For those who participated in our programs before or have hosted our international guests, you know an IRIS program in Iowa is not complete without a visit to our beautiful state capitol. IRIS included another capitol visit with our recent cultural enhancement activity day for our Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study (YES) students. Most recently on Saturday May 18, IRIS Executive Director, Del Christensen and Program Assistants, Brittany Haga and Sara Schoneberg, took 10 YES students to visit the capital building and a local mosque.
During their visit, the YES students received a guided tour of the capital building. The students were so enthralled by the exterior of building. Many were convinced that the capitol building was a palace, because of the intricate golden roof. They were so excited about the capitol building—they delayed the tour due to their excessive picture taking.
Despite their copious camera flashes, the students still learned a lot from the tour. “I learned that Iowa became a state in 1846. I was surprised to learn that Iowa used to have a lot of woods, until the immigrants cut them down to build shelter,” YES student Meutia Hakim said.
After their visit at the capitol building, the students had a break for some lunch, which also allowed them to share stores of their own experiences in Iowa over the past year. Conversations often focused on prom, graduation and other big events throughout their year in the state. “It was just really nice to see them get to talk and hang out with each other again. Many of them haven’t seen each other in a while,” Haga said.
After lunch, the students visited a local mosque, where they met with State Representative Ako Abdul-Samad. This was the first time that some of the Muslim students have been in a mosque since they have been in the United States and a lifetime first for many of the Christian students. “The mosque seemed like a weird place with no windows, until I went inside, and I felt like I was back in my mosque in my country,” Hakim said.
Abdul-Samad made the students feel right at home. “It was nice to meet a brother in a place that is so far away from home, because in Islamic religion everyone is your brother or sister,” Hakim said.
During their visit, the state representative taught the YES students about some Muslim customs. Abdul-Samad explained to the female
students that it is important that they wear headscarves inside the mosque. “It was a little different than the mosques in my country. Some places don’t care if we are wearing headscarves,” Hakim explained.
Abdul-Samad also discussed some valuable life lessons with the YES students. “I liked when he said that we can make this world a better place just by being open. That’s really powerful. Since I have come to the USA, becoming an open-minded person is not an easy thing to do. But it is especially helpful when we are in a new place. After I opened my mind, I began to think differently,” Hakim said.
Hakim later explained how she feels Abdul-Samad approaches his religion with an open mind. “Ako said that he will open the mosque to anyone who wants to come and listen, and to anyone that wants to learn more about Islam,” Hakim said.
As the day came to a close, Abdul-Samad’s final message to the students was about the importance of interfaith dialogue and the acceptance of people of different faiths.
The main purpose of these enrichment trips is to help educate the YES students about different cultures and traditions in America as well as around the world, which is the backbone of the US State Department’s YES program. These events also forge closer bonds between the students and help develop lasting friendships, which IRIS hopes will build a more united generation of future world leaders.