By Amy Jantzen
When asked why Asma Nsiri wanted to be a foreign exchange student she replied, "To learn and educate." The YES program (Youth exchange and study program) was started after 2001 to dispel preconceived notions about Muslims. Nsiri is from Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia. A town of 40,000 that is an agricultural community.
Asma Nsiri pictured in front of her home in Sidi Bouzid
Nsiri had to go through many tests and interviews to become a foreign exchange student starting with a Slep test. This test is in English and it insures that the student will be able to study at an American school. After passing the Slep test the candidates are interviewed at the Embassy by several individuals, then the candidates return to their regular studies and wait to find out if a host family has chosen them.
Nsiri found out two days before leaving that she did have a host family. After packing she boarded a plane in Tunis to Frankfurt, Germany, then on to Washington D.C. Upon landing in D.C. Nsiri went through a 4 day orientation at an American University. From D.C. she traveled to Chicago and finally to Cedar Rapids.
Nsiri, 17, is one of 5 children in her family. Her family lives in the town of Sidi Bouzid but they also own a farm about 30 minutes away from their home. When asked about the differences in her home town and Traer she replied, "here, everyone knows everyone and will greet each other. In my hometown you know the people from your neighborhood."
In her hometown people do a lot of walking or use city transportation unlike here she says everyone drives.
Nsiri went on to explain that her hometown was not as developed as Traer or Waterloo, they have no movie theatre. She said that she believed Traer was financially better off than her town. She went on to explain that her country is a developing country. They have no malls just individual shops.
Nsiri said that this was her first time seeing snow. She said that she finds the snow annoying but does enjoy an occasional snow day away from school. The minimum temperature in her town is 32 degrees and in the summer, unlike here, is hot and dry.
The main crops produced in Sidi Bouzid are olives, wheat, grapes, peaches, vegetables and citrus. She said that they have no corn or soybeans.
Nsiri speaks 3 languages, her native tongue, Arabic, French and English, all mandatory at her school. She started learning French in third grade and English in fifth grade. The students have to be fluent in French as they are taught the science courses such as math in high school in French.
The students are made to pick their course of study as freshman. They choose between economics, literature, computer science or science. The students stay with their choice all through high school and then attend university in that group of study. The majority of students attend university even if they were a D student.
In high school the students attend classes from 8 a.m. until noon and then again from 2 p.m. until 6 p.m. Nsiri said that she doesn't have a lot of free time. After returning home from school she does home work and prepares to go to school the next day. The schools are all about academics, they have no sporting groups or extracurricular activities through the school. Sporting teams are clubs through the city like a Rec program here. Most schools there also have dormitories so students that live even a half hour away don't have to travel back and forth to attend school. Sidi Bouzid is the center of the community so Nsiri lives at home.
In what little free time Nsiri does have she says she hangs out with friends at one of their houses.
Nsiri said that the food was one of the biggest adjustments for her. When preparing food at home a lot of spices are used so the food here is bland to her. She does however like peanut butter, not something available to her at home. She also favors chocolate chip cookies. She said that they are sold there but not something that would be made at home. One of her favorite dishes at home is called brik. She described it as a thin wrap that is filled with either mashed potatoes or with parsley and onion with an egg in it and deep fat fried in a lot of oil. This would be considered a side dish. Her favorite main dish is cous cous. The cous cous is steamed and then a sauce with very hot pepper paste is prepared and put over the cous cous. Nsiri wanted to prepare this dish for her host family, Marilyn and Jared Bauch. Nsiri's parents sent the cous cous, spices, the pepper paste, the proper pan and the recipe so she could get it right. Nsiri claims to not be a avid cook at home. Nsiri has had to become a vegetarian while here. She can only eat Halan meat. Halan meat is meat that has been prepared a certain way according to her religion. The animal has to be slaughtered a certain way that includes a prayer and draining of the blood. Nsiri did find a Halah butcher in Cedar Rapids so she has been able to eat some meat while here but she says that it is just easier to abstain from eating meat.
Having experienced her first Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas this year she commented that there was a lot of food. Marilyn Bauch said she carved an awesome Jack-O-Lantern as part of her first Halloween. Being Muslim her holidays are Ramadan, Eid Elfitr and Eid El-Edha. Ramadan is the first holiday to be celebrated. Ramadan is one month long and includes fasting from sun-up to sunset, this is a Islam order in the Quran. The fasting includes liquids. The first part of Ramadan is fasting, to know how less fortunate people feel and to not take things for granted. The second part of Ramadan is to live pure. You can hear no bad words, speak no bad words, no doing bad things and no watching bad things. This is to remind you of how you should live. Nsiri said that by the end of the month you find yourself more in control and a better person. Nsiri explained that Ramadan is more about the deeds and to do good things in this month. On the 31st day Eid Elfitr happens. This translates to breaking the fast. Most families go to Mosque and say the Eid prayer and then visit each other. Often families will give to the poor also on this day. Eid El-Edha represents the pilgrimage to Mecca. Nsiri explained that it had to do with the story of Abraham and his son. Each family, if they can afford to, slaughter a sheep using the Halah method and then grill it and enjoy family time. Before the sheep is slaughtered the family attends Mosque to say the Eid prayer. Her family gives part of the sheep to the less fortunate.
Following the Quarn, Nsiri prays five times a day. Asking what she does when she is at school she explained that the prayer times can be flexible. If she knows that she is going to be unable to pray when it is time she doubles up before or after. Prayers need to be said facing Mecca in Saudi Arabia. Nsiri explained that in Traer she faces Northeast.
After graduating with the class of 2011 at North Tama, Nsiri plans to finish her schooling at home and then return to the states to go to Medical School. She plans to help the less fortunate either in her hometown or whereever the need is.
While here Nsiri has been very involved in volunteering. She volunteers once a week at the nursing home as well as at Church, the food pantry, the Salt and Pepper Gallery and the Traer Theatre. She is also on the Academic Decathlon team at North Tama.
Nsiri misses the people the most from home. She said, "It's the people that make the place."
When asked what she would miss most about Traer, she replied, "The school and the people."