By Suzannah Couch
When Naima Faarax boarded a plane home to Somaliland, she took with her a love for rain, for tacos and for the kindness of locals in Brown County.
“People are so nice. People welcomed me so much. Like, if I needed help, people helped me all the time,” she said.
Faarax attended Brown County High School as a foreign exchange student this past school year through Program of Academic Exchange or PAX.
She attends the Abaarso School of Science and Technology in Somaliland, an American nonprofit boarding school that is a partner with PAX. She received the PAX Means Peace scholarship after applying her junior year, which enabled her to come to America.
“The whole goal of that school is to get students into an Ivy League school so they can choose different careers,” PAX community coordinator Sabrina Hickey said. “Maybe one chooses being a veterinarian, one chooses being a doctor, one chooses journalism and they come home to Somaliland and implement those careers and make it a better place.
“She already has the mindset to succeed, but to come here and see all those things she could do, it’s just wonderful,” Hickey said.
Faarax arrived in Brown County in the fall and stayed with an initial “welcome family” for a short time, then lived the rest of the school year with Michael and Rachelle Smith.
She said her favorite class was speech class with Laurie Godfrey.
One of the electives she chose was weightlifting, which is unavailable at the Abaarso School of Science and Technology.
She also played on the high school’s tennis team.
Faarax is Muslim and wears a hijab or a headscarf. Despite the political climate and recent attacks against Muslims in the United States, Faarax said she was never met with any bullying or negative reactions because of her religion.
She said most people were eager to learn about her country and her faith.
Faarax said she welcomed the questions; that was easier than if people were to just make assumptions because of where she is from or what religion she practices.
“I love teaching people about things they don’t know, like things you might not have thought about,” she said.
One common misconception Faarax found herself correcting was that she is forced to wear a hijab because she is a Muslim.
“(People) didn’t even know it was optional,” she said.
“I do it because I like to wear it, not because I am told to do it.”
There are many reasons a Muslim woman may choose to wear a hijab or other coverings, according to Arabs in America, a project by Dr. Sahar Amer, a professor of Asian Studies at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.
Some women may wear a hijab because they believe God has instructed women to wear it to fulfill the commandment for modesty. Other Muslim women may wear a hijab as a way to visibly express their Muslim identity or their cultural identity, and to show their political and social alliance with their country of origin.
Hickey checked in periodically with Faarax.
“For the most part, I felt like everyone had welcomed her, but she did feel a little bit of a stigma,” Hickey said.
“She shared towards the end of the year, she was like, ‘Well yeah, people did look at me differently,’ and she honestly said, ‘I think if I wasn’t wearing my hijab, then certain people would have looked at me in a different way.’”
Students undergo orientation in their home countries before traveling to America to help them prepare for the culture here, Hickey said.
“Honestly, I think most Muslim students expect to be treated differently — probably females more than males because of the hijab. You cannot be in a sport and not be covered because you don’t know the men who are around you,” she said.
“But I have to say, despite all of that, Naima did so well this year,” Hickey said.
“You have to be flexible to come on an exchange. You can’t come and expect something specific.”
For her host mother, Faarax became a “fourth daughter.”
“We did get quite a few looks walking through town,” Smith said.
“Thank goodness we never received any negative reactions. I think the mother bear would have come out of me if we had.”
The family decided to host Faarax after one of Rachelle’s daughters came home from school saying Faarax needed a place to live since her welcome family could only host her for a short time.
The family learned a lot from Faarax, about her faith, Somaliland and her school.
Faarax learned from the Smith family, too.
“We got to share our beliefs with her and explain Christianity, and that we love her no matter what she believes,” Smith said.
“We have grown to love her as our fourth daughter. It will be very hard to see her leave, not knowing when or if we will see her again.”
Hickey said exposing local people, especially youth, to different cultures is “exactly what we need.”
“Some of our students will never go abroad, or some of them will not go to a college that is full of international students. They may never meet anyone like that, so perhaps meeting an exchange student could be the one way they learn about a different culture, about a different lifestyle,” she said.
The experience is also memorable for host families.
“To share your life with a student from another culture is such a blessing, both ways,” Smith said.
“It’s an opportunity to travel without even leaving your own country. You experience the little things that we take for granted every day,” Hickey said. “You build international families by hosting. … You can only learn so much from a world geography book.”
PAX has about 1,000 students participating in the foreign exchange program from across the globe, and the majority of them come to Indiana. About 350 were here last year, and Hickey is looking to place as many as possible for the next school year.
Before coming to America, Faarax had never seen a toaster or a dishwasher.
PAX helped her set up a bank account — something she said only the wealthy have in Somaliland.
The Smith family also took her to the dentist to get her teeth cleaned, which she couldn’t have done back home.
The first dog she ever petted was at a Brown County Literacy Coalition event — an organization Faarax volunteered with during her time here. In her country, “dogs are just as dangerous as tigers” because they run rampant and have diseases, Hickey said.
Faarax is passionate about literacy, especially among women. She plans to bring what she has learned in Brown County back to the children in her school and the Somaliland orphanages.
She wants to study to become a doctor or a psychologist or to earn a degree in business. Her goal is to attend the University of Chicago and to one day run the Somaliland orphanage where she volunteers.
“I am bringing my ideas and what I have seen here,” she said. “Taking that back home, explaining to people as much as I can how we can make our country better, how can we work together to be successful in the future is something I will definitely be doing.”
Those ideas could be as simple as having trash cans easily accessible to encourage people not to just throw trash anywhere, she said.
“If we start taking care of our country and watch their actions and what they’re doing, then it will help the country,” she said.
Next year, Faarax’s two younger sisters will come to the United States. They have both been awarded the same scholarship she received.
What will she share from her time here?
“I am so excited to tell them all the things, give them heads up so they can have as much fun as I did,” Faarax said — “(like) telling them how good the food is and all the options for food. There are so many options.”