Written by Lisa Retterath of the Alliance for International Education and Cultural Exchange, where this post originally appeared.
In a recent Huffington Post article, 17-year old Maad Sharaf shares his thoughts about how a year abroad in the United States through the Youth Exchange and Study (YES) program has changed his life. Originally from Aden in the Republic of Yemen, Sharaf came to Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin, where he quickly learned that the image he had gotten about the United States, based mainly on media coverage in Yemen, did not correspond to reality:
"I thought America was all about huge buildings, exciting places, drunken people everywhere and going to war with every country. That was what we saw every day on television and in American movies. Unfortunately, we never saw the nice things about it or the very respectful people."
Sharaf also had to learn that many Americans had negative images of Yemen and the Muslim world in general that they, too, ascribed to the media. When realizing this, he felt he had to become active:
"It was then that I decided I was responsible for teaching the American people in my community who we (Muslims) are as real people, and showing them that we are not the bad people they see in the news. I felt like I was not only representing Yemen, but also the Middle East and all the Islamic countries in the world."
As Sharaf explains, he never got over the culture shock entirely but nevertheless considers his travel to the U.S. to have changed his life for the better. He discovered "that the best way to reflect a good image of your country, your family and your religion to people who don't have any idea about where you are coming from is to be who you really are, wherever you are."