December 7, 2015: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump calls for a ban on all Muslims entering the country.
March 22, 2016: Trump’s rival, Sen. Ted Cruz, says police need to patrol Muslim neighborhoods in the United States.
March 27, 2016: More than 70 people are killed in Lahore, Pakistan, where a suicide bomber has struck a park in which Christians have gathered to celebrate Easter.
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News reports are filled with stories that make Muslims, and those in religious minorities where they live, feel uneasy. It’s clear that for many, the world has become a fearful place.
So when The Star received an email from a Muslim high school exchange student expressing hope and idealism about the state of the world, editors took notice.
“I am Sadaf Naeem, an optimistic 16-year-old exchange student, a cultural nomad and a freelance writer from Pakistan,” the letter began. “I’m an artist and I dream of achieving big in life by starting small.”
Sadaf’s idea of starting small is a bit different from what might be expected of a teenager.
For starters, she won out over nearly 30,000 applicants to become the first girl in her home village of Chhab in northwestern Pakistan and only the second student in the surrounding Attock district to get into the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study (YES) program. She prevailed over friends in the top of her 10th grade class to get the chance to come to America and be a cultural ambassador between the two countries.
In August, she settled in with her host family, Susan and George Bratcher, and started classes at North Kansas City High School. Sadaf jumped right into American life and enthusiastically started volunteering in the community.
Volunteering is required by the program, but Sadaf has been particularly enthusiastic, said local YES program coordinator Laurie Jacobsen.
Sadaf has worked sorting and pricing at the Hillcrest Thrift Shop, helped at a charity Christmas boutique, raised awareness about homelessness, decorated the graves of soldiers, and helped with a park clean-up and at a nursing home.
During these final weeks of school, she spends Tuesday and Thursday afternoons after school working with young people who will compete in Special Olympics.
As a participant in the program, she also has given presentations to local groups to encourage understanding about their culture. When she returns home in June, she will give presentations about her experiences in America.
All while maintaining good grades.
Big expectations, yes. But then the YES program has a big idea at its heart.
The Youth Exchange and Study program was started about a year after the twin towers of the World Trade Center fell. Members of Congress wanted to build bridges and public diplomacy with people in countries with significant Muslim populations. The program’s namesakes — the late Sen. Edward Kennedy and former Sen. Richard Lugar — represented the Democratic and Republican parties when the program began.
The idea is simple. The U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs oversees a rigorous and highly competitive selection process that results in full scholarships for high school students to live with host families and study for one academic year in the U.S.
Likewise, American students can go to spend a year in another country, with similar expectations.
For Sadaf, the idea of studying abroad was irresistible, even though many in her hometown were skeptical, she said. Sadaf grew up in a big family — three brothers, two sisters, her grandmother and her mother and father.
Although her parents did not have a lot of education, they always encouraged their children to work, study hard and get good grades. Two brothers and two sisters earned college degrees, and Sadaf’s parents want her to study medicine, she said. She is the second youngest in the family; her youngest brother is in ninth grade.
“I think doing something practical is what is most important,” Sadaf said. “When you read from books you don’t learn as much as you learn from interacting with people. I had to do something different.”
But coming to America was a big step. It was hard to say goodbye, even temporarily, to her family, Sadaf said, and it’s still hard enough that she tries to end Skype calls on an upbeat note before her mother can become too emotional.
A few people in Sadaf’s world looked askance at the idea of a girl studying abroad. It wasn’t something that was often done in her village, and they warned that she might not be safe.
Misperceptions abound on both sides of the world. Sadaf said she’s never felt targeted for her religion at North Kansas City High School. Still, some of the more serious questions she gets during presentations give her pause.
“People ask me the same question: Are you a terrorist, are Muslims really terrorists?” she said. But obviously all 1.6 billion Muslims in the world aren’t terrorists, she said, or there would be much more violence than there is.
Another big question has to do with the education of girls. Because of story of Malala Yousafzai, the Nobel Prize winner who was shot for encouraging girls to go to school, people often ask Sadaf how she got here if girls aren’t allowed to be educated.
Sadaf tells them the restriction on school for girls is limited to a certain region of Pakistan, and it’s common for girls to study where she’s from.
“Girls can do much better than boys. They have good ideas,” she said.
Of course Sadaf will be answering questions about Americans when she returns, and right now a big misconception she hears has to do with Donald Trump. News of Trump’s comments about restricting travel by Muslims has reached Pakistan, she said. Because Trump gets so much attention as the front runner in his party, it gives the impression that a majority of Americans agree with him.
“I believe he is doing a wrong thing. He is making a bad image of America,” she said. “People in Pakistan are thinking if people are supporting Trump they are against Muslims.”
Much of Sadaf’s year has been about those kinds of misunderstandings between cultures. Having grown up hearing that America is such a wealthy country, Sadaf said she was surprised to learn of homelessness and other social needs.
But she enjoyed volunteering to help the less fortunate, and will take that idea back to her own country, where volunteer organizations are not as often seen.
There are smaller differences, too. Sadaf had to respectfully decline a prom date because her culture does not allow dating, and her prom dress had to be less revealing than the typical offerings in American stores. But she still went with friends.
Sadaf also has learned about smaller cultural differences. The Bratchers, of Kansas City, North, have been helping her learn to cook American dishes for when she returns home, and since Sadaf said she is not known for her cooking skills, her family is excited. However, her host family said Sadaf is used to spicier food than what’s typical here.
“You really cannot get it spicy enough for her,” said Susan Bratcher.
