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Sunday, February 20, 2005

Muslim students dispel stereotypes

Six visitors find benefits in getting to know United States

By Theresa Hogue
Corvallis Gazette-Times

When Oregon State University junior Rewa Kabbani called her mother in Syria a few days ago and mentioned she was planning on walking to a nearby store, her mother panicked.

"She said, ‘Don't you walk alone in America,'" Rewa recalled. But instead of becoming frustrated, Rewa saw it as yet another opportunity to debunk some myths her family has about the United States.

"It's not gangs all over the streets," she said.

Rewa and five other Muslim students from the Middle East and North Africa attending OSU this fall are keeping busy with more than just a rigorous workload. They are also pulling double duty as ambassadors of their countries, trying to share information about their experiences here with friends and family back home. They've found they have to battle misconceptions from family at home and Americans here.

The group was invited to attend OSU for two years as part of Partnerships for Learning Undergraduate Studies, a U.S. State Department program.

The students are required to volunteer in the community and be spokespeople for their countries. OSU is one of 11 American universities participating in the PLUS program.

"Before I came here, I had misconceptions," Redouane El Mouaddib of Morocco said. "I thought, ‘If you go to America, you will meet with hostile attitudes.' It was the opposite. What you have to convey is America is America. Life is normal."

The students come from Egypt, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Syria, and are all studying humanities. Most are English literature majors, but several have changed their majors to communications or political science upon arrival.

"Ever since I was a little girl, English literature drew my attention," Rewa said. "It introduces you to different worlds you do not have a chance to visit."

But now, through PLUS, a different world is opening up to all the students.

"I want to embark on an exotic experience of exploring traditions and peoples," Safae El Yaaqoubi of Morocco said.

Fatima Alhaj Hasan came to the program with a passion for Shakespeare and Daniel Defoe. Now she is learning to adapt to a heavy academic workload, a relaxed classroom atmosphere, and constantly having to answer questions about her culture and her country, as when a conversation partner wondered where Fatima had seen American films.

"She asked me, ‘Do you have TVs there?'" Fatima said.

"(Someone) asked me, ‘Do you still ride camels?'" Safae laughed.

For Mansour Al Bogami of Saudi Arabia, coming to OSU gives him a chance to clear up some of his own misconceptions about America and give people here a chance to learn more about his home country.

"We share the same culture, we speak the same language," he said of his country and the United States. "But there are some problems of misunderstanding. We want to correct the picture of our two cultures."

"The world is in one of its worst moments," Safae said. "There are tensions between concepts. People back home and people here don't know each other."

It's important, Safae said, to not paint the United States as a perfect world, but to explain to people back home that people here live very similar lives, have similar aspirations and similar dreams, and that you cannot judge the entire country based on the political decisions that make the news.

"On a personal level," Fatima said, "we have benefited. Our characters are different. I used to be childish and spoiled. I feel stronger now."

Mansour said he expected a lot of hostility when he arrived because of his nationality and his faith. Instead, he was welcomed with open arms.

"I received smiles and generous attitudes," he said. "I found it very close to Islamic values."

Rewa said her parents told her she shouldn't wear her hijab, or head scarf, in the United States because it would draw unwanted attention, but she said she discovered wearing it actually makes people smile more and pay more positive attention to her.

"At first it was an unacceptable idea of my traveling here alone," Rewa said. "Wow, that's a long way from Syria to Oregon. But I'm so glad that I made it. I have American friends now. I have grown up so much."



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