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In Muslim teens, US sees bridge to peace

WASHINGTON -- There is no easy way to reverse the growing distrust between the United States and the Islamic world, but for 16-year-old Palestinian Sami Qarmout and other young Muslims who spent the past year in America, it's time to get started.

''We broke some of the myths," said Qarmout, who is returning to his family in the Gaza Strip after participating in the first US government program to bring young Muslims to the United States. ''Americans are not all rich," said Qarmout, who lived with a family in Albuquerque. ''I learned that 13 million live in poverty."

He taught his American friends, who used to introduce him as a resident of Gaza, some things about his country, too. ''Now I am from Palestine," he said.

To sponsors of the Cultural Bridges program -- established by Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, and Senator Richard G. Lugar, Republican of Indiana, after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 -- it is young people like Qarmout who are America's best hope for winning what many say is a generational battle against Islamic extremism.

''Our job is to go back and tell our people about the United States," said Hazem Torfah, 17, who is returning to his native Syria after a year in Ephrata, Wash. ''We have different education systems. Here you get to choose what you want to study. It's hard to do that in Syria. But a mix of both systems would be great."

''After a year here, each of you are now unofficial American ambassadors to your home countries," Kennedy said during a farewell reception on Capitol Hill attended by about half of the 160 students who participated in the inaugural year of the program. ''I'm sure you don't agree with everything the United States says and does, but I hope that you'll be able to explain our country and our values to your friends and family.

''Each time you do, you'll be sending forth a new ripple of hope."

Cultural Bridges is the kind of program previously used to close the gaps between the United States and communist nations -- bringing young people to the country for fellowship and education. And, in fact, the generations of students educated in the United States were credited with helping speed the fall of the Berlin Wall.

''Many people talk about the war on terrorism in terms of military operations or intelligence-gathering," said Theodore Kattouf, former US ambassador to Syria and president of America-Mideast Educational and Training Services, a nonprofit organization that works to strengthen cross-cultural understanding. ''Anybody who has given it any thought agrees one of the most important pillars is to convince people in the Islamic world we are not on a crusade against them, we are not trying to impose our values."

But even Kennedy and Lugar acknowledge that the Islamic world presents a tougher cultural divide than the former Eastern bloc, because of decades of religious differences and political alienation. Before the program began, there were 40,000 exchange students from China in the United States but no government-sponsored students from Muslim nations.

''The frontier for world peace really lies in the relationships between the United States and the Islamic world," Lugar, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, told the students. ''You are leaders. You are going to make a difference. We believe in you and are most hopeful you believe in us."

The program, administered by the State Department, is considered a success. In August, about 400 students will be brought to the United States -- including the first from Iraq and Afghanistan -- to live and learn in cities and towns across America. One Iraqi girl will move in with a family in Falmouth, Mass.

The program provides grants to groups that organize foreign student exchanges. It has sponsored young people from Nigeria, Tunisia, Jordan, the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Egypt, Kuwait, Malaysia, Syria, Yemen, Turkey, Pakistan, and Indonesia. With an additional $10 million that has been requested, they will also soon be coming from Afghanistan, Algeria, Bangladesh, India, Iraq, Morocco, Oman, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Arabs who live in Israel will also participate.

Kennedy, in congratulating the group, invoked the words of his slain brothers, President Kennedy and Senator Robert F. Kennedy of New York, who both spoke frequently of the important role of young people in building shared world views and combating negative stereotypes.

Quoting a speech his brother Robert gave in South Africa in 1966, he said: ''Like the young people of my own country, you are all in many ways more closely united to the brothers of your time than to the older generations of any of these nations, and are determined to build a better future."

The experience of the last year, the students said, provided them with some new tools to carry that message back to their fellow citizens. ''In Pakistan I could never get up and speak," said Sehrish Khan, 16, who spent the past year in Gaithersburg, Md., and was selected to address her fellow students Wednesday. ''I never had enough confidence."

Several students said the program had been an eye-opening experience. ''The opinion I had of America was Hollywood movies," Torfah said. ''I was surprised how people want to know my country."

Bryan Bender can reached at bender@globe.com

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