Muslim exchange students get a taste of the holidays in America
by: garth guibord, Tunisian Muslim exchange student Wiem Knis, left, and Rachel Morgan warm up at the Morgan family piano for a round of Christmas carols.

Even though Muslim exchange student Wiem Knis didn't know all the intricacies of Christmas this past December, she figured one out pretty quickly. Knis, living with the Morgan family for the school year, stayed up on Christmas Eve past midnight in order to dive into her stocking at the earliest possible moment.

And when her first Christmas morning rolled around and she celebrated the holiday with her American family, she wasn't disappointed.

'I always wished to have a crystal ball in which there is a little girl dancing and music with it,' said Knis, who came from Tunisia. 'I always wanted it, and I had it for Christmas day; I was so happy.'

Knis, 17, and Majd Abd-Elhalin, 15, of Israel are both Muslim students in Sandy as part of the Youth Exchange and Studies (YES) Program run by AYUSA, a non-profit exchange student organization. The nationwide program was a response to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and was designed to help bridge the cultural differences between America and Muslim countries.

Their trip immerses foreign students in American culture for the school year, including our holiday season, although it also means the students miss out on some of the important Muslim holidays back home, such as Ramadan and Eid ul-Adha - which celebrates Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son. Luckily, the different holidays have some similarities, such as family gatherings and large meals, and the students can have a comparable experience.

'I didn't miss (the holidays at home) because we had Thanksgiving here and Christmas, so it kind of filled the blank,' said Abd-Elhalin.

'We know during the holiday season that it can be a sentimental time for these students to be away from their homes,' said Sherry Carpenter, executive director of YES. 'We just try to provide a wealth of knowledge' to host families and students, she said.

Although research that families do before the students' arrival can be a great help for the transition, the holidays offer a time for everyone to gather and learn a little more about each other. As the local families discovered, there are many similarities between Islam and Christianity.

'It was funny; we were comparing stories in the Bible to stories in the Koran, and we have a lot of the same stories,' said Rachel Morgan, 17. 'The story of Abraham going to sacrifice his son; the Christians have that story also.'

Abd-Elhalin arrived with some familiarity of Christianity, thanks to his school in his hometown of Nazareth - one that will surely be familiar to Christians in America. Abd-Elhalin noted that he lives in a Muslim village there, but he also went to a Christian church through his school.

'(I knew) a little bit about Jesus and his story,' said Abd-Elhalin. 'I never actually celebrated Christmas, so it was a fun thing to do.'

While Abd-Elhalin said he tried to follow some Muslim traditions during the holidays, he stopped due to the difficulty of performing them here. Knis persevered for Ramadan, a month-long observance during which Muslims fast each day from sunrise to sunset.

'At first I didn't really understand why she was fasting during the day,' said Morgan. 'At night she would eat nutritious stuff, the meat and carbs she needed for the next day. She didn't pass out or anything.'

Knis also celebrated in style for Eid ul-Fitr, marking the end of Ramadan. In the tradition of that day, Knis wore her best clothes to Sandy High School.

'I went to the store and bought new clothes and stuff and dressed up nice,' said Knis. ''People said, 'Why are you dressed up today?' so I explained to them. They said, 'Oh, that's cool.''

The students' willingness to share their traditions and holidays has in turn taught their families, friends and others about Islam. These revelations have offered a different view of the way the religion is portrayed in mainstream America.

'You see so much on TV … I think a lot of people equate Muslims with terrorists,' said Carl Amstad, Abd-Elhalin's American host. '(But) there's radical factions in the Christian community, too. The terrorist faction of the Muslims is a very small percentage, but they're the ones that get all the press.'

Knis and Abd-Elhalin will study at Sandy High School through the end of the school year before returning to their respective homelands. Besides returning with a year of American education and a new perspective on our country, they might try to bring home a little taste of the holidays, too.

'We should have Santa,' said Knis.

Interested families can learn more about hosting a YES student through AYUSA Global Youth Exchange by visiting or calling 1-888-55-AYUSA.

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