At home in his village in northern Pakistan, 15-year-old Rahim Dad stared at his computer, perplexed.
He had just received a letter congratulating him on being selected to represent his country in a prestigious exchange program to study for a year in the United States. But his destination was a mystery. Each time he typed the unfamiliar words into Google Earth, the computer image kept landing in the middle of the Pacific.
"It was just going into the ocean, far away from United States, and I was like, ‘No, this is not United States!’" Rahim recalled with a laugh. The seventh of nine children of a schoolteacher, Rahim was well educated, but he had never heard of Hawaii, much less Waianae.
For the past year the gregarious teenager with the dark curls has been the only foreign exchange student at Waianae High School and an unofficial ambassador for Pakistan. Rahim, now 16, has become a second son to Crystal and Joseph Nielsen, a Mormon family with two blond toddlers who live in Waianae.
"In the beginning I was thinking, ‘I guess I don’t belong here,’" Rahim reflected. "’I’m totally different. I don’t have any commonality.’ But now I feel like I’m one of them."
Youth Exchange and Study, launched after the shattering events of Sept. 11, 2001, works to build bridges of understanding between the United States and countries with predominantly Muslim populations. Sponsored by the U.S. State Department, it has brought more than 2,000 students to the United States since 2003 to live as a "son" or "daughter" in an American family and attend high school.
"It’s a very good opportunity not just for the exchange student, but also for the host family and the community and the children at school to be able to understand where these other cultures are coming from," said Crystal Nielsen.
"Especially with Rahim coming from Pakistan and being Muslim, his main focus has been trying to educate people," she said. "Everyone has a kind of negative view on that part of the world, and with Rahim being such a good student and so easy to get along with, he’s really well representing his culture and his faith while mingling with the children here."
Ronnie and Harvey Hartenstein of Kaneohe have invited foreign exchange students into their homes for the last 20 years, starting with short, two-week stays and soon moving up to hosting kids for a whole academic year. They love incorporating them into their family and comparing their lives, values and family dynamics.
"It is interesting to hear the differences and even more interesting to see how everybody is the same," Ronnie Hartenstein said. "I can’t tell you how many times my kids have said, ‘Ah, you sound just like my mom!’"
In recent years the Hartensteins, who are Jewish, have hosted Muslim students through YES. They always get parental approval first.
"Last year we had a girl from Palestine, when those terrorist attacks were occurring," Ronnie Hartenstein said. "It was very enlightening to hear her perspective."
The Palestinian girl and her best friend at Castle High became so close that the Hawaii teen is going to travel across the globe to visit her in Nablus, on the West Bank.
The Hartensteins share their perspective with their exchange students. They watch the movie "Fiddler on the Roof" together, exploring the role of tradition and the desire of parents to pass on their faith. And they screen "Schindler’s List," often occasioning the first time their students have heard of the Holocaust.
The Hartensteins’ "son" this year, 17-year-old Maan Kerbaj, came from a mountain village in Lebanon so small it doesn’t have street addresses. Moving in with the Hartensteins was an eye-opener, he said.
"It’s a totally new thing because we have that conflict with Israel, and we don’t even talk with Jews," Maan said. "They are like our enemies."
But his parents approved the match. And it has worked out beautifully.
"I think it’s great," said Maan, who is Druze, an offshoot of Islam. "I get to learn new things. We have many common things in our religion."
Rahim says he discovered the same thing when he accompanied the Nielsens to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, where he joined the youth group.
"When I go there, I feel like I’m going to a mosque," he said. "I pray, I do whatever, because Christianity is a lot similar to Islam. I look at church as another way of praying to the same creator, with a new name. I feel 100 percent comfortable there."
Rahim plunged into local life, venturing to the beach with an inflatable ring.
"They gave me the thing that babies put on to swim," Rahim said, noting he didn’t know how to swim. "For me it was a matter of life and death, and I had to use it. Every time I would go in, everyone would be looking at me smiling."
"I didn’t know that was a sarcastic smile," he added. Fortunately, he soon learned to swim on his own.
The kids at Waianae High were friendly and peppered him with questions: "Do you have McDonald’s? Do you have cars like ours? Do you have computers?" Other queries took him aback: "Do you guys live in caves? Do you know Osama bin Laden?"
He patiently answered them all, filling them in on his life in Pakistan, explaining the tenets of his faith and that extremists don’t represent Islam. He joined Waianae High’s varsity volleyball team and got swept up in that extended sports family.
As the academic year drew to a close, students in YES and Future Leaders Exchange, a similar program that draws top students from former Soviet states, got together for a field trip. They visited four houses of worship within a couple of miles of each other: St. Andrew’s Cathedral, Honpa Hongwanji Mission, Temple Emanu-El and Manoa mosque.
"The first thing I noticed about America is that they have different ideas, belief systems and religions, and they still get along," said Al-Gassim Sharaf Addin, 16, of San’a, Yemen, who spent his year on Maui. "They are able to practice their religions and beliefs without difficulties."