Friends across the miles

Mohammed Mobarki and Omar Oglat had different paths in mind when they signed up for a study abroad program up in 2011.

They were students at different schools in their home country of Qatar and met each other only once at the orientation for AFS-USA, a nonprofit organization that offers exchange programs in more than 40 countries.

Mohammed and Omar say they knew they would be attending high school and living with a host family in the United States for one year after enrolling in the program and they left Qatar for Washington, D.C., in fall of 2011.

What they did not know is they would be placed at high schools just a few miles apart and grow to become friends during their experiences far away from home and their families.

Mohammed is currently enrolled at North High School, living with Jeanine and Craig Brannon in Maplewood, and Omar is at Tartan High School with a host family of Tim and Cammie Hanson near Stillwater.

The 16-year-old high school juniors embarked on their journey with plans to experience another culture, explore colleges in the United States and -- once they learned of their placement in Minnesota -- see a snowfall for the first time.

Omar and Mohammed say their classmates and host families have told them often that this was not a typical Minnesota winter, but they made the best of it by participating in cold-weather sports and skiing at local parks.

This winter, Omar says he joined the cross country ski team at Tartan. Mohammed also tried skiing at North and has plans to be on the soccer and track teams in the spring, he says.

In fact, the boys say extracurricular activities are not an option at their schools in Qatar -- where their primary focus needs to be on classwork.

The students say they spend their time after school in Qatar studying because of the rigorous standards to get into college in the Middle East.

In America they like the mix of activities and schooling, and have enjoyed the freedom to enroll in classes that interest them while also meeting the graduation requirements.

"Here you get to choose your subjects, while you don't in Qatar," Mohammed says.

Both students say they are still learning the culture of their classmates and the traditions of their host families and have a lot of plans ahead before leaving in June.

"I wanted to do something new that I didn't have the chance to do before," Omar says of his decision to enroll in the exchange program. His father also encouraged him by providing the information about AFS-USA while Mohammed sought out the opportunity after hearing about the program in school.

Thus, their path to the United States began.

Getting to know Minnesota

New classes and sports are just a small facet of what Mohammed and Omar set out to experience during their time in this country.

The students were placed in Minnesota through AFS-USA Intercultural Programs and received a full-year scholarship from the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study (YES) with funds from the U.S. Department of State.

The scholarship program was initiated after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2011 to bring together Americans and people from countries with largely Muslim populations, according to www.yesprograms.org.

Mohammed was born in Saudi Arabia and his family moved to Egypt shortly after that, he says. Omar was born in Jordan and his family moved to Qatar in 2003.

Both students say while they live in Qatar now their culture is very much -- and always will be -- tied to the countries where they were born.

But they also wanted to see the United States' educational system and culture first-hand instead of just through television newscasts and movies in Qatar.

"Sometimes the media shows the wrong picture," Omar says. "Living here for a year, it's much better than reading an article. It's a nice experience so far," he says.

Mohammed says he has learned a lot about the cultural differences -- especially in teenagers.

"Here I think the teenagers spend a lot of time on virtual 'stuff,' which can be socially awkward, Mohammed says. "That was a huge cultural difference for me."

He adds that at his school in Qatar and previously in Egpyt, he could smile at someone he didn't know in the hallway and they would do the same. But not all the teens at North have adopted that custom, Mohammed described.

Both Mohammed and Omar say they have noticed people have stereotypes about the Middle East -- from the idea that it's all a desert and people travel by camel -- to more serious judgments about religion.

"I am Muslim and Islam here is associated with terrorism and you get a lot of assumptions that your religion is violent and (not) good for modern society," Mohammed says. "It's certainly not and I am not irritated by the people, I am irritated that is what my religion is viewed as."

Both Omar and Mohammed say they've had to adapt to practicing their religion less openly than they do at home.

"Religion and principles were a really big deal to me and practicing Islam in Egypt is in a different way than it is here," Mohammed says.

Help along the way

Students studying abroad in the United States from different countries have assistance in working through culture shock and other challenges through local AFS affiliates.

Known for having one of the largest volunteer networks among international exchange programs, AFS coordinates the partnership between host families, schools and community organizations for students visiting any of 40 countries across the world.

Bob Boyce, a program volunteer for AFS in the East Metro, says he is working with 14 students, including Mohammed and Omar this year.

Volunteers have the role of coordinating activities focused on government, community service and disability awareness and native culture, Boyce says.

The foreign exchange students have been to the state Capitol and participated in helping organizations like Feed My Starving Children and Toys for Tots. They've attended a play about Helen Keller and will travel to South Dakota to see national monuments such as Mt. Rushmore before returning to their home countries, Boyce says.

The kids say it's important to have someone like Boyce to turn to when they encounter challenges.

"Whatever problem you face, he tries to help and he just does that as a volunteer," Omar says about Boyce. "I'm really, really glad there are actually these organizations," he adds.

Family dynamics

Host families also provide lessons in culture to further the exchange students' experience in Minnesota.

Mohammed and Omar say there are differences in the family environment in the United States compared to their upbringing and also among the teenagers here and in Qatar.

Mohammed has two younger brothers and a sister, while Omar has three brothers and one sister.

Omar lives with the Hansons, who have two grown children in their 20s. Mohammed is staying with the Brannons, who have two children attending college and one at North High School.

Both host families have welcomed other foreign exchange students into their homes - 10 for the Hansons and eight for the Brannons.

Initially the Hansons agreed to take in Omar on a temporary basis after they returned home from a trip to Italy, but now he's been living with them ever since, Tim Hanson says.

Jeanine Brannon says Mohammed has been in their home for about three weeks after staying with some temporary families.

"We just like to show them what a typical American family is like. Hosting the students also has been a wonderful cultural exchange for our family. We have learned many things about our students' countries such as customs, favorite foods, school, homework, how they celebrate holidays and politics. It has been a great learning experience for us and our children."

The Brannons plan to take Mohammed to their lake home in Wisconsin to introduce him to their favorite summer activities of water skiing, playing card games and eating ice cream.

At the Hanson household, Tim says they've taken Omar to local museums and are planning a road trip to Chicago.

One day, Tim Hanson says they plan to travel to Jordan and hope to connect with Omar somehow during their trip.

"One of our big plans is to take a trip around the world and visit our exchange students," he says.

Future friendship

The AFS-USA program provides the opportunity for foreign exchange students to continue to be involved after they return to their home countries.Omar says he plans to be a part of the alumni with the YES program.

"This is a year to remember," he says.

Mohammed says he would like to visit the United States.

Omar jokes with his friend that he should plan a visit when there is a "real" winter in Minnesota. Or, maybe they will visit the United States again together because of the friendship they developed here.

"Qatar has four students in the United States. It was a coincidence to be placed so close," Omar says. "When we go back to Qatar, we can be friends," Omar adds.

Katy Zillmer can be reached at kzillmer@lillienews.com or at 651-748-7822.