A large charter bus sat in the parking lot, exhaust brakes hissing. Several rooms in the conference center were full of large suitcases, most of them looking brand new. I knew they couldn’t have belonged to the small group of people who were a part of my ministers’ conference.
The next morning, I sat down with a few other people for breakfast in the dining room. There were just a couple dozen of us scattered around the room. All of a sudden, a flood of people, and a wave of teenage energy, filled the room.
I would estimate that there were 125 to 150 of them. Teenagers, all of them. They all had on a red name badge and many were carrying large backpacks. Nearly all had dark hair and skin some shade of brown. A majority of the females were wearing various head coverings — shaylas and khimars.
They had just arrived the night before, and many of them had a look on their face that’s hard to describe — a mix of eager anticipation, apprehension, and tenacious attentiveness. Some seemed really anxious about doing something wrong. One girl stopped me and asked me if it was OK to pour her drink out.
At the same time, there was laughter and talking. They whispered and giggled like any other teenagers. As they sat down with their breakfast, they didn’t spread out or leave a chair between themselves and the next person like I and my colleagues tended to do — they seemed to crowd into as few tables as possible next to each other. A few who had smartphones went to the edge of the table to take a group selfie.
I tried to read their name badges as they walked by me. Below their names, many of which I probably couldn’t pronounce correctly, were the names of different countries. Liberia, Pakistan and Bahrain were among the ones I saw.
Later that morning, I walked past an auditorium where the same group of students was gathered, and an American woman was at the front answering questions. The students who spoke sounded uneasy — they were asking questions about the upcoming election, whether it’s OK to share their opinions with Americans, and how our politics are going to affect them. They were asking questions with a genuine concern for being respectful and dutiful guests while they are here.
I later tracked down the woman who was answering questions. Her name was Megan, and she was very friendly and enthusiastic as she told me that they are the next cohort of students who have come here in the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study (YES) program. It was established by Congress in October 2002 in response to the events of Sept. 11, 2001. It is a merit-based scholarship program with a competitive application process. It places high school students from countries with significant Muslim populations here in the United States for one academic year, living with host families (who also apply to be a part of the program). According to the website, the students “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.” They come both to teach and to learn. Megan couldn’t stop talking about how wonderful the students are.
I asked her about the question and answer session I overheard. She explained that while most groups of students come in barely able to contain their enthusiasm, this year includes a more subdued tone. The students who follow U.S. news and politics are worried and anxious.
This year, Megan said, some students were accepted into the program but later decided to stay home, fearing for their safety and well-being in the United States.
This year’s group of students come from nearly 40 countries with Muslim majority populations, or, in a few cases, Muslim majority areas within a country. One very shy, soft-spoken girl I met was from an Arab community within Israel. A large majority of the students are practicing Muslims, but not all. They were soon to be placed in host homes all over the country.
Some YES alumni are involved in new student orientation and come back to the U.S. to share with the new students their experience and advice. I spoke with one young alumnus. I do not remember his name or country of origin, but he referred to himself as non-religious. During his year as an exchange student, he stayed with a Southern Baptist family in Texas (he referred to their religion as “Southern Baptism”). He shared that he came with a lot of apprehension and dread about American religion but came prepared to function as a part of his host family and do whatever they did. He said he found that he loved church and went with them every Sunday to worship as well as other special activities. “I tell the new students to be completely open and try new things,” he said. He advises the students to “behave in a way that shows people the wonderful person you are so they can see past religious labels or other differences.”
YES alumni return to their home countries after 10 months, often with fresh ideas and enthusiasm for promoting peace and prosperity where they live. Students from Bangladesh were inspired by the entrepreneurial spirit they found in the U.S. and organized a career development seminar there. An Arab Israeli student returned to her home to teach English at a preschool. Alumni in Sierra Leone received a government grant for a project that aims to eliminate obstacles and stereotypes that girls face in pursuing education.
I can still hear the enthusiasm in the voice of a Tunisian girl I spoke with in the lunch line the next day. “Are you excited, scared — how are you feeling?” I asked her. Speaking better English than some native-born U.S. citizens, she said, “Of course I’m excited! We’re obviously nervous about making friends and learning how to be Americans, but I think we’re going to learn so.”
The openness and eagerness I saw in those students reminded me of an interview I did with Vicki Eckberg of Restoration Outreach Programs in Aurora, Colo. There are many refugees and immigrants in her community who, according to her, are desperate to assimilate and learn to make the U.S. their home, but they face suspicion and prejudice, and sometimes get ripped off by people who know how to take advantage of them.
I do not know how widely known the YES program is, but it was new to me. I share my brief encounter with its students and leaders for two reasons. First, we need more people who will tell the truth about these students, their people and their countries. Our airwaves are flooded with voices who are happy to bear false witness against these and others. We need to see these faces and hear their stories.
Secondly, these bright-eyed students have been a prayer burden on my heart since I met them. I hope you will join me in my prayers. I pray they will have the positive experience of other alumni. I pray that they will not be “sheep among wolves.” I think of what their predecessors have done and the tremendous opportunity presented by their presence in our midst.
They are about to experience America firsthand. Which America will they find? What will they have to say about us when they return?
Many of them are also about to experience Christians firsthand. What will they find? Which Jesus will they see?