"She acted just like a typical Omani kid," said Ruth Al Bahlani, who has been Hannah's host mother since September. Hannah is one of six American teenagers spending a year in Muscat on an academic and cultural exchange programme called YES Abroad (Youth Exchange & Study), which is funded by the US State Department, and facilitated by AMIDEAST, an American non-governmental organisation that promotes education and cultural exchanges.
A key part of the programme is that the students live with Omani host families, becoming like a new son or daughter to parents, and a brother or sister to the children. For the Omani families, it's an opportunity to learn firsthand about Americans while sharing and celebrating their own culture. While having another child may seem like an added responsibility, for most families one more child doesn't make much difference. Instead, it's a great chance for Americans and Omanis to learn about each other's cultures and lifestyles. One of the benefits of being a host family is that it can break down stereotypes one may have. Abdulhameed Al Balushi thought hosting an American student would be a wonderful way for his children to interact with someone from a different cultural background, learn and experience new things. He expected they would have a better understanding of the western life. When Ashley, a teenage girl, joined their family, they got to learn about American culture and more. "We also learned about the Salvadoran culture, as Ashley has a Salvadoran background," he explains.
Miad Al Shidhani, who was once an exchange student in the USA, convinced her family to host a student because she thought it would be nice to return the hospitality she received when she was abroad, and it would open her family's minds to other ways of life. Her wish certainly came true, because her host sister Lisa was very warm and affectionate, and this rubbed off on Miad's mother, a police woman who was kind, but physically reserved. Now her mother hugs all her children more, thanks to Lisa being around. "Hosting a student can lead to people changing the way they think. I already look at Lisa as a younger sister. My mom and dad treat her as one of their daughters," Miad says.
For some families, being a host family is also a way to support Oman. Faiza Al Moosawi, host mother to a boy named Peter, says it's important to introduce foreigners to the Arab tourism capital because it has a lot to offer, such as history, beautiful sites, culture, fashion, and great food, and because it's such a peaceful country. "We need to show and share with the world all the treasures of Oman. We need to promote Oman. Students taking back with them a good experience and good treatment from the families they live with will be a great promotion for Oman," she says.
The families also spend more time together visiting wadis, beaches and historic sites around Oman, in an effort to show the country to their American students, and share their traditions with them. Ruth says her family has been more active since Hannah joined them, and she's thankful for that.
Of course life with an exchange student isn't completely easy. Nawal Al Lawati, whose family hosts a boy named Dylan, admits that because her family is a bit strict, she has to keep her mothering instincts in check with Dylan. While she thinks of him as a son, because he isn't her blood relation, she can't hug him or kiss him as she would her own children. She has to balance her faith with her host mother role. Yet despite the restrictions, she says being a host family is worth it. "Dylan has become a part of the family. He feels very comfortable around us," Nawal says.
Sometimes the host families also have to set cultural limits for the students. Being American, they are used to more personal freedom, and different types of relationships with the opposite sex.
"The hardest part was allowing Hannah to do things that she liked to do but within the limits of what was culturally appropriate. It was a challenge because in America she had her own car and would be able to see her friends and go places on her own. In Oman she is dependent on someone to take her where she wants to go and opportunities to go out and do things with friends are much more limited," explains Ruth.
But those differences also make for interesting observations about Oman and Islamic society. The families get to see their country through the young Americans' eyes. Ruth says Hannah's observations on marriage and dating and family get-togethers were interesting and amusing.
"We all live here so we're used to the way things are but when you get an outside perspective it makes it fun," Ruth notes.
The students also learn a lot from living in Oman, a country unknown to most Americans, with local families. Claire Franco, a 16-year-old from California, wanted to educate herself about Arab and Islamic societies and learn Arabic. Thanks to the family of Ali Al Lawati, she was immersed in a world where family is central to life, Arabic the norm, and religion is much more personal .
She says her Omani family immediate made her feel like one of them, even introducing her to their extended family as their daughter. Now she has four siblings, which is quite a change from having just one brother back home. She's in the same class as one of her sisters, whom she also considers her best Omani friend, and plays video games with her little brother. She also adores her host parents.
"I'm really thankful for my siblings. I think they really helped me feel part of the family. My Omani mother is lovely. She's warm and affectionate. There was never a moment of uncertainty where I didn't know how to act around her. Really, she treats me like her daughter. My host father is the same way. When I greet my host father I shake his hand exactly like my brothers and sisters do," she says.
Her family also speaks almost all Arabic at home, even to her, though they understand when she's too tired and will switch to English. They really encourage her to learn their language, which she is grateful for. "They have the intention of teaching me Arabic. I've been incredibly fortunate," she says. Being in Oman has meant Claire hasn't just gained another family and learned Arabic. She also learned a lot about Islam. She says she'll be able to tell people back in the USA a lot to break down their misconceptions. "One of the most important things I've learned is there are many ways of practising one's religion. It can be very personal. It's a lot more personal than I realised. It's made it more understandable," she says.
Peter Atwill, who is from Pennsylvania and lives with Faiza and her family, says he was initially overwhelmed by the closeness of family here since the aunts, uncles and cousins visit every week, but he came to appreciate it. "I like how in Omani culture everyone is very close to each other.
In the USA my family is spread across the country, so it's hard to visit them," he says. His host family has also taken him all over Oman and to the UAE, so he's been able to learn a lot about the country and region. He was struck by the number of people who still wear the national dress on a daily basis. "I think it's cool that people hold onto traditions and wear abayas and dishdashas as part of an everyday thing," Peter says.
He gets along really well with his host brothers, with whom he goes dune bashing and on other adventures. "We get along great. Sometimes on Wednesday night I'll go out with one of their friends. They've been really nice and accepting of me," he adds.
For the families, the experience has opened their eyes to new perspectives, and opened their hearts to these young American students. The families all agree that the students have truly become like a part of the family.
"I would definitely say that this was more than a wonderful experience for the whole family, as we grew very fond of Ashley, and we have experienced many things that we never did before. And I would say that this experience was not only fun, but the family learned a lot from it," reflects Abdulhameed.
The American students will be leaving Oman in June, but no doubt the relationships they have with their Omani mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters will remain for years to come. "Peter's leaving soon and it's getting emotional for us. It will be difficult when they leave," says Faiza, a hint of sadness in her eyes. "But we hope to meet his family. We told them any time they come here they have a home."