Countering Extremism Through Proper Introductions

Since 2002, over 8,000 Muslim teenagers have come to the United States through the State Department’s Youth Exchange and Study (YES) program, which allows the students to spend a year attending an American high school while living with an American family. While the flow of recruits to the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) and continuing turmoil in the Islamic world gets the headlines, the young people who spent an extended stay in the United States have started to make a positive difference in their societies. The families who host the students are doing more than their share to ensure the long-term security of the United States and they deserve more recognition and support. They are actually doing something useful at a time when many Americans seem to have lost confidence in their ability to create positive change—and at a time when some have resorted to fear-mongering about the role of Islam in the world.

There are no short cuts to modernizing the Middle East and other Muslim-majority societies. The issues in the region require long-term, creative solutions. Rather than shy away from engagement with the Muslim world, now is the time to double down in our outreach. The YES program, one of the very few genuinely successful efforts since 9/11 to affect change, should be celebrated and we should double the number of participants.

In October 2002, the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study program was founded in response to the September 11 terrorist attacks. This bipartisan program, named in honor of the two Senators who pushed for it:

is funded through the US Department of State and sponsored by the Bureau of Educational & Cultural Affairs (ECA) to provide scholarships for high school students from countries with significant Muslim populations to spend up to one academic year in the US. 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 YES program has proven, more than almost any other program of its kind, its enormous potential to improve relations between the United States and the Muslim world.

When we spoke with several YES students recently, they told us of the pressure they endured from peers and even family members when they were first considering their participation. Mohammed Abu Zaanona (YES, 2007-2008), cited the heavily anti-US rhetoric preached in his West Bank mosque as a significant reason behind the lack of familial support for his participation in the program. Other participants described preconceived notions of the United States derived from movies like Mean Girls, in which high school students were promiscuous and self-absorbed.

Once in the United States, the students we spoke with told us that they are besieged with questions about Islam and the Middle East that are similarly based on limited knowledge and poor media reporting. Hassibulah Roshan (YES, 2006-2007) of Afghanistan was placed with a family in Fort Lauderdale. For the first months of his homestay, Roshan says questions such as “Do you know Osama bin Laden?” were common. In fact, it is not a simple matter to place Muslim students with American families. Zaanona, for example, was a last minute addition to his host family, as they already were hosting an exchange student from Thailand. After many months, his host parents told him that they had initially been hesitant to host a student from Gaza; other participants said they had had similar experiences.

How do we know whether this and other exchange programs really work in changing attitudes and preparing students for challenges when they return home? In interviews with previous participants, the resounding sentiment was “YES changed my life.” Indeed, despite initial difficulties in adjusting to a new culture, the students leave the United States with eyes opened and a desire to foster better understanding between their two homes. Many students continue to be engaged in community service, a primary component of the YES program. Kahnar Hoshyar Abdulqader (YES, 2007-2008) returned to her native Iraq and said that she “understood my responsibilities as an active citizen in whatever society I lived in.” Other students expressed similar sentiments. A survey of the YES website reveals alumni go on to become community leaders, Fulbright scholars, and ambassadors for exchange programs in their home societies.

The organization in the United States that administers YES told us that alumni activities are an excellent indicator of the program’s impact. Lisa Choate, Executive Vice President of the American Councils for International Education, advised us recently that a typical month sees upwards of 250 alumni-organized events in over thirty countries with participation close to 10,000 people. According to Choate, this commitment to leadership and community engagement is evidence of the program’s influence. In addition, she noted that many host families visit their students in their home countries, a not inconsequential impact at a time when US attitudes about the Muslim world are ill informed at best. These durable connections, nurtured by intense and personal shared experiences, act as a real antidote to the conspiracy theories that mark Muslim perceptions of the United States and counter US misperceptions about Muslims.

As successful as the YES program has been thus far, keeping it strong has proven challenging. Two aspects of the program need more attention and additional funding. The program thrives only when willing American families agree to participate. Students from conflict zones in the Muslim world—perhaps those who need YES the most—are sometimes difficult to place with families. In addition, families bear the cost of hosting these students in the United States, despite the public good they provide. A modest stipend to families could make a difference, both in the willingness of families to take on the considerable responsibility of hosting a young student and in helping make the pool of American families more diverse.

YES alumni engagement also needs more financial support. It is utter folly to make an investment in these students and then fail to provide the small amount of funding required to stay in touch with them and to help them continue their connection to the United States in some modest way. Once again, long-term issues merit long-term attention. Since the program’s inception, YES has received no significant increase in funding. Costs associated with events such as conferences and workshops continue to rise. The annual conferences of YES students in the United States, in addition to smaller events around the world, are as vital a component of the program as the year abroad itself. The investment in the Muslim world’s future leaders is worthwhile, but without proper maintenance, it will be lost to the United States.

These small incremental increases in funding are critical, but the real discussion in the Obama administration and Congress should be why we are not investing a lot more in this sort of engagement. Doubling the size of the YES program would not only be smart foreign policy, it would cost a fraction of the price tag for the military hardware we maintain in and around the Middle East. YES is the face of long-term, strategic engagement with the youth of the Muslim world. If we are serious about wanting positive change in the Islamic world, we need to get a lot more serious about personally engaging young Muslims from around the world.

Richard LeBaron, former US Ambassador to Kuwait, is a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council.

Jordan Lesser-Roy is an intern at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. 

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Image: Department of State hosted the first Youth TechCamp in Washington, D.C. for 21 Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study (YES) Program alumni representing eleven countries including Egypt, Indonesia, India, Ghana, Kenya, Malaysia, Mozambique, Philippines, Thailand, and Turkey. August 2012. (Photo: YES Program website)