Richmond family bridges cultures hosting Muslim exchange student

April Bray and her family of eight had opened their home in Richmond up to host several foreign exchange students from a range of backgrounds over the past three years. They’d experienced the culture shock and language barriers, the learning new customs and exchange of ideas. But when Racha Ben Kilani, a 16-year-old Muslim student from Tunisia, joined their family to attend Foster High School, she brought a new kind of experience.

 “It was really different for us because she comes from a Muslim background,” Bray, who is a nondenominational Christian, said. “We didn’t have any idea about their religion or what they celebrate.”

Racha came to live with the Brays through Ayusa Global Youth Exchange, a non-profit organization that arranges cultural exchanges for high school students. Bray works as a regional support specialist for Ayusa.

 Having Racha in their household was particularly eye opening given the political climate surrounding Islam and President Donald Trump‘s executive order to ban people from six Muslim-majority countries – although Tunisia was not on the list.

Bray admits that she was a bit naïve about the attitudes toward Muslims in the Houston area before Racha lived with her.

“I didn’t think there would be any bullying,” Bray said. “We’re in Houston. It’s so diverse. I would have thought that everybody would have been accepting toward her.”

One incident, when another student harassed Racha at a bus stop, calling her a terrorist, was eye opening for Bray and her family.

“It wasn’t something I could tell her to brush off,” Bray said. “It seemed more painful.”

Racha wrote about her experience in an essay that was one of three winners of the national Better Understand for a Better World competition, sponsored by the Civilizations Exchange and Cooperation Foundation.

“I wasn’t placed in the accepting part of the United State that I heard so often about in orientations,” Racha wrote. “I was placed in the part where I was called a terrorist, where I heard so many awful things about Muslims and where I discovered that it wasn’t so much about not accepting but rather about not knowing.”

Racha explained how she was able to participate and learn about American and Christian traditions that were foreign to her while educating others about her own culture and religion.

“I couldn’t blame them for what they thought, but I could show them the truth,” she wrote. “After all, I did once presume that Texas was only filled with cowboys, so I had no right to judge.”

Bray said that Racha was able to bring a whole new level of understanding to her own children, her husband and herself. Racha helped to break down stereotypes her children had adopted and her husband had many deep and pleasant discussions about ideologies on which they disagreed.

“They were able to have a better understanding of where the other was coming from,” Bray said.

Even in just the few months that Racha lived with them, the Brays began to see her as part of the family. The six children, ranging in age from 2 to 14, grew to look up to Racha as a big sister and she would volunteer to baby sit when the parents went out.

Bray believes that hosting foreign exchange students has had a positive impact on her family.

“With my own kids, I wanted them to be able to see what it’s like in other cultures,” she said. “You make a lifelong connection … It’s such an enriching experience.”

Racha left the program with a renewed desire to strengthen understanding and connections between cultures.

“I hope I would further learn how to build a bridge of understanding between the different cultures and faiths and open up a dialogue that will hopefully increase mutual respect between them,” Racha wrote in her essay. “I want to make a difference, no matter how small.”

Racha was accepted to a summer internship program at Yale and Bray will host a girl from Brazil and a boy from the Netherlands this fall.

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