"Allah Akhbar!" would ring from the streets of Cairo five times during the day, making the city almost stand still. The smell of spices and sweat filtered throughout the sand and dirt laden streets. The Qur'anic chanting tapes would stream out of black and white Cairo taxis. Women in hijabs and burkas were everywhere until around 9 p. m. Traffic noises were non-stop, as were car accidents.
I first went to Egypt in July 2007, shortly after graduating from West Seneca East, to study Arabic for six weeks at the Summer Language Institute in Cairo in an AFS program jointly funded by the U. S. State Department.
Margaret Santillo, West Seneca East International Club adviser, had told me about the scholarship being offered through AFS. Its purpose was to teach young Americans the Arabic language in order to promote understanding of the Middle East.
After a round of interviews from AFS, I was chosen from 300 applicants for one of the 25 places on the trip.
It was so scary, to be honest. I was not expecting this curveball in my life. I was leaving senior summer to go to Egypt for six weeks with people I had never met before.
Before the trip, we had several conference calls with previous program participants giving advice on what to expect. I knew I was in for a different experience. I knew I would have to dress more conservatively because Egypt is a mostly Muslim country.
So, at the end of June 2007, I said goodbye to family and friends and began a journey that would change my life forever.
After an orientation in Washington, D. C., we stepped on the KLM flight to Amsterdam and then to Cairo. It felt like a dream.
We arrived in Cairo at 4 a. m. As we drove from the airport, we began to drive past images one sees in those commercials where orphans are asking you to support them for 18 cents a day. I was honestly terrified. I think all of us were wondering: Is this where we're going to live?
We arrived at the Cairotel and after an orientation, met our host families. I met my Muslim family: Sara, Hager, Abdullah, Mohammed, my host mom, Nadie, and my host dad, Abdelwaheb. My host dad was a manager for Egypt Air and my host mom was an Arabic teacher -so that helped on some homework I had. My host siblings ranged in age from 14 to 22, and all were students in something like high school and college.
I fell in love with their flat. Although it was in a rough part of Cairo, it was huge, with four bedrooms, two bathrooms, a dining room, two living rooms and a wrap-around balcony. It was an awesome place to call home.
My host family fought together, mourned death together, ate dinner and spent quality time every night together -something that American families do not do anymore. They honestly gave me a different view of Islam that I never had from the American media. This was one of the first things I learned when I was there: Never judge someone by appearance or label alone.
For the first three weeks of my trip, I felt like I was suffocating. I didn't particularly like the food. The Egyptian diet usually consists of bread, falafel, foul (a bean mixture), koshari (a mixture of lentils, chick peas, noodles, rice, and red sauce), and more bread. They rarely eat meat because it's so expensive.
As a woman, I had to wear nothing that was above my knee and that showed my chest or arms. I had a curfew of 10 p. m. every night even if I was with my older brother, Mohammed. I sometimes got glaring looks because I didn't wear a veil.
For six hours a day, I studied Arabic at the Kalimat Language Institute. The teachers pushed us to live in the Arabic language.
By the end of my trip, I could read Arabic and understand Arabic conversation. Not only did Kalimat give me the tools to learn the Arabic language, it gave all 25 participants a bonding experience. We could talk about what was bothering us and at the same time learn how diverse Cairo is, since each of us lived in a different part of the city.
At least three times a week, the other participants and I would go to City Stars, a mall, or see an American movie (usually one that had come out two months before). Sometimes we would just go somewhere like the Egyptian Museum because it was right in the middle of downtown. Probably one of the greatest moments that summer was seeing the pyramids for the first time.
Around the last two weeks of the trip, something hit me like a ton of bricks: I felt at home in Cairo. I had adjusted to my home away from home, and I felt like I could never leave. I had survived so many experiences, like crossing the street (a death-defying feat considering that there are relatively no traffic signals), eating things when I had no idea what might be in them, the prying eyes of men because I was not wearing a veil, and my first experience as a minority, not only religiously, but ethnically as well.
After I returned to Buffalo, nothing seemed right, and I began to have a sort of identity crisis. I was feeling the effects of reverse culture shock.
I tried to dress as conservatively as possible, and always thought of Egypt and my experience. In a way, I became obsessed with going back to Egypt as soon as possible. Whenever I would meet someone new, Egypt was the only thing I could talk about.
That's why I decided to major in International Relations along with Political Science at Canisius College.
Over the course of the year after I came home, I developed a close relationship with Mina Kirolos, an engineering student I met in Cairo. When I returned to Egypt to work as an AFS Egypt intern last summer, I stayed with his family in Cairo. Mina and his family are Coptic Christians.
During my second summer in Egypt, I interned at the AFS office in Cairo. I greeted language program participants at the airport, planned trips for them and went to the Arabic school every day to make sure things were running smoothly. Mina Kirolos was accepted into the Mechanical Engineering graduate program at the University at Buffalo, and is now studying there and staying at a Coptic house.
AFS and the Summer Language Institute Scholarship changed my life forever. I now have Muslim friends I can call friends for life.
"I am a great believer in studying abroad and being on your own! Going abroad has taught me more about myself and the people around me," said Toni Goins-Singletary of her trip to Germany on a Congress- Bundestag scholarship through AFS.
There are hundreds of thousands like Toni and me who that can say the same thing about our AFS experiences. You not only learn a language through AFS and other exchange programs, you also gain a wider view of the world. If every teenager could go on an exchange, just imagine what kind of walls we could tear down in simple understanding and tolerance.
The University at Buffalo, Canisius, Buffalo State, Niagara University, Geneseo, St. Bonaventure, Alfred University and many other schools across the country are beginning to offer Arabic because of the surge for demand within the government. The FBI and the Department of Defense are looking for people with a command of Arabic mainly because of the regions in which U. S. military personnel are located. The Summer Language Institute in Cairo was one of the first programs offered like it.
AFS is expanding its scholarship and language programs of Arabic and other important languages to other countries. AFS and other exchange organizations are "going to be offering two types of scholarship programs to nontraditional countries this year for departure in 2009. The first type will be a year program, under the YES banner (Youth for Education and Study in countries with predominantly Muslim populations) with 35 scholarships to Indonesia, India, Egypt, Thailand, Ghana, Turkey and Malaysia. The second type will be a National Strategic Language Institute (SLI), which is in expansion for 2009. I believe Tunisia is one of the new countries," said Jenny Skill-man Davis of AFS.
For more information about AFS scholarships and programs, go to the Web site at www.afs.org .