The World Divide
COQUILLE – Teenagers Izzat Mukattash and Julianne Owens are opening doors and, they hope, understanding of their different cultures in countries a world away from home.
Julianne, 15, from Coquille and Izzat, 16, from Jordan are participating in two foreign exchange programs, one bringing students to the U.S. from predominately Muslim countries and another sending American students to those countries.
When stories of young people heading to the Middle East often have a connection to war, Julianne is happy to be an exception. She is part of a program helping put misconceptions between the cultures to rest. She found out about three weeks ago she was going to spend five months in Muscat, the capital city of Oman, in the southeast corner of the Arabian peninsula. She leaves in August.
"I was really surprised and really excited," she said. Julianne is among14 students to receive a full U.S. State Department scholarship to study in Oman and one of 49 going out of the country.
The program, Youth Exchange & Study, was created in 2003 in response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The goal is to combat misunderstanding and misconceptions between Americans and those who live in countries with large Muslim populations, by bringing in Muslim students from overseas. Julianne will be part of the first year of the outbound program, YES Abroad. Both programs are part of the nonprofit Ayusa Global Youth Exchange.
YES has become increasingly competitive. Last year, 667 Jordanian students applied for the scholarship. Izzat was among only 28 Jordanians to study in America. Altogether, 850 young people from Muslim countries are living and going to school here this year through the program.
He downplays his achievement, which required passing a written application, an English test and an interview, but it's not hard to see how he rose to the top. Attitude is everything for Izzat, whether it's being among a religious minority as a Christian at home or living almost a year in a foreign country.
"If you think everybody is just like you, it's just normal," he said.
He studied this year at Myrtle Point High School. Izzat said, though not easy, it takes less studying to earn good grades here than in Jordanian schools. Myrtle Point did offer something he had never experienced in an academic institution: sports.
Izzat took a liking to a distinctly American sport - football. He was a varsity team kicker and was a wide receiver for the junior varsity team last fall.
"It's the best sport I've done in my whole life," he said.
Izzat also was homecoming king.
The enthusiastic 16-year-old said his host city reminds him a bit of home in that it's a small town where everybody knows everybody else.
"I feel like everything was normal for me," he said.
Julianne, on the other hand, is expecting to adapt to big cultural differences. She will have to cover herself with a headdress and full length robes. And while Izzat's outgoing personality served him well, Julianne will have to learn to redirect hers, as men and women relate to one another in a different manner in Oman.
"I'm such a bubbly personality. That's going to be a challenge for me," she said.
She also will kick off her exchange during the month-long fast of Ramadan. During Ramadan, Muslims don't eat from dawn to dusk. Julianne will not be required to observe the fast, but is encouraged to join, something she plans to do.
The YES program always is looking for host families.
Julianne's mother, Kari Owens, who's the YES regional director, said YES students are sent to orientations beyond their preparations for scholarship testing, where they study the language and culture of the countries they will be living in. Julianne, with Izzat's help, is learning Arabic.
"It's really a hard language," she said. "I think if I know some before, it will be a lot easier to function."
Owens said the program brings something unique – and necessary – to American schools."I think this gives our students exposure to diversity and another part of the world," she said.
For Izzat, there is a simple way to bridge the void between cultures."Talk to people," he said. "Don't wait for people to talk to you."