Hampton offers Muslim exchange student opportunity to realize dreams

| Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

Mirsaleh Ismayilzada is a practicing Muslim and prays to Allah five times a day, but this year, he also celebrated his first Christmas.

The 16-year-old student, who goes by Saleh, arrived in Pittsburgh in August, two days before the first day of classes at Hampton High School, through the Department of State's Future Leaders Exchange, or FLEX, Program, which provides scholarships to high school students to study in the United States for one academic year.

Saleh is spending the school year with his host family, the Genavivas, in Hampton, through ASSE International Student Exchange Program and has since immersed himself in American culture.

“It's pretty much everyone's dream in Azerbaijan and those countries,” Saleh said about the opportunity to study in the United States. “I said, ‘Why not?' It's a dream, and it's really nice to see America and American education.”

Since August, Saleh has had the opportunity to dress up for Halloween and trick-or-treat for the first time. He also celebrated his first Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's with his host family.

“It was interesting,” Saleh said of the experiences. “We imagined it (in Azerbaijan), but now we're here, and we (exchange students) see it.”

Saleh studied English for three years with Julie Nelson, 26, of Robinson Township, who was stationed as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Yevlakh, Saleh's hometown, a small city that is about four hours to the west of the country's capital of Baku.

Nelson encouraged Saleh and other students to apply for the FLEX program and helped them with advanced English skills and American culture lessons in after-school conversation clubs.

“I explained culture shock to them and asked them questions to get them to think about what they might experience,” Nelson said, “so they could begin to imagine the differences they might experience.”

Saleh said it is unusual to see women wearing jeans, shorts and tennis shoes in his rural hometown, and there are no restaurants in Yevlakh where men and women can dine together. There also is only one woman in Yevlakh who drives.

Saleh also has expanded his palate with a variety of new foods including Mexican and Italian cuisine. On Christmas Eve, he ate a meal of seven fishes with his Italian host family.

“Most of them (were) really delicious,” Saleh said about the foods he has tried. “I can't decide (on my favorite). Last month, I really liked Sloppy Joes, but then I've had a couple of things that were really good.”

Already, Saleh has visited Washington, D.C.; Cleveland, Ohio; Annapolis, Md.; and the Finger Lakes in New York. Saleh also has traveled to Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens and the Nationality Rooms at the Cathedral of Learning and experienced Light Up Night in Pittsburgh.

“He'll motivate us to do things that we may have said, ‘Maybe we'll do it next year,'” said Jan Genaviva, Saleh's host mother. “It gives us the opportunity to see things from his point of view.”

Saleh said he hopes his experience in the United States helps him further his education and get into a better university. One of his biggest goals is to learn 10 foreign languages. He already speaks Azerbaijani, English and Turkish and is studying German at Hampton High School.

“I would like do to something international,” Saleh said of his future plans. “I like to travel. I love to learn different languages, and when I go to a country, I like to speak in their language.”

Bethany Hofstetter is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-772-6364 or bhofstetter@tribweb.com.

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