This article appeared in the The Times of Oman on Monday, September 12th, 2011.
MUSCAT: Five American high school students, who are in the Sultanate as part of a year-long exchange programme, have been interacting closely with local families and youths.
The students, Emma Conover-Crockett, Quin Craig, Noah Holmes, Bailey Palmer and Jaira Walker, will spend the next 10 months living with Omani host-families and going to school while seven Omani students spend the year in the USA.
The students are keen to learn more about Muslims first-hand, rather than from the American media, which they say has focused too much on terrorism in the past 10 years.
The biggest differences the Americans have noticed are the traditional clothing, the close-knit, large families, and the intense heat, but they’ve also found similarities.
“They like the same things we like. They like to make new friends. They like to be with their families. We’re all people. It doesn’t matter what your religion is,” says 16-year-old Noah Holmes, the only boy in the programme.
His host family doesn’t speak much English, but he says he already feels like a part of their family. He says he hopes that after living with them for a year, he’ll be fluent in Arabic and know more about Islam.
By writing blogs and speaking to friends and family, the participants can show Americans what Muslims are really like, says 17-year-old Quin Craig. “By explaining our daily activities and talking about what families are like, we show people that Muslims can be so similar and so peaceful,” Craig says.
Jaira Walker, 15, admits she didn’t know anything about Oman before applying for the programme, but was immediately impressed by the landscape, architecture and friendly people. She applied for the programme because she wanted to learn more about the world.
“The world’s getting smaller, so we need to learn to interact with each other. Everybody’s going to be different but we still have to live on this earth together so we might as well share it peacefully,” she says.
“The whole point of the programme is for them to be integrated into Omani society and to learn about the culture as well as teaching the Omani families about the American culture,” says Fatin Al Maawali, assistant programme manager for exchange and testing at Amideast, the American organisation which oversees the programme.
The Omani families hosting the students have the chance to learn about American culture, too. Hosting exchange students isn’t common here but Al Maawali says the families that participate enjoy it.
“We wanted to try a different experience where we could improve our relations with other people from other countries and improve our language skills,” explains Jumana Al Zaabi, 17, whose family is hosting Quin Craig. Her family plans on showing Craig the best tourist sites in Oman, and sharing their culture with her. Meanwhile, they’ll be able to learn about Americans without judging them based on movies and other media.
Mohammed Al Zaabi, 20, Craig’s host-brother, has already noticed some differences. “American people are more punctual and more disciplined. It’s helped us to be more like that,” he says with a smile.
The Youth Exchange and Study (YES) programme started in 2002, after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, to promote better understanding of Islam and the Middle East among youth. The programme, which is sponsored by the US State Department, made its Omani debut in 2009. The organisers are confident that this small initiative would go a long way in bridging differences.