AWKAR, Lebanon: Freezing beans and cutting apples wasn’t exactly the American experience Kawthar Taleb had in mind when she left Lebanon to live in the small town of Kutztown, Pennsylvania, for a year.
As part of the first class of the U.S. Youth Exchange and Study program in 2003, Taleb, who is visually impaired, knew she was in for a change.
And she knew she was going to live with Mennonites in their more austere household without the comforts of television and Internet access.
But Taleb, who hails from Akkar and spent much of her childhood at boarding schools in Beirut, wasn’t quite prepared for the Mennonite’s simpler lifestyle that stresses a hearty, hands-on work ethic.
She didn’t know how much she would be expected to pitch in for her life in high school abroad.
“Mennonites plant their vegetable and prepare their food, so most of the time I was working with food,” Taleb said. “I did help them and I was able to do it, but for me it was a lot of work because I was not used to that”
She learned how to prepare and preserve vegetables to eat and save for later. She came to enjoy the independence and strength that came with being relied on by other people. Taleb was expected to pull her weight like the other six girls in the family she lived with, and she did.
“It was hard a little bit at the beginning, but then I didn’t want to come back,” Taleb said.
So far, 336 Lebanese high school students have spent a year in the United States since the 2003 launch of the exchange program, administered by the U.S. Embassy. The embassy in Lebanon gathered alumnus of the exchange last week to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the program.
Most exchange students have had trips like Taleb that challenge the typical notion of the American experience. Former exchange students say that the lifestyle and cultural change can be jarring, occasionally difficult but often eye-opening.
Students have stayed in small, less prominent towns as much as they have in bigger high-profile American locales. Young Lebanese are transported into tiny towns in states such as Texas, Washington and Tennessee, where they stay with families from a broad array of backgrounds. They are given a year to become accustomed to a new school system, community and family.
“They had a lot of rules. No cellphones were allowed ever,” 20-year-old Myriam Aziz said about her host family in a small U.S. town on the west coast. “It was a shock in that I wasn’t used to that much authority.”
Strict rules were one of the many changes Aziz had to adapt to. Another challenge many students confronted was explaining to people who they were and where they were from.
“I didn’t realize how much they didn’t know about us,” Aziz said. “They didn’t even know where it was; one of them asked if Lebanon was in Russia.”
Aziz said cultural divides didn’t last for long. She said she took on extracurricular activities and made friends she still kept in touch with today.
Other students were shocked when, expecting to find great divides of culture or religion, they found almost none.
Mohammad Bzeih, 19, was placed in a host family in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Bzeih had heard stories about the south being a bastion of conservatism and intolerance, but he found little of that during his year living with a single mother of three who came from Trinidad and Tobago.
“In Tennessee it’s way different than American culture itself, it’s southern with old traditions and everything,” Bzeih said.
Bzeih visited a mosque, church and synagogue while in the U.S. He relishes the memory of hearing a pastor give a sermon about the city of Tyre in the Bible and raising his hand to explain that was his home town.
“I think if you live in the south they are more accepting of other people, they accepted me pretty well,” Bzeih said.
The exchange, which comes during the formative high school years, is as much about U.S. and Lebanon relations as it is about young people figuring out what it means to grow up.
Deema Safar lived with an Algerian-American family in the busy suburbs of Bethesda, Maryland.
She learned about the American experience, but she said she also learned how to put her upbringing in Tripoli in context. “You learn what it is to have a family and be connected to people,” Safar said.