Foreign in a wonderland by Koral, Israel

I have always had this dream of going abroad, but not just visiting. I had this dream of living and experiencing what’s different, going to an American school, and living with an American family. About 3 years ago I had the chance to make this dream become true. I applied to an exchange program and I got accepted. August 5th, 2014 was the day. I was at the airport with the other 19 Israeli exchange students who became my friends and even more than that, we became a family. I was so excited and overwhelmed, I couldn’t believe that my dream was not a dream anymore. I lived in Springfield Missouri. I had two host families, the first one was temporary and the other one was my permanent host family. I went to a huge high school. There was about 1,700 students at the same school which is three times bigger than my Israeli school. Was my exchange year what I expected? Not really, but I believe it was better. I didn’t travel anywhere besides living in Missouri, going to Washington DC for the arrival orientation before we left to our host families, and visiting Hawaii with the money that my parents sent me. If I compare my experience to my friends’ experience it’s really upsetting because they visited many states and have done so much with their host families. But on the other hand I believe that my experience was better. I had two host families, I made so many friends and when I say so many friends I mean Mexicans, Japanese, Korean, Irish, Hispanic, Swedish, Germans, etc. My school was diverse, and everyone was so friendly. Women’s choir, Theater class, Media class, SALSA club, Gay Straight Alliance Club, Key Club, Improv Club, yoga lessons, PE class etc… I have done so much and most importantly I stepped out of my comfort zone and accepted what’s different. So what was it like to step out of my comfort zone or what do I mean by that? As a girl I’m very insecure about almost everything. I have never liked the way my hair and my skin looked. I have always wanted to have white skin and straight hair. I have never liked the way I sounded whether I talked or even laughed. I have never tried to perform in front of an audience and I always had this fear of speaking out loud. I took a drama class because I thought it would be fun although I don’t like performing in front of people. The teacher who knew my host mom told the class that I was an exchange student and they were amazed, but I still didn’t talk to any of them because I was too scared. In class we had this activity where you just go up and try to speak with an accent so that no one could understand you, but they have to guess what you are trying to say. So I got up and I was so nervous that I didn’t know how to speak with that accent and I literally couldn’t open my mouth to speak in English so I spoke in Arabic. My classmate guessed it right although he didn’t know Arabic. I laughed so hard. That made me feel relaxed and made me want to stay on the stage to perform more. My friends have helped me so much, from telling me how cute I looked with my curly hair and tan skin to making me get up and do something in class. They saw in me what I didn’t see. My teachers made me feel at home. My choir teacher made me help her teach a song in Arabic to perform and she didn’t know I knew Arabic; it was all by coincidence. She asked me to present it front of the whole school and talk about the song and place I came from. Yeah, it was nerve racking but the next day when everyone was congratulating me on my little speech that I gave, I was proud. Especially when the principal told me about how amazing I was and that he was happy to have me at his school. And of course I can’t forget about my two host families. My first host family was a single host mom and all of her kids didn’t live with her. She made me take voice lessons and yoga lessons with her, and I love her for that. She also had 5 cats and a big dog, and if you knew me 3 years ago you would know how scared I am of dogs and cats. But she made it easy for me. She literally tried her best to keep the dogs and cats away from me. So by the time I learned how to get comfortable around animals, and of course my other host family had two dogs, they became my dogs. My friends and my two host friends helped me accept the idea that life is too short and you have to be you. You are not a good singer but you love to sing? We have your back, just join choir anyway. You love theatre but you are scared to perform because you don’t know how? You can’t learn by sitting down. You love to dance but you are not good at it? There is salsa club and everyone is so welcome. I learned that I should take any chance I have so I don’t regret not doing it later and that life starts when you get out of your comfort zone. I have never thought in my life that I will have friends all over around the world and no matter where I go I will have someone there for me. My exchange year was an amazing adventure that I will never forget. I have learned so much from interacting with others, listening to their stories, and learning from them. Today I’m a different person who is more confident, more brave, and more open-minded about the world we live in. My exchange year wasn’t just 10 months away from home and it wasn’t what you see on TV. It was more than that. It has been two years since I have returned home but I don’t feel that I’m completely at home because my heart will always be in Missouri.  
This is just one example of the important work produced YaLa’s citizen journalists, a program funded by the European Union’s Peacebuilding Initiative in order to enable young leaders from across the Middle East and North Africa to document and share their experiences of the region. 

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