Muslim students bridge gap with US teens

WASHINGTON, June 18(The News): He doesn't know Osama bin Laden, but 16-year-old Pakistani student Waleed Nasir found himself answering questions about the al-Qaeda leader during his year as an exchange student in the United States.

The teenager from Karachi was one of a group of 675 students participating in a US State Department-sponsored programme that brought Muslim students to the United States as part of a post-Sept 11 cultural exchange.

Nasir, wearing a "Chicago" cap and talking like an American teenager, said he did not mind the questions from people he met during his year in the United States because it gave him a chance to explain his country and correct misperceptions. "All they really knew was the way the media portrayed Muslims, as extremists," said Nasir, who studied for a year at a high school in Crystal Lake, Illinois. "They often asked me, 'Have you seen bin Laden? Are there tanks rolling in the streets?" Nasir said adding he told the American students they were more likely to have seen a tank than he had.

"They asked me all kinds of questions that at home wouldn't be right. But that's OK - that's why we're here," he said in an interview just before returning to Pakistan.

One such question was: "Is your dad married to four wives?" Nasir said. He and two other students - Dana Aljawamis, 15, from Amman, Jordan, and Leila Kabalan, 16, from Beirut, Lebanon - said they were also often asked if they rode camels at home.

Aljawamis, dressed in a T-shirt and sweat pants, said her year in the United States offered a good chance to explain her religion and culture. But she often had to explain why she did not wear the Muslim head scarf known as a Hijab.

"They always asked me, 'Are you wearing the Hijab in your country but not here?'" Aljawamis said, adding she had to explain not all women choose to wear the head scarf. She said she stuck out in the town of Plymouth, Minnesota, especially when she went places with her "host mother." "In Plymouth ... I didn't see anyone with dark skin. They would stare at me and my host mother and try to figure it out."

US students often had no sense of geography, Nasir said, confusing Pakistan with Afghanistan and assuming the entire area was desert. "Some people had no clue. They asked, 'Is Lebanon a country?'" added Kabalan, who attended a high school in Greenbelt, Maryland, near Washington. "I thought it was kind of cool to go and teach people about my country."

As challenging as it was to explain their countries and cultures, it might be even tougher to convince people at home that Americans aren't so bad, they said.

"It's our responsibility to do it. People often think all Americans are their government," said Nasir.

The students, who struggled to get used to US customs like calling adults by their first names, said they were going home with the hopes of making even a little dent in bridging the cultural divide between their countries and the US.

"I have a more global view (of the Middle East) now," said Aljawamis. "We need to move on. We can't stay focused in our conflicts. ... It's time to move on."



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