Pakistani exchange student lives with Mormon family, attends Catholic school in Pasco

By Ty Beaver, Tri-City HeraldDecember 29, 2013 

Umer Janjua Exchange Prep

Muhammed "Umer" Janjua, a Pakistani exchange student, gives his answer recently in an Apologetics class being taught by Brett Powers at Tri-Cities Prep in Pasco. He is a 16-year-old senior and is attending the small Catholic high school in contrast to the large school he was at in his home country.

BOB BRAWDY — Tri-City Herald Buy Photo

PASCO -- A Muslim exchange student lives with a Mormon family and attends a small private Catholic high school.

It's not a sitcom script. It's a real-life cultural immersion experience for 16-year-old Muhammad Janjua.

Janjua, who goes by Umer, is living, learning and forging new relationships almost 7,000 miles from his home in Islamabad, Pakistan.

The people he lives and learns with can't imagine not having him around.

"He made instant friends," said exchange program coordinator Renee Kerr of Umer's first visit to his new school, Tri-Cities Prep. "Three students went to his home that night and took him to a football game."

For Umer, his short time in the U.S. has already led him to learn a lot about another culture and about his own.

"I get to see different perspectives, I get asked questions," Umer said. "Apart from telling them, it helps me understand more about myself."

'I was screaming with joy'

Several exchange programs bring students to Mid-Columbia high schools each year. Umer is one of eight supervised by Kerr, who is also his host mother.

Another Muslim and a few Chinese students also attend Prep this school year as part of exchange programs.

Umer is on a full scholarship from the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange & Study, or YES, program, run by the U.S. Department of State. Started not long after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, it brings students from predominantly Muslim countries to the U.S. to improve relations between the cultures, Kerr said.

Umer grew up in Islamabad, Pakistan's capital of a half-million people. His father is a military officer and his mother a school headmistress. His high school, with about 6,000 students, was operated by the military.

He longed to travel internationally and saw his opportunity after talking to former students who had gone to the U.S. as part of the YES program. When he approached his parents about the idea, they didn't discourage him, but they also didn't think it would come to pass because of the program's competitive nature.

"At first my parents were like, 'Oh sure, sure, apply,' " Umer said.

The application process took a year and included a lot of academic as well as medical screening, but early this past summer he was accepted for placement in a U.S. high school.

"The moment I received that envelope I was screaming with joy," he said.

It wasn't until several days before he was set to leave that Umer learned he was headed to Washington and east of the Cascades. He arrived in the Mid-Columbia in early September, about two weeks after classes had started at Prep.

His first visit to the school is a story told by many who have befriended him -- after registering for classes on a Friday, he didn't want to wait until the following Monday to meet his new classmates.

Still wearing the baggy trousers and tunic of a traditional Pakistani outfit called a shalwar kameez, Umer walked into a classroom and began introducing himself.

"Umer walks in with a big smile on his face and just says 'Hi, guys!' " recalled Daz Zepeda, a Prep junior. "I think, 'Wow, I like this guy already.' "

Homecoming King

Aspects of Umer's life in Pakistan have blended with his experiences here in the Tri-Cities.

He and another Muslim student perform their daily prayers between classes, and he's excused to attend Friday prayers at the Islamic Center of Tri-Cities in West Richland.

His host family went with him in October to celebrate the festival of Eid al-Adha at the Islamic center. He's cooked traditional Pakistani meals for his hosts and other exchange students.

"I had about 25 to 30 kids at the house I've never seen before," Kerr said.

But he also attends church with his Mormon host family on Sundays and goes to Mass at Prep. He wears jeans and hoodies like any other American teenager, has seen the latest Hobbit movie and can regularly be seen cheering on Prep's athletes at basketball games.

Zepeda and fellow Prep junior Claire Megna, both 16, said they and others though Umer might be shy or standoffish based on preconceptions. He's quite the opposite, they said. He was elected as Homecoming King this fall.

"That just shows how quickly the students embraced him," said Heather Axel, who teaches U.S. and world history at the school.

Umer made his theatrical debut in Prep's adaptation of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, playing two minor roles. During one performance, when one of Umer's characters receives a gift from Ebenezer Scrooge, he made the mistake of addressing the crowd during his character's elation, Megna said. That's something most actors seek to avoid, but Megna is glad he did it.

"We heard the audience laughing hysterically," she said. "It made it so much better."

Kerr has come to love the energy Umer brings to her home, she said. However, he is a teenager. Certain things -- such as wanting to sleep in on school days -- are common across cultures. But Kerr has found a way around that problem.

"I've learned I can more easily wake Umer if I have the computer play the (Muslim) call to prayer," she said.

Clearing up misperceptions

Going from the busy urban center of Islamabad to the Tri-Cities hasn't always been an easy transition for Umer.

"I was not used to the peace and quiet around here," he said. "I was used to waiting three minutes after a (traffic) signal changes before going. Here it changes and you go."

Umer also had to adjust his perception of the U.S. and Americans. His understanding was based on Hollywood productions in Pakistani movie theaters and on stereotypes, such as the belief that all Americans are fat and cuss frequently, and American Christians all believe the same things, he said.

Similarly, he's helped clear up misperceptions of his homeland. Last month, in a presentation to Prep freshmen and sophomores, he confirmed there are cars, movie theaters and electricity in Pakistan. His country also has mountains, forests and beaches, not just desert.

Umer has spoken with other Pakistani students going to school in Washington, D.C., and other major U.S. cities. They're having great experience, but he's happy he's in the Mid-Columbia.

"This is a good place to be," he told the Herald. "Big cities are more international. You actually get to experience real America (here)."

Umer may end up spending more time in the U.S. after this school year, as he's interested in attending an American university.

For now, though, he's focused on enjoying the rest of the school year at Prep. That could include another return to the stage in the school's spring production.

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