Maad Sharaf is a 17 year-old high school student from Aden, Republic of Yemen. He studied in Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin during the 2008 - 2009 school year. The YES program is funded by the U.S. Department of State in association with a group of consortium partners, among them AYUSA International.
I had a dream that wouldn't let me eat, drink or sleep without thinking about it. About two years ago, that dream came true. Of the 500 applicants to the YES program, I was one of 20 students from the Republic of Yemen to receive a year-long scholarship from the U.S. State Department to go to the country that I've been dreaming about my whole life: the USA.
Seeing the tears dropping from my parents' eyes at the airport on my last day in Yemen made me feel responsible for not only myself but my country and my religion. Experiencing a different culture and meeting new people was my goal. Until I arrived in the U.S., I had never been outside my home country or lived without my family.
My name is Maad Mahfoudh. Wait, I mean Maad Sharaf. That was the first difference I faced in the U.S. In Yemen we call people by their first name, followed by their father's first name. But that wasn't the only difference.
America was one of my biggest dreams, but I didn't know what my dream actually looked like. I thought America was all about huge buildings, exciting places, drunken people everywhere and going to war with every country. That was what we saw every day on television and in American movies. Unfortunately, we never saw the nice things about it or the very respectful people.
After a long trip, I found myself in a state that I had never heard about before -Wisconsin- and a family that I had never seen before. My second month in Wisconsin was Ramadan, so I didn't eat or drink anything from 4:30 am to 7 pm, although I was still going to school and playing on the volleyball team. I tried to do all my duties alone - praying five times a day, fasting the whole month - even though it was the first Ramadan that I spent outside Yemen and without my family. My host family considered me a part of their family, and they tried their best to help me overcome my feelings of loneliness. They also did their best to keep me away from pork and anything against my religion.
When I came here I had no idea what people thought about the Republic of Yemen and my religion. I found myself the only Arab-Muslim in the entire community and learned that a lot of people had negative views about my culture. They couldn't imagine that all Muslims were as nice as me. When I asked them why, they would reference the local media. It was then that I decided I was responsible for teaching the American people in my community who we (Muslims) are as real people, and showing them that we are not the bad people they see in the news. I felt like I was not only representing Yemen, but also the Middle East and all the Islamic countries in the world.
Everything was new and different for me. There were so many things I saw for the first time in the US: tattoos, dreadlocks, women in shorts, water parks, pets, dishwashers, garages, mittens, boots, furnaces, lockers in schools, the postal service, political debate, the video of the 9/11 attacks, Jews, Christians, Buddhists, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, snow, and so much more. I had the opportunity to do sports that I've always dreamt about, such as skiing and ice-skating - things we can't do in Yemen because it never snows.
The culture shock never left me, but its difficulties taught me a lot. Every new place was a new adventure, and every new experience made me a stronger person. Every moment, whether it was easy or hard, was part of the experience. I changed a lot during this time - becoming more knowledgeable about the world around me, and more open to people from different cultures.
My host family had a huge impact in my life during my time in the US. They tried their best to make me feel better when I was homesick and they were always the first people I asked about any decisions I had to make. They are the reason why I have so many beautiful memories of my experience, memories that will remain in my heart forever.
After completing my year in the US, I thought that life would be much easier back home. No more culture shock, no more strangers and no more homesickness. Instead, I found out that we know nothing about life, but we constantly discover new things that we can learn from. I thought life had changed back home, but really I was the one who changed. I found I couldn't stand the hot weather and people stared at me as if I was from a different planet. Some of my friends were shocked at how I was talking, bringing up topics we had never discussed before, like politics and religion. Some of them were happy about the changes, but others seemed to want the old Maad back.
Traveling to the U.S. has completely changed my life for the better. It inspired me to find my personality, support my beliefs and learn how people think in different cultures. It taught me to adjust and adapt to people from other cultures, and it allowed me to meet new challenges and take whatever life throws at me. I also discovered that the best way to reflect a good image of your country, your family and your religion to people who don't have any idea about where you are coming from is to be who you really are, wherever you are.