Introducing Muslim teenagers to America

As kids go back to school and Congress goes back to work, a very effective State Department program is influencing long-term positive change in the Middle East and wider Muslim world. Since 2002, over 8,000 Muslim teenagers have come to the United States through the State Department’s YES program. While the flow of recruits to the Islamic State grabs the headlines, these young people are beginning to make a positive difference in their societies. The American families who host the students are doing more than their share to ensure the long-term security of the United States and deserve 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 politicians have resorted to fear-mongering about the role of Islam in the world.

Long-term issues in the Middle East 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. 

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In 2002, the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study (YES) 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, provides scholarships for high school students from countries with significant Muslim populations to live and study in the United States. The program, funded through the US State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs arranges for families throughout the country to host the students.

But how do we know whether this program 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 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.” The YES website reveals alumni who go on to become community leaders, Fulbright scholars, and ambassadors for exchange programs in their home societies.

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.  Choate said this commitment to leadership and community engagement is evidence that the program is doing what it was designed to do. In addition, she noted that many host families visit their students in their home countries, a considerable side benefit that increases Americans’ understanding of this complex region. These durable connections, nurtured by intense and personal shared experiences, are a real antidote to the conspiracy theories that mark Muslims’ perceptions of the United States.

Two aspects of the program need more attention and funding. The program thrives only as long as 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, and limited resources can prevent families from being able to host a student. In addition, YES alumni engagement needs more financial support. Since the program’s inception, YES has received no significant funding increase. This investment in the Muslim world’s future leaders is worthwhile, but without proper maintenance it will be lost to the United States. Once again, long-term issues merit long-term attention.

These small incremental increases in funding are critical but the real discussion in the Administration and Congress should be why we are not investing a lot more in this program. 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 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.

LeBaron, former U.S. Ambassador to Kuwait, is a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.  Lesser-Roy is an intern at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

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