“I love everything so far. Everything is just different,” Sadaf wrote in her letter to The Star. “My school is one of the most diverse schools in the United States and I am here to appreciate the similarities and accept the differences. I love the people the most. Life is weird. People are astonishing.”
One of the astonishing things is the dizzying array of holiday customs. Having arrived in August, Sadaf has experienced Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter and St. Patrick’s Day, just to name a few. She’d never visited a church in Pakistan, but has seen Christmas and Palm Sunday up close in the U.S. She said she likes the idea of giving gifts — especially charitable gifts — at Christmastime.
In fact, YES students often get invited to church in the United States, said Jacobsen, the program coordinator.
“In my orientation with students I tell them America is the land of freedom of religion, so when they meet someone at school and are asked to come to church, I tell them go ahead and see what it’s like,” she said.
Although some host families worry that people may try too hard to proselytize, that hasn’t been a problem, she said.
Sadaf sees a lot of similarities between the religions. Both Christians and Muslims believe in doing good works and in heaven and hell, she said.
“Everyone has a different method, but at the end it’s all the same answer.”
“Americans appreciate and love every culture and respect every religion, which is the thing I love most about them,” she wrote. “I love my country and my people and I do miss my culture. But America is my second home now and I always pray that we all humans start loving each other and make this world a better and happy place for everyone.”
Sadaf had a few fears about coming to America, but they were the usual fears of any teenager going to a new school for the first time: Will other students ridicule, will they want to be friends, will there be bullies?
None of those fears came to pass, and Sadaf says she has her host family in particular to thank for that.
Susan Bratcher, a lawyer, and George Bratcher, a retired firefighter, have a lot of experience as host parents. Sadaf is the 13th of their exchange “kids.” In fact, hosting exchange students runs in Susan’s family. Her parents started hosting the year she left for college, she said.
“I have to tell you, if you get a chance to host a kid, do it because it changes your life,” Susan Bratcher said.
Her husband agreed. Sights and sounds of the area that have been taken for granted become new again through the eyes of an exchange student seeing them for the first time.
Sadaf, for instance, had never seen snow until a skiing trip to Snow Creek in Weston. Other things, like the St. Louis arch, Missouri statehouse in Jefferson City and a Royals game, become much more appreciated.
That plus the efforts to help a visitor through schoolwork and the daily cultural differences make hosting rewarding, said Susan Bratcher. “You learn more about yourself than ever you thought you would.”
The Bratchers still keep in touch with their former charges through regular video chats and have even been able to introduce some of them to each other. They legally adopted one of the students, Amiran Gelashvili, from the nation of Georgia.
It’s exciting to watch the high-achieving students go home and take their experiences out into the world, Susan Bratcher said. Amiran, for example, worked as a volunteer in the United Nations. “Do you know how cool it is to have a picture of your kid sitting at his spot in the U.N. taking notes for his country?”
Students who do the YES and other foreign exchange programs are on track to be leaders in their home countries, Jacobsen said.
“You don’t know. You may be hosting the next president of Pakistan,” she added.
Sadaf has been an especially goal-oriented go-getter, and has led this year’s exchange students in volunteering, she said. Sadaf found her niche in clubs like the school robotics team, and is interested in mechanical engineering or possibly diplomacy if she doesn’t end up studying medicine.
“We’re always amazed by what they do because they are special kids,” Susan Bratcher said. “Anything she puts her mind to, she can do.”
The program is especially good for girls who come from countries where there are not as many opportunities for them, Jacobsen said.
“Take a girl from a place where women don’t have as many equal rights, and you have a very ambitious person in the United States. This is their big chance and they don’t sit back.”
Jacobsen said the focus on Muslims in the election may scare off some potential hosts, though it won’t affect either the Bratchers or herself. Jacobsen also has hosted multiple students.
“I’d like these people to put their money where their mouth is,” she said of the people who hesitate to host. “If you tell me you want world peace, I want to see you do something at ground level, like hosting someone from another country,” she said.
“You may find out they’re not as different as you think.”
Sadaf said she’s not experienced harshness from people she’s met, and the Bratchers are determined that her experience here is a good one.
“We’re always careful with our kids,” said Susan. “We thank their parents for sending us the most precious thing they have, and we have an obligation to send them home safe and sound.”
Sadaf will “graduate” May 11 at North Kansas City High School, even though she still has a year more of school in Pakistan. Foreign exchange students are given honorary senior status here so they can experience the cap and gown ceremony, Jacobsen said.
Then she will head back home in early June. When she gets there, she’ll tell family and friends and anyone else who asks about a country where people didn’t make fun of her for her differences, but instead took her in and helped her with everything from her English to her homework.
Already, she said, the trip has made a difference. An aunt and uncle who had doubts about the wisdom of sending a teenage girl off to study in America are now asking for more details about the program, Sadaf said.
And someone at one of Sadaf’s presentations said his impression of Pakistan had changed because of what she said. That person said now he’d like to visit her home country, she said.
“Over here, I am Pakistan,” she said. “It is a hard thing presenting your country — not just your family, not just your region — but representing the whole of Pakistan.”
But because her trip has changed some attitudes, it’s been worth it, she said.
“I have achieved something. I have changed some perspectives.”
Maybe that will be what it takes for better understanding — a series of field trips. But Sadaf is convinced that anything is possible.
“The thing I learned is that if you truly believe in yourself and your dreams, no one will ever be able to hurt you,” she wrote. And this:
“I believe it’s not that some people have willpower and some have not, it’s just that some people are ready to change and some are not.”