Muslim students build bridges of international understanding

By Rebecca Seymour
Living Lake Country

Rammah Shandaq had a dream to experience life in the United States. The 17-year-old Muslim student lives with his father, mother, brother and six sisters in Sana'a, Yemen, in the Middle East.

Last year, Rammah and his best friend, Wesam Al Sarori, applied to become international students through the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study (YES) Program. Sponsored by the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, the high school exchange program is committed to building bridges of international understanding, especially between Americans and people in countries with significant Muslim populations.

Since 2002, the YES Program has been providing opportunities for Muslim students to spend up to one academic year in the U.S. Students live with host families, attend high school and participate in activities to learn more about America, while sharing about their own countries, cultures and traditions.

"I heard about the YES Program, and my father, Adel, encouraged me to apply. One thousand students applied to the program, and only 18 were chosen. It was very challenging, but my father motivated me because he wants to have a better relationship between Yemen and the United States. I am so grateful for my father," said Rammah.

Rammah and Wesam were excited when they found out they were both accepted into the YES program and would spend the 2012-13 school year in Wisconsin as AFS International Students. Wesam's AFS host family resides in Milwaukee. Rammah is living with Mike and Debra Bursinger and their children, Katie, 19, Caroline, 16, and Jack, 9, in Oconomowoc and attends Oconomowoc High School.

"So far, I have experienced so many new things. On my second day here we went to a Badger football game and that was awesome," said Rammah. "I was also in the Halloween and homecoming parades, and I've been to Chicago, Door County and Washington, DC."

Rammah admitted that when he first arrived in the U.S. in early September he felt homesick and wanted to return to his home in Yemen. "Everything here is so completely different. I am trying to keep an open mind, and I respect our differences. At first I felt lonely, but I am excited to experience new things, and I feel better now," he added.

Debra and Mike Bursinger have been actively involved with the AFS Intercultural Program at Oconomowoc High School for several years.

"We host AFS students because we believe in the AFS mission to increase global understanding and harmony through these exchanges. I want my children to be aware that we are part of the global community and that it is increasingly important for Americans to understand that, as part of that community, we are affected by issues in all parts of the world. We need to understand the culture and people of other countries in order to understand the issues. And we need the people of other nations to understand our culture," said Debra.

Connecting cultures

Indah Abudiman, 17, is from the capital city of Medan in the North Sumatra province of Indonesia. Indah is also attending Oconomowoc High School and lives with AFS host family Todd and Terri Watermolen and their children Emma, 19, and Jack, 17, on their farm in Ixonia.

"I was so excited when I found out I was going to live on a farm in a small town. Sometimes it has been challenging, but I think about the purpose of why I am here and that is to learn new things and about other people's cultures and to get a new perspective. And I'm trying new things like doing my own laundry; I'm so proud of myself," she said, laughing.

The Muslim student admitted she came to this country with preconceived ideas about the American culture and way of life. "I was so surprised. I had this perception that Americans think they are the best in the world and they don't care about other people who are different. Now I know that isn't true because I have met so many good people who are so welcoming," said Indah.

Adhering to their Muslim faith, Indah and Rammah must pray five times a day. To meet the students' needs, the high school set aside an empty office for their prayer times.

"At first I was worried because I wasn't sure I would be able to pray in school," admitted Rammah. "But I feel really comfortable and there have been noobstacles. I can pray and practice my religion."

Indah agreed she also wasn't sure how people would react to her faith and customs.

"Sometimes I feel alone, and then I feel God because God knows everything. And I am learning more about my own religion and culture because I have to explain it to other people, and I am learning there are more similarities than differences. When I went to the Watermolens' church, their pastor gave me a blessing, and I felt so good about that," said Indah.

Breaking barriers

AFS Intercultural Programs is a worldwide, nonprofit organization that has been leading international high school student exchange for more than 60 years. Each year, AFS-USA sends about 1,500 American students to more than 40 countries and welcomes 2,500 international high school students from more than 50 countries and from a variety of cultural and socio-economic backgrounds.

The Oconomowoc AFS Chapter is part of the Waukesha Area Team, which is made up of 13 local high schools. This year, the Waukesha Area Team sponsored 24 AFS students from around the world. Each month, the group gathers for special events and planned activities to socialize and to share their experiences with one another.

"We chose to host a student from the Middle East because we wanted to get a sense of a country that is really different from the U.S.," added Debra. "We've learned that the differences between our way of life and Rammah's are both significant and fascinating. Rammah and the other Middle Eastern exchange students we've met are like teenagers everywhere; they want to fit in, have a loving family and friends and have fun."

For more information about AFS and the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study (YES) Program, visit and

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