Visiting Muslim Teens Shatter Stereotypes

February 6, 2007

Author: Deborah Horan

Source: Chicago Tribune

Youssef Ben Smail ate apples dipped in honey on the Jewish New Year (this is a new sentence replacing the incorrect one as published). He uses one set of dishes for meat and another for dairy. And during Hanukkah the Muslim boy from Tunisia played with a dreidel and ate potato pancakes.

Observing Jewish rituals wasn't what he expected when he applied for an innovative high school exchange program sponsored by the U.S. State Department. He had no way of knowing he would be paired with the Cornblaths, his Jewish host family in Evanston.

But then, Rawan Najar, an exchange student from Jordan, never expected to live with a dog--Muslims consider dogs unclean--until she met Roxy, her host family's friendly corgi. And Shahzadi Shah, from Pakistan, never expected Santa, a figure she knew of vaguely, to shower her with a digital camera, an MP3 player, clothes and jewelry.

"I didn't know anything about Judaism before I got here," said Ben Smail, 15. "I had heard of Yom Kippur, but it was just a word."

Conceived by the State Department in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, the exchange program--called YES, or Youth Exchange and Study--aims to give Muslim students from the Middle East, Africa and Asia a chance to absorb American culture, politics and society for an academic year. When the students return home, it is hoped that they will boost this country's image abroad by describing what they experienced.