Washington Latin students make connection in Qatar

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

When Martha Cutts, head of Washington Latin Public Charter School, asked her students if anyone was interested in Arabic language and culture classes, she thought five or six kids might raise their hands.

Instead, she heard from 175.

Of those students, 75 eighth- and ninth-graders ended up enrolling in the Arabic program, which is offered at the school through the Qatar Foundation International, an organization aimed at opening connections between the United States and Qatar and helping U.S. and Qatari students learn about each other. Over spring break, 16 Washington Latin students went to Qatar, a small country on the Persian Gulf near Saudi Arabia, to meet kids their age and see the country, along with students from a school in Boston.

It was an eye-opening experience for the U.S. and Qatari students, since most of them knew only what they'd seen on the news or in movies.

"I thought it was going to be like the desert," said Erika Perry, 14. But Doha, the capital of Qatar, was far from sandy.

"It was really modern, with amazing architecture -- and really clean," said Tim Hursen, 14, who wants to be a translator some day. He was also surprised that "they have nicer clothing than I do and better electronics."

But there were some obvious cultural differences. Most people in Qatar are Muslim, and many people live according to traditions that call for strict rules on conduct and dress. "The girls couldn't hang out with the boys, and that's what we do all the time. They couldn't wear the clothes we're wearing now," said Megan Mitchell, 14.

In Qatar, contact between boys and girls is limited. They typically go to school separately and don't socialize, except through family events. Also, the Qatari girls usually had their heads and bodies covered with flowing robes. The boys also wore traditional long robes, but sometimes wore the same kinds of clothes as the American visitors.

The Qatari students learned a lot about America, too. "The girls asked us if American classrooms are like they are in the videos they see on television -- where all the kids are misbehaving and throwing things," said Eleanor Franc, 13. The Washington Latin kids quickly explained that in real life, U.S. classrooms are not like that!

Students from both countries found they were more alike than they realized. "I learned not to stereotype other people," said Jazmyne English, 13.

Getting to meet in person, explain their lives and ask lots of questions even allowed friendships to form, which the students have kept up on Facebook since the trip. This summer, QFI is also organizing a trip to bring the students from Qatar to Washington to visit their American friends. Together, they will all travel to Florida to see Disney World and participate in an educational program at NASA.

-- Margaret Webb Pressler

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