From left to right, freshman Briannah Letter, senior Rebecca Hassler, and junior and Palestinian exchange student Yara Dgeish practice a short reader's theater play for Drama, Debate and Forensics at Thunder Mountain High School. Dgeish is one of four students in Juneau this year with the YES program, which brings students from countries with significant Muslim populations to the US.

From left to right, freshman Briannah Letter, senior Rebecca Hassler, and junior and Palestinian exchange student Yara Dgeish practice a short reader's theater play for Drama, Debate and Forensics at Thunder Mountain High School. Dgeish is one of four students in Juneau this year with the YES program, which brings students from countries with significant Muslim populations to the US.

Different place, same world

The four Muslim high school students on exchange in Juneau for this academic year from Indonesia, Palestine, Egypt and Turkey have gotten at least one outlandish question: Do you have a family camel?

Answer: No.

People have asked about food; others have asked about clothing. Other questions are more related to the United States’ current political climate, and the actions of ISIS and other terrorist groups.

Mostly, though, the kids are just doing what they’re here for: enjoying making friends, volunteering, singing, performing, hunting, snowboarding, playing soccer, making art, and overall being high school students in Alaska.

The Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study Program is a scholarship program funded by the US State Department, created by Senators Ted Kennedy and Richard Lugar in 2002, in response to 9/11. “Students live with host families, attend high school, engage in activities to learn about American society and values, acquire leadership skills, and help educate Americans about their countries and cultures,” the scholarship’s website says.

This year, the four students in Juneau with the YES program are Veysel Kazanci, a sophomore from Turkey; Lena Okasha, a junior from Egypt; Fadhilah Sophia Latupono, a senior from Indonesia; and Yara Dgheish, a junior from Palestine.

 

THOUGHTS ON THE US AND ALASKA

Kazanci had visited the US twice before — once for a drama competition in Tennessee, and once for a robotics competition in Florida.

“I liked it a lot,” he said. “When I saw the (YES) program, it was like a miracle to me.”

Just the same, he was alarmed to see he’d be coming to Alaska.

“All I knew about was Jack London and documentaries,” he said. “I thought I was going to be eaten by bears at first.”

Before he came, he used Google Maps street view to “walk” around Juneau’s streets, which reassured him. And now that he’s here, his favorite experiences so far are snowboarding and hunting for grouse.

“The nature is magical,” he said. “It’s what I was watching in documentaries since I was a kid.”

Latupono, who’d never left Indonesia, traveled 27 hours to get to Alaska. The temperature where she’s from never falls below 77 degrees Fahrenheit, she said, so Alaska came as a bit of a shock — even more so because she didn’t know where in America she was heading until her last day in her city.

“When I first came here in the summer, I was freezing all the time,” she said.

In Palestine, Dgeish’s mother is a reporter. Though Dgeish said she’s been around for so many wars that she’s no longer frightened of bombs — “If God wants me to die, I’ll die,” she said — it scares her to see her mother reporting on television in combat zones.

“I’m only 15 and I’ve been in three wars… I don’t want anybody to feel that,” she said. When she first heard she’d be coming to Alaska, she thought it was a prank.

“I like the idea of the program,” said Okasha, who had never before traveled outside of Egypt. “You’re going to a different place, and you just put yourself out there, and you adapt.”

 

THE STUDENTS ON ISLAM

All four students were raised Muslim, and Dgheish, Okasha and Latupono practice; Kazanci now identifies as an atheist, though he still fasts and reads the Qur’an, Islam’s holy book.

They’ve answered a lot of questions about Islam, especially given America’s increasingly fraught discussion about Muslims, terrorism, Syrian refugees, and immigrants.

Okasha in particular said she likes engaging in discussion and clearing up misunderstandings. She has also traveled to Utah, where she visited a school and answered their questions. One of them: What do you think about ISIS?

“What I want to say is that terrorists have no religion,” she said, growing impassioned. “If you want to be a terrorist, you can be a terrorist even if you’re an atheist, Christian… my religion never said to kill someone at all. I want people to read, or understand, first.”

Kazanci compares religion to a TV series, or Star Wars, with each religion a different episode.

“To me, this idea of religion is kind of like Star Wars,” Kazanci said. “The first book is the Jewish book, Jewish adventures… (then Christianity, then Islam) and people just fight over which episode is better. People should just leave their religious identities and like each other just because we are all human beings.”

