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POSTED: Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Hawaii is often referred to as the “;crossroads of the Pacific.”; But every once in a while, the islands become the crossroads of the world, thanks to the International Hospitality Center.

The educational organization, operated out of St. Andrew's Priory by executive director Barbara Bancel, is a kind of combo cross-cultural facilitator, tour-guide resource and host-family clearinghouse.

We sat down with several kids as their school-year-away-from-home drew to a close and asked about their Hawaii experience. Some of their reactions and snapshots can be viewed at today's StarBulletin.com, and, for easier identification, we're referring to them by their first names.

Now that they've been in America for a year, the word “;awesome”; came up a lot. How many want to come back to Hawaii? All raised their hands.

“;I think I went to every beach on Oahu,”; said Hala Abdulhaq, from Palestine, where, yes, they have beach access on occasion. But it's not the same.

Leen Al Yaman, from Lebanon, noted that the streets are cleaner here. Hala made the point finer, saying they're not cleaner, they're less cluttered.

“;People here are more friendly, more open-minded,”; said Nikita Yakovenko, from Russia. “;And the food! Well, not all the food. And sports. Lacrosse in Russia? No way!”;

The kids agreed that Hawaii's multicultural mix likely leads to greater tolerance.

“;We're not used to so many cultures in one place,”; said Nataliya Protyven, from Ukraine. “;Really, children of the rainbow.”;

“;Just being here exposes you to different cultures,”; said Leen.

“;The spirit of aloha; I think I understand it now,”; said Serhiy Poznyakov, from Ukraine.

And what about any preconceptions they might have had about Hawaii?

“;We think it's all grass houses and beaches and coconut trees,”; said Nataliya. “;I didn't expect mountains and cities. So many things in one place—nature and city.”;

“;I was personally surprised to see skyscrapers here,”; said Serhiy.

The gentle closeness of the natural environment surprised the students as well. “;I'm not used to being able to go out every day,”; said Amgad Abdullah, from Yemen. “;Oh, the big surf! The rain! Not used to rain.”;

“;It can be really cold in Palestine,”; said Hala. “;Snow! Here, you can wear the same clothes all year! And I saw the green flash when the sun set on the ocean.”;

“;I really like the mountains. I spent all my free time hiking,”; said Leen. “;Lebanon is either super hot or super cold.”;

“;I had a prejudice against water,”; admitted Nataliya. “;And Hawaii is surrounded by ocean. I didn't know how to swim. Now I do, and the ocean is so warm and kind.”;

“;I learned how to swim,”; said Kateryna Zhupanova, from Ukraine, and the other students applauded. “;I also was in San Diego, and that is more like the Ukraine.”;

“;I want to tell the world that Hawaii has a real history,”; said Serhiy, who interned at the state Legislature. “;I didn't know Hawaii had a palace. Imagine that.”;

Misconceptions go both ways. “;People think we live in tents, that we have no cars,”; sighed Amgad.

“;That we drink vodka all the time,”; laughed Nikita.

“;We thought being American meant that you were like, cool,”; said Hala. “;Now we know it also means more open-minded. When I talk to my parents, they say I've changed a bit. More self-confident.”;

“;I feel energized,”; mused Leen.

“;Obama is from Hawaii, and we hope that makes a difference,”; said Kateryna. “;Hawaii is a teeny-tiny spot in the ocean, but it is not cut off from the world. Not only warm weather, but warm cultures.”;

“;This has been the best year of my life experience!”; blurted out Hala. “;It feels not only like home, but like family.”;

Despite all the cultural differences, there turned out to be one constant in every culture—rice.

“;Everyone, everyone eats rice,”; said Hala, not realizing she was constructing a perfect metaphor. “;The only difference—is the spice.”;




A worldwide cast of teens

        The following foreign students participated in the International Hospitality Center's FLEX exchange program:

» Nikita Yakovenko, 15, Russia, Kapolei High School


» Kateryna Zhupanova, 16, Ukraine, Le Jardin Academy


» Amgad Abdullah, 16, Yemen, Kapolei High School


» Leen Al Yaman, 15, Lebanon, St. Andrew's Priory School


» Hala Abdulhaq, 15, Palestine, Castle High School


» Serhiy Poznyakov, 17, Ukraine, Academy of the Pacific


» Nataliya Protyven, 16, Ukraine, Radford High School


» Sayeda Tehniyat Bukhari, 17, Pakistan, Parker School


The International Hospitality Center (IHC) is an educational and cultural exchange program based at Iolani School. IHC programs include English-language training, home hospitality and cross-cultural orientations.


FLEX stands for Future Leaders EXchange, a government program that sponsors 1,200 student-exchange scholarships every year, focused on 12 Eurasian countries.