Kara Lozier lives in Vermont and is the founder of ROYA – Resources of Young Afghans, through which she has been counseling, mentoring and supporting young Afghans in various ways. From 2006-2011, she served as a community coordinator for mostly Muslim exchange students from countries in Africa, Asia, Central Asia, Europe, and Eastern Europe.
I knew nothing about Islam and had never met a Muslim before 2006. That was the year we hosted Mohammad Imran, otherwise known as Imo, a high school exchange student from Indonesia who came to the US through the Youth Exchange and Study (YES) program. YES was established and funded by the US government in response to the tragic events of 9/11 to help promote mutual understanding between Americans and youth from countries with a significant Muslim population. It was the beginning of an enlightening journey that helped me discover a passion that is still burning brightly thirteen years later.
The year after hosting Imo, I became a community coordinator for the YES program supervising and supporting the students during their year in rural Vermont. I organized many activities for them including cultural fairs, community service projects, interfaith events, and more. The students were great ambassadors and the program was very successful in helping the students, host families and community members to see our shared humanity and eliminate many fears and misunderstandings.
The students came from many different countries. We discovered that many of their varied beliefs and practices were cultural and not religious. Some of my students didn’t know there were different sects of Islam and I learned there are non-denominational Muslims. To better understand and support the students, I began my own studies into Islam and began to read The Meaning of The Holy Quran – Text, Translation and Commentary. We attended iftars, prayer services, and Eid celebrations. As these young people became a bigger part of my life, so did Islam and the various cultures my students represented.
In 2007, the first Afghan students arrived in my community. None of the students from other countries were affected as deeply by 9/11 as the Afghan students. Living with and learning from them is what completely changed my perspective about our lives in the U.S. and developed my passion for working with Afghan youth. I ended my role as a community coordinator in 2011 and began volunteering as a counselor, mentor, and academic advisor for young Afghans. I helped students to apply for admission to private high schools and universities, to apply for scholarships, workshops, and other funding opportunities. I helped them improve their writing skills, listened to their problems, coached them, and gave them advice.
In 2014-2015, I spent ten months living in Kyrgyzstan, a Central Asian, Muslim-majority country, as a host mother to an 8th grade Afghan boy who studied in a private international high school there. And in 2016, I spent two months in Afghanistan, living with friends and meeting many of my former students’ families. In both countries, I was struck by the strong sense of family, the respect for elders, and the rich traditions. I envied their family relationships and large but intimate gatherings. I felt welcomed, protected, and embraced. Everybody wanted to learn about my life and teach me about theirs. Most people assume that I suffered from culture shock in both countries, but mostly I felt like I belonged. And that is a huge credit to the Afghan and Kyrgyz people who made me feel that way.
The shocking part was that I was blind to the reality of day-to-day life in Afghanistan. Until my trip, I had a very skewed perspective of the Afghan population because I was only exposed to English-speaking young Afghans with internet access. I was not prepared to see all the child beggars and child street workers.
Within two months of my return to the U.S., I started the ROYA Mentorship Program, a small sponsorship program to support ten needy Afghan youth to learn English, computers, and have weekly internet access. Today there are nearly 400 youth from impoverished families being supported by ROYA sponsorships to study at private schools, receive monthly stipends to stop their child labor, and study for their English language diplomas. The first ROYA girl to earn her English diploma is now studying at a private high school in the U.S. and several others have been shortlisted for university scholarships in Morocco and Bangladesh.
I very much believe we are a global family and my experiences with exchange students and my efforts with ROYA have really proved that. Today I read this quote by Martin Luther King Jr., “I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality… I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.” The families created by the YES program and the global ROYA family represent many religions, races, cultures, nationalities, and sexual orientations. With our unarmed truth and unconditional love, we have woven a web of support for thousands of YES students around the world and 400 needy children in Afghanistan with life-changing impacts every day.