Students on exchange from Middle East give glimpse of lives back home

Posted: Thursday, March 17, 2011

What students from Egypt and Palestine experience back home is in stark contrast to what goes on in the U.S., as two students explained what their home countries are like to students in Juneau last week.


Farah Elsabagh and Abdelrahman “Aboud” Baroud, are going to high school in Anchorage this year, through an exchange program called Youth Exchange and Study through the AYUSA.

The pair gave presentations at all three Juneau high schools last week during their spring break.

Farah, originally from Kuwait, normally lives in Egypt with her family. She explained the demographics of the country (80 million population), its language (Arabic), its common religion (Islam) and how people dress (mostly casual). What interested students the most, however, was the recent revolution that ousted President Hosni Mubarak and his regime.

The revolution happened while Farah was in Alaska. Hundreds of thousands of Egyptians protested in various cities, and while most of the protests were peaceful there was some aggression that led to the deaths of 100-300 people. Protesters sought the end of the autocratic leadership, corruption, emergency law (which eliminated Egyptian rights) and presidential term limits.

“I was so worried about my family and I wanted to be there, but I couldn’t because my parents stopped me,” she said.

Her father didn’t allow her to join the Facebook group that helped coordinate the revolution either.

“What I’m doing now, I think that’s helping them,” she said.

Students wanted to know why she thought the people of Egypt tolerated Mubarak for 30 years.

“They didn’t have the courage to do this, Mubarak was ruling the country so (poorly),” Farah said. “When he became sick he became weak.”

She said revolutions Tunisia and Egypt are done, Libya and Yemen are in progress and one in Palestine is in the future.

Students also asked her if she worried about the new government that will take over in Egypt.

“I’m not worried about the government that’s going to take over because it’s not going to be any of Mubrarak’s family,” she said.

Aboud comes from the Gaza Strip, an area controlled by both Israel and Palestine with considerable tension between the two entities.

Aboud explained the three Abrahamic religions originate from there — Islam, Judaism and Christianity. He talked about the present-day culture of the region in a portion of his presentation, but more was focused on the occupation of Palestine.

Palestine is split between the Gaza Strip and West Bank.

“The Israelis and Palestinians are in conflict about who should own the land of Palestine,” he said. “It’s more than 60 year old conflict that has cost the lives of thousands of people. The West divided between them, the Arabs said no and there hasn’t been peace since.”

Aboud explained what life is like for Palestinians under Israeli rule. He said walls have gone up to restrict movement of Palestinians — to the point where a normal half hour drive takes five hours to get through check points, whereas Israelis don’t have the checkpoints and move more freely on better kept highways. Palestinians can be arrested at any age, any time for any reason, Aboud said. He also showed a contrast of settlements the Israeli government puts up in their land — ones with pools and amenities while Palestinians go with water shortages.

“Some Palestinians have never been able to visit family who live just 10 miles away,” he said. “Buildings are destroyed and shelled without reason or warnings.”

Aboud said Palestinians want to see Israel withdraw from Gaza Strip and West Bank, remove check points and let Palestine become a democratic government for all its people.

“I think the next step is we should be united between these two governments and look for peace,” he said.

Aboud said the only way this can start to happen is if the leaders of Gaza Strip and West Bank work together.

Students asked if it was a religious battle over the lands. Aboud said it’s about government.

They asked him if he was in Gaza when violence broke out in 2008.

“Yes I was in Gaza,” he said. “I was about 14 years old. There was no place safe in Gaza. You don’t know if its safe or not. There was bombings overnight. So many people have been killed.”

Farah was interested in the exchange program as an opportunity to see and discover America.

“I thought when I came here I’m gonna like freeze and things,” she said. “People live normal life here. People here are really nice, friendly, they treated me how I expected. They didn’t interfere in my religion, they didn’t make fun of me.”

So far the only thing that has surprised her about the experience is in basic skills she’s learned.

“I think I became more responsible, I learned skiing and managing my life without my parents,” she said.

Farah said the message she’ll bring home is for others to take the same opportunity.

“I will encourage everybody to be an exchange student and come and visit here,” she said. “And don’t miss the opportunity to come to Alaska and see how beautiful (it is).”

After high school Farah plans on studying business administration and human resources.

Aboud was interested in the program after reading a lot of books about America and watching American films.

“I didn’t get shocked or anything, it was as I expected,” he said. “I thought it was gonna be fun, really cool, a great experience and make new friends.”

His family encouraged him to apply for the scholarship when they’d learned about it through Amideast, the place he was learning English.

Aboud also will encourage people from home to participate in the exchange.

“I will encourage them with this scholarship AYUSA, then I will share the language and share the stories that I had,” he said. “And share the good education that I’ve learned from here, the nice people I’ve learned from here.”

After high school About plans on studying medicine so he can help others.

Dwight Hunter, regional director for AYUSA, said the exchange program was created by two U.S. senators after the 9/11 attacks. It’s mission is to bring young people to the U.S. from 40 predominantly Muslim countries.

Students of all religions participate and between 30,000-35,000 students apply each year. Students submit essays, must be high academic achievers and meet other rigorous criteria. Only 760 of those applicants receive a grant to participate in the exchange.

The students were brought to Juneau by the Juneau People for Peace and Justice.

For more information on AYUSA and the exchange program, go to:

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