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Exchange Students Bring New Holiday Traditions to Kissimmee Family

Tonight, after a traditional midnight Mass at Holy Cross Catholic Church in south Orlando, Yassir Al Nakhli, 17, and Semjon "Sem" Grinberg, 16, will sit down to their first-ever Christmas dinner.

Everything about the traditional Christmas celebration — the nativity, the big family dinner, the exchanging of presents — is a new experience for these two international exchange high school students. Yassir, a Muslim of Sudanese parents, who is a resident of Qatar, will be here until June. Semjon, a Russian of Jewish heritage who has lived in Germany since he was 4, goes back home in January. They both arrived in August.

"I've seen the malls decorated for Christmas and, of course, I've seen Christmas in movies," said Yassir, a soft-spoken teenager who loves to read history books. "But it is not something I've ever celebrated. Some Muslims [in Qatar] don't even know the actual date [of Christmas]."

Christmas is celebrated all around Semjon's home in Germany. But the day doesn't hold a special meaning in his Jewish household.

"We put up a tree because it is fun, but it doesn't mean anything," said Semjon, a fast talker who describes himself as science-minded. "Christmas Day is like any other day."

That won't be the case this year. Yassir and Semjon's first Christmas is going to be as big and diverse as the American fabric. After midnight Mass with their host parents, Axel and Evana Lopez of Kissimmee, the teens will sit down at a table with the Lopezes' adult children, grandson and friends. On the menu are traditional American dishes such as baked ham, Cornish hens and mashed potatoes, as well as tamales from Guatemala, where Axel was born.

"I just hope their first Christmas is a lot of fun, a lot," said Evana Lopez, a native of the island of Dominica. "Something that they can remember forever."

So far, the teenagers have gotten an introduction to Christmas light hanging, cookie baking and gift wrapping.

"Sem had never wrapped a gift, but he did such a good job, he ended up wrapping all of the baby presents," said Evana, about the couple's year-old grandson. "Yassir had trouble. My husband had to show him how to fold and tape the corners. But they wrapped a lot."

Tolerance and understanding are a way of life at the Lopezes'.

"If you see the news, the Jews and the Muslims don't get along so well in some parts of the world," said Axel Lopez, who introduces both teenagers as his own when the family goes out. "But these kids make me so proud. They get along so well. They might have different religions and cultures, but here in the house, none of that matters. We're one family."

During Ramadan, the Muslim's holy month, the Lopezes and Semjon waited until after sunset to have dinner so that Yassir could join them at the table.

"I respect his religion," said Semjon, who said he has another Muslim friend in Germany. Yassir, however, had never met a Jewish person. There aren't many in Qatar.

"I don't think I had any preconceived ideas about them," said Yassir in fluent English that he has been learning since he was 3. "It was more like a blank slate."

Both teenagers now consider the other a friend and plan to stay in touch.

Ellen Barr, Central Florida's regional director of Ayusa Global Youth Exchange, the organization that brought Semjon and Yassir to the U.S., said the Lopezes embody the principles of their organization.

"We want our kids to see America and our culture for what it is," Barr said. "That they can see for themselves religious tolerance and — in the case of some kids — to see democratic principles at work. That's what the Lopezes are doing so well. By opening their home and themselves the way they've had, they're sharing America with these kids."

The Lopezes, who don't get paid for being host families, had not hosted exchange students before. The experience, they said, has been very rewarding.

"I have a lot of respect for Sem and Yassir," Axel said. "These are brave kids that were willing to leave their comfort zones to learn, to grow as individuals. I hope this can be an eye-opener for them, and it has been for us."

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