Hempfield Area exchange students learn America isn't 'Hollywood, trucks and fat people'
They both came from troubled parts of the world that have different impressions of the United States.
Art Vula, 17, is a Kosovar Albanian who was born after the 1999 war that forever changed his hometown of Gjakova .
Kosovo, which declared independence from the former Yugoslavia in 2008, erected a statute to former President Bill Clinton to honor the U.S. and NATO involvement in the 1999 war.
Moneer “Mo” Ghanem, 17, is a Palestinian Arab from the densely populated East Jerusalem suburb of Kufr Aqab. The area is separated from the rest of Jerusalem by a winding barrier erected by Israel in the early 2000s.
In contrast to Kosovo's Albanians, views of the United States in East Jerusalem, captured by Israel during the Six-Day War in 1967, are largely negative.
“Most people, not only in Palestine but in the Middle East hate Americans, only because of the American government support of Israel,” Ghanem said. “But when I came here, I found out that not all the people agrees with the government actions.”
Vula and Ghanem spent the 2017-2018 school year as foreign exchange students living in Westmoreland County. Vula completed his senior year and graduated from Hempfield Area High School, while Ghanem completed his junior year there.
Both of them lived with longtime exchange student host mother Dar Frederickson, 67, of Hempfield. It was the ninth time she hosted doubles, as she calls them.
“It's a lot more food, a lot more laundry, a lot more work — but it's a lot more culture,” she said. “At dinner sometimes, we'd be arguing like the United Nations.”
The two Muslim students received scholarships from the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study, or YES, program to come to the United States. Their host family match was arranged by AFS-USA, an international youth exchange program founded in 1914.
The YES program was founded after Sept. 11 as a way to foster understanding of America by people living in predominantly Muslim countries, Frederickson said. It is funded by the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.
“These kids are actually citizen ambassadors,” Frederickson said. “The State Department hopes that they carry back a more positive image of the American people (to their home countries).”
Both Vula and Ghanem said their impressions of America, as well as their English language skills, improved during their 10-month stay here.
“Before I came to the United States, I had this impression about America from all of the American movies that I used to watch. It's all about Hollywood, trucks and fat people, so to speak, because that's all we see in the American movies — just fat people, burgers and trucks and Hollywood. Rich people,” Ghanem said. “Which turned out to be completely wrong when I came here, because not all of America is the same. Every part of America is different, and Pennsylvania is definitely not Hollywood — but it's better.”
Ghanem said most of his knowledge of English came not from Palestinian schools but from American movies, music and video games.
“Back home, we only know about the United States (from) what we see on TV. Typically, we see Hollywood, money, rich people,” Vula said. “But coming to Western PA, that was way different. When I came here, I just understand that Hollywood is not U.S. These small towns, this is what makes the United States great.”
Vula said he will try to educate Kosovo Albanians about America when he departs Tuesday. Ghanem left Greensburg on June 5.
“When I go back home, I'm just going to tell everyone, ‘Hey, we should maybe change our impressions of the United States 'cause Hollywood, that's not a thing anymore,'” Vula said.
“‘These people living in these small towns, who are very, very friendly, that's what the United States is all about. Welcoming people, funny people, just great people in general.'”
Vula said he also was impressed with American high school students, many of whom became friends.
“At first I thought, ‘Eh, Americans, they just like to have fun and throw parties all over the place.' Oh, no. I met a lot of bright kids at the high school, and I was just fascinated with all their hard work,” he said.
Ghanem said he expected to face racist attitudes because of his Arabic background.
“But fortunately I did not face racism at all. All people from the school and all people that I met were very friendly with me,” he said.
“I changed my point of view on the U.S.”
When they were not studying, the two young men stayed busy with volunteer work, extracurricular activities and chores, Frederickson said. They had perfect attendance at school, except for one day that Ghanem missed during the Ramadan fast, she said.
Vula was the first exchange student at Hempfield to be named prom king, she said.
“They were busy for the whole year. They certainly earned their stay,” she said.
Herself a former exchange student, Frederickson began hosting students in 1982-1983, she said. Vula and Ghanem were her 25th and 26th students.
Her message to them: “We're not the terrible people you've been told we are.”
Stephen Huba is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-850-1280, email@example.com or via Twitter @shuba_trib.