It was the summer of 2006 and the war just broke out between Hezbollah and the Israeli Forces. I was very lucky because that summer I was accepted to “YES”, a youth exchange program. I was expecting to go to the US for my senior year of high school and I was thrilled that I was going to a place where nobody would judge me just by my name.
After 17 hours of flying between Tel-Aviv, Atlanta (Georgia), and DC, we were expected to join the other participants. We got to the hotel, and in the entrance you could hear that the hotel was full of teenagers from all around the world. I was excited and filled with a little bit of fear, to meet with Arab people for the first time who share a lot of common interests and heritage with me.
We met our instructor, her name was Lindsey. She was very cute but at the same time she was very naïve. In an ironic way we came face to face with the Lebanese group. Lindsey, with her naïve kind of way said “group from Lebanon say hi to the group from Israel”. Suddenly the place that seconds ago was full of young people running around not being able to contain their excitement of being in the States, became very awkward and silent. We picked up our luggage and quietly went to our rooms, divided into groups. In the room I was really frustrated that during my first introduction to the people from Lebanon, who I was excited to meet, I was introduced as an Israeli. I knew I only had a couple hours to rest in the bedroom, but I decided to go down to the kitchen. I came in and I saw the Lebanese group very mad at the idea that they were going to spend time with the “Israeli” group, and of course I didn’t know how to start talking to them. But the surprise came from the person who defended us and tried to explain the complicated situation. Batul was her name. A young women from the West Bank who came to our defense and explained that people called ‘Israeli’ are actually Palestinian as well. Observing that situation was overwhelming to me, and after that I could relax and be open to making friends very fast.
The next morning, we were divided into mixed groups and started different workshops to prepare us for the next year. Later that night people started gathering with their country’s flags, and some people wore their traditional clothing and sang their national anthem. I was very confused, so I removed myself from socializing and watched them very closely sitting on a chair in the corner of the room. I remember it was really dark that night. Suddenly the whole situation was facing me for the first time. I didn’t have any flag to relate to and I didn’t know the words to any national anthem.
The third day was all about “preparing” us for American culture, but it seemed to be preparation for how to be a human being. They talked about hygiene and cleaning and actually explained how to brush our teeth! As a boy you can only giggle with embarrassment at this lack of awareness. This is how we finished the whole seminar before we all went to pick up our stuff and ride to our new family and home. I was so curious and excited to finally leave, so I grabbed my stuff very fast to go to my new home in Virginia. When I came down from the bus my new family was waiting for me with a big toothless smile.
Welcome to America.