see people differently now.” 

During their exchange experience, the students have brought a global perspective to the community through interactions with their host families, neighbors and classmates.  Eren emphasized that, like America, her country is a multicultural place with many different cultures and religions.

“In Turkey, there are not just Turkish people,” she said. There are Kurdish people, and there are Arabs, too.” 

Landing in Juneau has given the students a taste of small-town USA that is rarely featured in the American movies that they watch back home. In lieu of mega shopping malls and Lamborghinis, local host families have delighted the students by introducing them to the wonders of hiking, cross-country skiing, ice skating, sledding and celebrating the Christmas and Thanksgiving holidays. 

Sixteen-year old Omar Eliwa comes from Port Said, located on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea near the Suez Canal in Egypt. When Eliwa first learned about his placement in Alaska, he admitted to having some apprehension. He soon forgot about the weather and focused on the people.

“Now, I am used to the cold,” he said. “I have a great host family and very good friends.”

Eliwa’s host mother, Joan Gianotti, said she was encouraged by her son, Andrew, to volunteer to host a student.

“It was a part of the world that just wasn’t on my radar, but having Omar here has been enlightening for us,” she said. “It’s been good to see the world from an Arab’s point of view.”

Gianotti recalled that Eliwa arrived during the holy month of Ramadan, during which devout Muslims fast during the day.

“Everyone was impressed that he could go for so long without eating, especially my teenage boys who eat all the time,” she said.

Eliwa also gives Arabic language lessons to his fellow students and their families.

Eliwa’s time in Juneau included many first experiences, such as climbing a mountain and playing basketball.

“Now I know how to cut firewood,” he said. “It was tiring but really fun. I also shoveled snow, and I know that I will never be able to do this again when I go back to Egypt.”

Nadeen Alshaer is a Palestinian from Bethlehem, which is located in the West Bank. Since arriving in Juneau, Alshaer has often had to explain the significant geographical difference between Palestine and Pakistan to confused classmates. She is happy to share anecdotes from her life growing up near Israeli settlements.

“I want people to know about Palestine and to know how Palestinians live,” she said.

Her host father Kirt Stage-Harvey said that having Alshaer join their household has been a delight.

“We’ve been able to have open conversations with her about what she believes and what we believe,” said Stage-Harvey. “Tari, her host mother, is a Lutheran pastor, so having a Muslim student come live with us has really sparked a lot of interesting dinner conversations. It’s been great for our kids to realize that other places in the world are not like here.”

TMHS teachers Amelia Rivera and Gretchen Kriegmont have also appreciated the global perspectives that the YES students and their fellow exchange students from China and Latvia have brought to their classrooms. Rivera is particularly impressed with the students’ hunger for knowledge and dedication to education.

“All my exchange students have outstanding grades,” Rivera said. “They ask for clarification when they need it, and they make connections to their existing knowledge base.” 

David Besier is the grants program director at AYUSA, a non-profit that organizes high school exchange programs and oversees the placement of YES students with host families in communities throughout the U.S.

 “One of the great things about the YES program is that it offers so much potential for everyone — students, host families, community members, and schools — to become involved and make a positive impact for peace, diversity and tolerance at the local level,” Beiser said. 

Besier praised the program led by Juneau People for Peace and Justice as a powerful model to expand the impact of hosting international students by organizing community-wide events such as the upcoming forum at UAS.

As Muslim student ambassadors, these young people hope to represent their distinct countries and their religion in a manner not often depicted in the media.

“It is good to be here because it makes people want to talk to us and be curious about our culture,” said Eliwa. “We are a friendly people. We don’t bite.”

Jabr agreed.

“Many people only hear about our problems from the television, but I want to send a message that we’re peaceful people and that we love everyone because it’s what our religion asks us to do, no matter what nationality,” he added. “I’m proud to represent my religion in a city that doesn’t have a mosque.”

All the students have been touched by the kindness and the generosity of the people they have met in Juneau. They look forward to continue sharing their culture with the community as they enjoy the remainder of their Alaskan adventure.

Jennifer Nu is a freelance writer based in Juneau. She may be reached at [email protected].