Photo: Sara Badwy of Egypt. U-B photo by Matthew B. Zimmerman
By IRIS ALDEN for the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin
The experience, they say, can challenge or reinforce their faith.
While the end of the school year signifies the anticipated beginning of summer, for the four AFS YES students who have lived in the Walla Walla Valley for the past 101/2 months, it means much more: that they will soon be returning to their home countries.
The American Field Service, which is run entirely by volunteers, is the oldest foreign exchange organization in the country. But it was only after 9/11 that the YES program was developed. The Youth Education & Study program was formed with the goal of building “international understanding, especially between Americans and people in countries with significant Muslim populations,” as described by YESprograms.org.
Students come to America for 101/2 months on a scholarship from the U.S. State Department. They arrive in Washington, D.C., in mid-August for a two-week orientation before they are dispersed across the country to live with their host families, whom they stay with until the end of June.
This is third year that the Walla Walla Valley AFS chapter has hosted YES students. As in previous years, the students come from all over the world: Shandra Iriliis is from the Philippines, Sara Badwy from Egypt, Sani Adams Issaka from Ghana and Irma Sefrinta, from Indonesia. For the first time, all the students are practicing Muslims.
Though the YES students know they are coming to America, they have no idea where in the country they will be placed. For Badwy, who comes from Cairo, the slow pace of Walla Walla was a big change. “You miss the crowds and the noise and the fighting sometimes” she said.
Irilis, who stays with a family in Waitsburg, was alarmed by the lack of people on the street. “When I first got here I thought it’s weird. I saw there’s not people actually walking. I’m like, where’s the people? … We usually don’t have cars,” said Irillis.
While adjusting to life in Walla Walla was relatively easy, learning how to practice their religion without the support of a Muslim community was more challenging. Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar in which Muslims refrain from eating and drinking between dawn and sunset, fell unusually early last year and started almost at the beginning of the YES students’ home stays. Badwy noted that in a largely Muslim country, you usually don’t see people eat during Ramadan and that seeing food made the fasting much more difficult.
Irillis was running cross country during Ramadan and found that the combination of the longer days (for Walla Walla is much farther from the equator than her native Philippines) and physical exertion was too hard on her body to continue fasting. She will make up for missing Ramadan by fasting for twice as long next year.
All the students had to change their prayer schedules. Typically, Muslims pray five times a day toward Mecca. Keeping up with their regular prayers without reminders from parents changed the way that the students thought about this practice. Irillis said she prays much less frequently since coming to America.
“Way back home I used to pray most of the time … but then I came here, I don’t know what happened to me,” she said. “I think I really need my parents to motivate me to go and pray and read the Quran.”
Badwy and Sefrinta, on the other hand, said that their independence has brought them closer to God. “Here you actually have more faith. You are without your family, you are just with God,” said Badwy.
Part of the work of YES students is to make presentations about their home countries and their religion in order to foster mutual understanding. In fact, the four students collectively did 69 presentations in just a few weeks to win a trip to Orlando, Fla., to attend the Better Understanding for a Better World conference, where they discussed religion with other exchange students from around the world.
Many of the presentations were done at school, where most of the YES students feel they have made progress in educating their classmates. “They’ve got to understand our religion and they’ve got to understand where we come from. I think it has helped. It has changed some people, some people had no idea. You have to explain to them what it is and how it is,” said Issaka.
“They are really curious, they ask a lot of questions. I think they just know a little bit so they want to know more about it,” said Irillis.
Presentations aren’t the only way that the students share their native cultures. Sefrinta and Badwy were both asked to perform their respective traditional dances in Walla Walla High School’s production of “The Taming of the Shrew.”
Of course, the experience of being a Muslim in a mostly non-Muslim community has not always been positive. Bawdy wears a hijab, a headscarf which for many Muslim women signifies modesty and religious devotion. “In the beginning I was the only one in the whole shcool who was wearing the scarf, and sometimes I would think ‘Why is he looking at me,’” said Bawdy.
Though Badwy grew accustomed to wearing the hijab in Walla Walla, some Walla Walla residents were not accustomed to seeing it.
“When I was at the fair in the first few weeks there was a man who told me it’s not cold enough to wear the scarf. I told him, ‘Actually I’m Muslim’ and he just turned away,” said Badwy.
The YES students work hard to combat misconceptions about their religion, which can stem from the terrorist attacks of 9-11. “Islam means peace, and there’s no way a religion like that can preach violence. Its just the extremists who are taking it so far. It only preaches for you to stand up for your rights,” said Issaka.
The YES students are now facing their final days in Walla Walla with mixed feelings of sadness and excitement. All four expressed how much they will miss the friends they’ve made here when they leave. “I think the people is the best thing that happened to me in Walla Walla,” said Issaka.
With all they’ve learned in America, each student will have a lot to share with their friends and families when they return home.
“Now you have a job to make your friends and make the other people think differently about America and the people in America. I will tell them that the people here are like the people in Egypt. They are the same, and they like us, they do!” said Badwy.
Copyright © 2009 Walla Walla Union-Bulletin