In the World pages of last Friday’s Empire there were stories about the military crackdown in Egypt and a car bombing in Lebanon. If national polling is accurate, then most subscribers probably read only the headlines before turning the page. Not so for Juneau Realtor Wayne Bundy. During the past two years he’s been paying much more attention to news from the Middle East. That’s because he was a host parent for two Muslim exchange students who attended Thunder Mountain High School. Now it’s like he has family living amid those violent conflicts.
In February 2012, Bundy opened his home to an Egyptian youth named Omar. Last year he hosted Mohammad, an ethnic Palestinian from Israel. One of Mohammad’s best friends in Juneau was Hadi, a very thoughtful 16-year-old from Lebanon. They were all given scholarships from the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study (YES) Program that’s funded by the U.S. State Department.
When I spoke with Bundy last week he told me that getting to know these kids has been “the greatest experience of my life so far. They opened my eyes, broadened my horizons, and made me understand the Middle East a little bit better.” And he emphatically added “I will definitely be involved in the program as long as I possibly can be.”
A decade ago Bundy had absolutely no interest in learning about Muslim culture. In fact, the 1984 JDHS graduate readily admits he “was really blind” about America’s foreign affairs and the conflicts in other nations. “After 911” he recalls, “I didn’t like any of those people. They’re all bad and I didn’t want anything to do with them. Now I understand they’re just like me. They’re people just like all us.”
YES was created by Congress in response to 911 and is open to high school students from countries with significant Muslim populations. Its objective is to help them learn about American values as well as to give Americans a deeper understanding of their countries and cultures. Bundy’s participation in the program began after his friends David and Valerie Ringle hosted a YES student from Kuwait in 2011.
A side-effect of bonding with these students is that it becomes impossible to ignore the news of violence raging around their homes. That also means understanding America’s past and present foreign policy in the region. This is no easy task. Our involvement is always hotly debated and rarely economically benign, while much of its history remains concealed in our government’s classified vaults.
One could take the view expressed by James Jay Carafano of The Heritage Foundation. In a syndicated piece published last Friday in the Empire, he wrote that the federal government “should offer foreign aid for one reason and one reason only: to serve American interests.” His opinion differs from the hard-lined Libertarian Party platform which would completely eliminate “tax-supported military, economic, technical, and scientific aid to foreign governments” and our government’s participation “in international commodity circles which restrict production, limit technological innovation, and raise prices.”
Robert Jensen, a liberal free-lance writer and professor of journalism at the University of Texas in Austin, takes the Libertarian philosophy a step further by appropriately qualifying “America’s interests” as inherently destructive when they ignore “the aspirations of others.” Addressing the current controversy about government surveillance programs he wrote “it is unlikely that the terrorism of Al Qaeda and others would have happened if not for nearly seven decades of a failed U.S. policy in the Middle East, Central Asia, and the Muslim world more generally.” And he concluded that if we would end our “self-serving policies” then the national conversation about security, privacy and political freedom may not even be necessary.
Wayne Bundy didn’t have such altruistic reasons for getting involved in the YES program. He met a few young students from the Middle East and heard their aspirations and dreams. Now he’s doing the hard work of educating himself about America’s foreign affairs. Like him, consider connecting with the YES students from Bahrain and Yemen studying this year in Juneau. It could reshape the local conversation about how America interacts with Muslim nations and may even help bring about a more peaceful world.
• Rich Moniak lives in Juneau and is a local coordinator for the Ayusa, a non-profit organization that administers YES Program scholarships. He receives a $30 stipend from Ayusa or his efforts.