As something that may come as a surprise to some with negative ideas of Islam, Muslims also believe in Jesus.

The students also said they live well with Christians in their community. Dgeish gets her Christian friends gifts for Christmas; her Christian friends fast with her and other Muslim friends on Ramadan, Islam’s holy month.

“We respect each other,” Latupono said.

“We have a lot of Christian friends,” Okasha said. “A lot, a lot.”

One of Okasha’s teachers brought up Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s recent statements on Muslims (he’s proposed barring Muslims from entering the country) in class for discussion.

“I stood up in class and said ‘I’ve been in America since August, and I’m a Muslim. Did I hurt anyone? … You can ask me whatever you want, but I love my religion. I respect it, and I hope that you respect it, too.’”

Latupono wears a hijab (head scarf), the thing she’s gotten the most questions about, she said. And though Dgeish and Okasha say they likely will eventually wear one, they don’t yet. Dgeish’s mother does not. Though some people are close-minded about women not wearing hijabs in Palestine, and find fault with her mother not wearing one, she also knows many other women that do not wear a hijab, she said.

“Nuns cover themselves. Jewish people. Hindus. Even Mary the Virgin,” she said. “Muslims wear the same thing…. It’s just a personal choice.”

ISIS is to Islam, they said, what the KKK is to Christianity — a negative, extremist position within a religion that doesn’t condone it.

“ISIS are not Muslims, because in Islam, in war, you’re not supposed to kill an old man, to kill a woman, to kill a child, or cut a tree,” Dgeish said. “If you kill a soul, you go forever in Hell. It’s just messed up. Plus, why would you just blame a whole religion for an action of one specific extremist group?”

“Islam teaches us about peace, not about killing each other,” Latupono said.

“Salaam (a common greeting) means ‘peace,’” Okasha added.

 

ORGANIZATION, FUTURE

It’s the Juneau People for Peace and Justice’s 5th year bringing YES students to Juneau, said coordinator Judith Maier; including this year, 16 kids have come to Southeast Alaska with their help.

Many of them, they’ve kept up with, she said. One is finishing medical school in Sudan. Another is working to bring more students to America.

“They’re all good. They’re just amazing,” said Maier, a retired teacher. “There’s so much that could be done with this program.”

Maier hopes to arrange a meeting with the governor before the legislative session begins, and also takes them to other governing bodies — the Assembly, the school board, the legislature.

The Juneau People for Peace and Justice brought three kids to Juneau; the fourth was brought by AFS USA (it used to be called American Field Service), which has brought up to three students on other years, said volunteer coordinator Amelia Jenkins.

Kids from out of town — Sitka hosts every year, and other communities have as well — take a trip to Juneau to visit the capitol, Jenkins said.

“These sponsor programs have been really a neat addition, bringing students from places that wouldn’t normally get to come,” Jenkins said. “When I was an exchange student a hundred years ago it was all kind of Western countries and people who could afford the tuition. But these programs are (for) not always the students that would have the opportunity otherwise.”

AFS also sends Juneau students abroad and is “always open to new volunteers and ways to connect to the students,” Jenkins said.

“We really try to get them involved in the bigger community, in community discussions,” Maier said.

In addition to schools, students in past years have presented at the Conference on World Issues in Colorado, she said.

This year, Dgeish has been participating in Drama, Debate and Forensics competitions with Thunder Mountain High School she won a contest in Haines. She also plays music.

Kazanci is on Juneau-Douglas High School’s soccer team, and also creates art.

“Sometimes the inner child of mine comes out… then I start drawing real stuff because… it just makes me feel real,” he said.

Okasha is in choir, the Interact Club, and will soon join the soccer team; Latupono is in art club and interact.

Dgeish would like to be a lawyer. Latupono wants to be a journalist. In the future, Okasha wants to go to college, though she doesn’t yet know what she wants to study. Kazanci wants to be a politician — “but a real one. A secular one,” he added.

“These kids really have transformed our high schools,” Maier said.

• Contact Mary Catharine Martin at maryc.martin@capweek.com.

Lena Okasha, an Egyptian exchange student at Juneau-Douglas High School, participated in the school's sleep out to raise awareness of homelessness. She's pictured here with a friend.

Lena Okasha, an Egyptian exchange student at Juneau-Douglas High School, participated in the school’s sleep out to raise awareness of homelessness. She’s pictured here with a friend.

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