A Pakistani foreign exchange student is spreading her message about Muslims in an attempt to dispel stereotypes about her religion and culture.
Sadia Abdulshah has been spending the 2016-17 school year at Pewaukee High School as part of the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study (YES) Program, a high school exchange program funded by the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. The initiative strives to build bridges of international understanding, especially between Americans and people in countries with significant Muslim populations.
The application process, earning the trip
Abdulshah started her journey to the States through a lengthy application process. She said her interest in the program started when she heard about it from students who had participated previously.
"They said it was a good experience, you'll get a lot of exposure and all that stuff," Abdulshah said.
Abdulshah's application process included a reading, listening and writing test, followed by an interview at which she had to identify what hurdles she thought she might face, as well as proposed solutions. She also had to fill out an 11-page form asking about personal interests and other information, and needed to get a passport and visa.
Abdulshah's hard work would pay off, as she would earn a spot in the YES program. At first, she was excited, but nervous about adjusting to a new culture. As she went along in the application process, she became even more interested in the program.
"That's how my personality totally shifted," Abdulshah said. "After I came here (to Pewaukee), I got to know a lot of people, meet a lot of exchange students, a lot of American people and exchange students from different parts of the world. My personality shifted from personal to global."
Adjusting to American culture
When Abdulshah first arrived, there was some culture shock. Abdulshah said it took her a few months to learn English as well and adjust to a new culture.
"Everything was so new and seemed so adventur(ous), and I had good teachers, so that was cool," Abdulshah said. "The first few months were really hard because the culture was so different. It was really hard to go to people and make friends with them, just to start a conversation and be with them."
Even with challenges learning the language, Abdulshah said she hasn't faced any discrimination and has felt welcome at the school, as well as with her host family. She said part of that acceptance might be because she usually wears American clothing. When she wears more traditional clothing, Abdulshah said she doesn't cover her hair.
"I don't feel like people do discriminate here in Pewaukee," Abdul said. "People do really encourage exchange students. They have good perceptions about exchanges, and do really respect (them). I've never faced any situation like that."
Answering questions about Pakistani culture
Abdulshah has used her time in Pewaukee to help people understand her culture better. For example, people sometimes think Pakistan is a desert and question whether people there ride on camels. The answer is no to both, and — just like their American counterparts — people in Pakistan have smartphones, TV, WiFi and computers.
She noted that Pakistan is not in the Middle East, but rather in South Asia.
Laurie Fernandez, Abdulshah's liaison between her and her family, said she has learned a lot about Pakistani culture through meeting Abdulshah.
"Even I, as an adult, had stereotypes about Pakistan," Fernandez said. "It's just a country you don't know that much about. Seeing pictures of where she's from, it's absolutely gorgeous, in the mountains with these beautiful lakes, and you have this vision of Pakistan. That's what's cool about these kids. You get a really good feel for these different cultures."
Clearing up misconceptions about Islam
Abdulshah has said she wants to teach people what Islam really is,which she said she has done through various talks, including during International Education Week in November. Also, she said that she wanted to clear up the main stereotype people have of Muslims, which she says is that people think all Muslims are terrorists.
"I don't think the terrorism has to do anything with the religion," Abdulshah said. "When you see Iran, Afghanistan and all the Middle Eastern countries, they have unstable governments, and religion has nothing to do with the government. The terrorism is due to the unstable governments."
Abdulshah said she also wanted to clarify what the term "jihad" means, saying she didn't realize that Americans thought it was a scary term meaning war.
"Jihad is a simple Arabic word which means struggle. It can be any kind of struggle," Abdul said. "I am struggling here to be in this culture, to adopt this culture, to live my life away from home just for one year, but still it's a new culture and these are kind of like struggles."
Living with her host family
Abdulshah is being hosted by Mary Monday, who has enjoyed having her in her home since October.
Monday said that she and her family have learned a lot from Abdulshah, such as things about her country and government and culture, in particular Islam.
"She's a very good representation of it, I think," Monday said. "She breaks a lot of the stereotypes I think we all have of Muslims, which is that women are oppressed, they don't let their girls go to school, that kind of thing."
Monday also mentioned that her family has learned about Abdulshah's appreciation for the opportunities teenagers have in America. She also has said that people have come up to her wanting to learn more about Abdulshah's culture.
"The more I've experienced is that people want to understand and recognize that they don't really know much about the region or religion," Monday said.