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Mohamed Htash, a 16-year-old Libyan foreign exchange student, already is blending into Oregon life quite seamlessly. He volunteered at the Diabetes fundraising walk, where he was helping to hand out water … in a monsoon.
“I couldn’t believe it, even though it was raining buckets, and the walkers were soaking, they all still wanted bottles of water,” Mohamed observed during a weekend of record rainfall. Welcome to Oregon, indeed.
Mohamed is the first Libyan student to come to America on the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study (YES) program since it started in 2003. He joins the 2,300 exchange students from 90 countries who come to the U.S. on AFS programs to study in high schools and live with host families.
AFS-USA (formerly the American Field Service) has been leading international exchange programs for 65 years. Currently, they operate in 40 countries placing students from international countries in homes to promote learning, language and cultural understanding.
During the summer, there are plenty of shorter-duration programs for students who do not wish to do a homestay program for an entire school year. There is a whole category of four-week, language-centered visits; and there are other specialty programs, including a four-week visit to Ireland to study culture, a five-week trip to Italy to study sculpture, and six weeks in Paraguay for soccer, to name a few. For those outside the U.S., there are special programs to visit the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and Washington, D.C.
Currently, Mohamed is staying through June with southeast Portland residents Nigel and Amy Chaumeton, and their daughter, Kate, who is a senior at Cleveland High School.
Since arriving in mid-August, Mohamed already has been to the Pendleton Roundup, has gone wakeboarding, attended a University of Oregon football game, and had been to three Portland Timbers matches … although he roots for Liverpool.
“When I arrived, I asked Nigel what team he rooted for,” Mohamed said. “If he was a Manchester United fan, I don’t know if we could have been friends.”
Mohamed admitted he didn’t know anything about Oregon before he arrived, but had heard of Washington, and was eager to come.
“I love it here,” he said. “It’s too hot in Libya and I wanted a place that rains and is green.”
Coming to the U.S. isn’t as much of a culture shock for Mohamed since he comes from a mixed cultural background. His mother is British and works at the embassy in Tripoli, and Mohamed travels to England every summer. His father is Libyan, but not Arab, and works as a deputy manager at Northrup Grumann. He is a member of the Amazigh tribe from Yafran, in the country’s western mountains. Before the revolution in 2011, the regime was violently intolerant of ethnic minorities.
“The Amazigh have their own language, but I couldn’t study it,” Mohamed said. “It wasn’t allowed. Anyone caught studying it, before the revolution, could be arrested and tortured. That’s the way it used to be.”
He said families couldn’t name their children using Amazigh names, only Arab names.
“The worst was being treated like we were like second-class citizens,” he said. “We couldn’t speak the language or practice their culture. Now we can fly our flag. We already have one on our building back home.”
Things have loosened up in the country to the point where foreign exchange programs such as AFS can operate. Before, they weren’t allowed in.
Few programs can build cultural bridges and understanding as enduring as do programs like AFS. More than creating just a glorified tourist experience, the program promotes learning, as participants live as a member of a family for a time, getting to know one another and creating lifelong friendships.
Nigel, who works in behavioral research, and his wife, Amy, who is a physician and works in informatics, are no strangers to other cultures. They have traveled extensively in Costa Rica and have had their daughter, Kate, in Spanish immersion education since she was in kindergarten. In addition, Kate went on a brief, foreign exchange trip to Panama.
“I hope Mohamed sees how we live our lives and learns from what he sees,” Nigel said. “We won’t change what we’re doing for the most part. Inevitably we’ll learn more about the recent history of Libya. Personally, I’m getting a better understanding of the complexity of the dynamics within the country and the Arab nations — and I’m gaining a better appreciation for what’s going on in that part of the world.”
All his prior understanding of American high schools came from movies. “I think they exaggerate in the films about the parties and not studying,” he said. “At Cleveland High School, they’re on time and you’ll find students studying hard for an exam. They’re really not how they show them in the films, so I was happy about that.”
Of course, for Mohammed, starting a new school year in a new country isn’t without some challenges.
“When you’re new to school, it’s harder,” Mohamed said. “I have been talking to a lot of people, and making people laugh. Weight training is a good place to meet people, and I made a friend there.”
In June, he’ll return to Libya and resume high school in Tripoli. Then he plans to study to be an architect. But he knows the value this year holds already.
“It’s a once-in-a lifetime experience,” he said. “In just my first few months, I’m starting to fall in love with this program and this city. I’m getting to know people from other countries and mix in with other cultures. My advice to others is to just do it.”