Life with a Muslim Exchange Student

Volunteer Work, Texas, 2007

Volunteer Work, Texas, 2007

Somehow in our hosting journey we were transitioned from Slavic to Muslim daughters. After four daughters from Russia and Belarus as well as months spent in those two countries, having a Russian in the house became comfortable and predictable. Those things that made them Russian no longer seemed different or surprising but just what was to be expected. Without doubt, taking in a Muslim exchange daughter moved us out of our comfort zone and into a new learning experience.

Actually, I know how the transition took place. During our hosting break after Kate, the memory of the Cold War and the 1991 Russian coup faded while the tragedy of 9/11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq came to the fore. The emphasis of the State Department changed from the Soviet Union to the Islamic world. Politically, Russia no longer seemed as important to the State Department; Russian exchange students were increasingly replaced by students from the former Soviet satellites. When we finally decided to host again in 2006, Russian students were in short supply and there were all these Muslim students who needed to a host family. Partly on a whim, partly at the encouragement of our program, we made our cultural shift to the Muslim World.

Jazz Fest, Texas, 2007

Jazz Fest, Texas, 2007

Our Muslim daughters have been scholarship students participating in the Youth Exchange and Study Program (YES). Muslim students have specific requirements. Sensitivity must be used in placing these students in a private school; Yemenis can never be placed in a Christian school. Girls cannot be placed in a home with boys over the age of twelve.

Norma is from Pakistan and Shadi is from Yemen. We have also had young ladies from Tunisia and Uzbekistan stay with us for brief periods. It needs to be emphasized that culture and Islam vary widely from one Muslim country to another. I knew this before my daughters’ arrivals, but like many things, first-hand experience drives the point home. For example, Shadi wears a the head covering called the hijab, but Norma does not. On the other hand, Shadi pointed out Western television shows that she had seen in Yemen but were banned in Pakistan.

Having hosted Muslim girls from multiple countries, I can state that many U.S. citizens confuse Muslim religion and culture. As I became more familiar with Yemen and the gulf states, I leaned to ask Shadi the simple question “religion or culture?” about a variety of issues that were in the news. For instance, wearing the hijab is religious, but covering the face is cultural and for safety.

Norma and Ollie, Texas, 2007

Norma and Ollie, Texas, 2007

Muslims are not accustomed to having pets, especially dogs. A dog in a Muslim home is extremely rare. Both Norma and Shadi came to love our canine gang, but there were always limits. As the girls’ bedroom doubled as the place for prayer, the dogs were forbidden from entering. And no matter how much she loved the dogs, Shadi could never bring herself to come into contact with a dog nose or tongue.

Of course, Muslims do not eat pork. I suppose we could have cooked pork for ourselves and cooked something else for our daughters, but we chose to give up pork except for those rare occasions when we were sans daughter. In our diet, we replaced the pork with lamb and occasionally goat, which was just fine because it opened up a new culinary frontier which included many Arabic dishes. The ladies who prepared the school lunches were very kind in making sure there were non-pork choices for the girls, the only Muslims in the school. It was a revelation to me, though not to my mother-in-law, that gelatin is a pork product. That means only Halal marshmallows and no skittles. Marshmallow cream, however, is without gelatin, so for the girls there was no restrictions on consuming mounds of Christmas or Easter fudge. Recipes can be modified…pork bacon can be replaced with turkey bacon, and prosciutto can be replaced with breseola beef salami.

More problematic is that some Muslim students eat only Halal meat that is prepared in accordance with the Koran. We live close to several Arabic grocery stores, so Halal meat for us was not a problem. Some Muslim exchange students either have never been strict in consuming Halal meat or decide to make do without it while in the United States. Others choose to be vegetarians. They know before their departure that this is a decision they may have to make.

During the celebration of Ramadan, Muslims do not eat from first light to sunset. I teach in a school where maybe five percent of the students are Muslim and we try to make adjustments at Ramadan. Still, I never truly appreciated what a Muslim must go through to observe Ramadan in the United States until I had a Muslim in my home. In the girls’ native countries, their societies make adjustments for the rigor of the fast, which includes water as well as food. No such thing occurs in the United States, and school and athletics continue on their normal schedules. Neither did our work schedules allow us to come home early to prepare a feast to break the fast. We learned to have the girls carry breakfast bars in their purse so that if food was not available at sun down, they would have something to eat right away. Shadi was actually never much concerned about food during Ramadan other than cooking plates of Arabic cookies. She claimed she was well-practiced at making the fast and that she could handle any length of time without food. She was far more concerned with being strict with her fast than breaking it. Interestingly, determining the beginning and end of Ramadan is not a simple matter; Shadi said that Saudi Arabia and Yemen are always at odds about the dates and times.

Friday Night Football Game, Texas, 2007

Friday Night Football Game, Texas, 2007

It is an incredible culture shift for a Muslim girl to come from a conservative culture to the United States as an exchange student. Her new environment is constantly testing her faith and who she is as a woman. For this reason, it is a lot of work to host one of these girls, not work in a bad sense, but hard work nonetheless. The host family is her bridge from one culture to another and sometimes a shelter from Western culture. Muslim girls are sheltered and their natural families, especially protective Muslim fathers, place a lot of trust in the host family. Muslim girls may come from a culture where they have rarely been in contact with a male who was not a relative. They have probably only attended all-girl schools. Stress occurs as the girls make decisions as to how much Western dress they are going to adopt while on exchange. Depending upon the school, the hijab may act as a barrier between the girl and her classmates and cause social stress.

It is a remarkable achievement for these girls to leave their homes and families and successfully complete their exchange experiences.


10 responses to “Life with a Muslim Exchange Student

  1. This was great information.

  2. Pingback: Dispelling Myths About Hijab, Daily Prayers, and Other Practicalities of Muslim Life on Campus « VOA Student Union

  3. Thank you for this. We are having a Muslim girl as an exchange student next school year, and are very interested in how to make it easier for her.

  4. Thank you for posting this. I am considering hosting a muslim girl student this year, and this is very helpful information.

  5. I am a muslim, Male, 17 yrs old. and hoping to be part of this program.

  6. Hello,

    I am a Muslim girl headed on Exchange next year (though to Europe). It was really inspiring to read this article & it comforted my parents. Its great to know people like you exist!

    Thank you 🙂

  7. We are hosting a French student for 10 days who is Muslim and it really helped me to read this. Thank you! Perhaps if this goes well we will host longer exchange students. 🙂

  8. Hi,
    I’m getting ready to host an exchange student in August. I want to make the transition as smooth as possible. I don’t know much about Islam but I have friends who practice their faith. I loved reading your blog.



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