"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 c