YES Programs



Interesting exchange: Muslim student program comes to local Jewish community

Sarp Senesen

Photo: Courtesy of Gail Friedman. The Friedman family is hosting Turkish exchange student Sarp Senesen, center, for the school year. The Friedmans, from left, are Jerry, Gail, Jason and Sarah.

This article was originally published in the Jewish News of Greater Phoenix

by JOSH SAYLES, Staff Writer

Sylvania Franseda stands in a classroom full of eighth-graders at the Bureau of Jewish Education’s Hebrew High in Scottsdale, held on Tuesday nights on the Ina Levine Jewish Community Campus.
“Are there Jewish people in Indonesia?” asks one of the boys in the audience.
“I don’t know,” she replies. “I don’t have a Jewish friend. So this is a good chance for me to get to know you guys.”
Another student asks about the difference between Indonesian and American cuisine.
“In Indonesia, we like spicy food,” she says. “In America, people like instant food. (At home) my mom takes a very long time to cook.”
Franseda, a junior at Arcadia High School, is one of six foreign-exchange students spending the school year in the Greater Phoenix area as part of the Youth Exchange and Study (YES) program through American Field Service (AFS), according to local AFS YES Coordinator Karen Powers. A seventh will be joining them in January.
YES is sponsored by the U.S. State Department. Formed shortly after 9/11, the government gives full scholarships to high-school students from Islamic countries through already-established exchange programs; AFS is one of those programs. The idea, according to Powers, is to dispel stereotypes about Islam in America, and when the students return home, for them to help break down stereotypes about the United States. Americans can also receive scholarships to study in Muslim countries through YES.
This is not the first project of its kind for the federal government; a scholarship exchange program, now known as Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX), was founded not long after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 in order to bring students from the former Soviet Union to America.
One of the requirements for YES students is that they partake in charity work; these six volunteer at ICM Food and Clothing Bank in Phoenix. Another stipulation is that they spend much of the month of November giving presentations about where they’re from.
“I usually ask them to talk about Islam, if they’re Muslim, and also about being an exchange student,” says Powers.
The students – who are exposed to every question imaginable, from “What are some of the similarities between Judaism and Islam?” to “What’s your educational system like?” to “What kind of television to you like to watch?” – have found themselves interacting with the Jewish community on several occasions. They presented to four classes of eighth-graders (almost 70 students in total) at Hebrew High on Nov. 16, attended a bat mitzvah at Congregation Beth Israel, and spoke to the seventh-graders at CBI’s religious school.
“It was one of those magical moments where you walk into the class and everyone is engaged,” says CBI Religious School Principal Stacy Rosenthal. “We can study different religions from a textbook, we can look at the best and most current online resources, but … having kids from other countries and other religions actually coming and talking and starting dialogue was much more relevant and engaging.”
Additionally, when the Friedmans, a Jewish family in Scottsdale and host to Turkish student Sarp Senesen, were called to the bimah at Temple Solel on Yom Kippur to open the ark, they brought Senesen with them.
Senesen is not the Friedmans’ first exchange student. In 1996 they hosted Marcus from Germany, who, according to host mom Gail Friedman, “is still a huge part of our family.” They traveled to Germany to attend his wedding two years ago.
Senesen grew up Muslim but currently does not identify with a religion.
“(Judaism) is really similar to Muslim culture, actually,” he says. “The main difference is (Jews) drink, Muslims don’t.”
“We thought it would be really cool to have somebody from a Muslim country live with us so that we could get a better understanding of Islam, share Judaism, and hopefully, in a small way, try to change the world a little,” says Friedman.
The YES students, who are spread out across the Valley, have all had vastly different experiences.
Egyptian exchange student Mahira Abdelghany, a junior at Phoenix Country Day School, says her biggest challenge has been adjusting to “the unwritten rules” of her host family.
Unwritten rules, she says, are done “everyday (by the family), but they don’t notice (they do) it, and when you do it differently it’s just so noticeable or wrong.”
One unwritten rule she’s had difficulty adjusting to is how she goes about doing her chores.
“In my family, and all Egyptian (families), when parents say, ‘Do chores,’ it means it’s your responsibility to do them whenever you like,” she says. “(In America) it’s like, ‘You have one day or a specific (amount) of time to do this.’”
McClintock High School junior Susanto Prakoso, from Indonesia, says one of the major differences he notices is how teenagers practice religion.
“A lot of my friends here in my school, they have a religion but they seldomly go to their religion’s place (of worship),” he says. “What I see in Indonesia is, if you’re a Christian, you often go to church, if you’re a Muslim you often go to the mosque.”
All of the YES students who spoke to Jewish News showed an eagerness to go home and share what they have learned in America.
“I hope that when I get back to Indonesia I can (share) the understanding between religions, that there’s no better religion and there’s no bad religion,” says Prakoso.
Abdelghany says she hopes to start a club at home, either at her school or in her community to spread her newfound knowledge on different cultures.
Senesen says that meeting the other exchange students from all over the world has been just as beneficial as learning about American culture.
“I don’t think people are weird now, when I see a foreign person from a different culture,” he says. “When I came (to the U.S.), I was the one who was strange.”
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