Homer High School is hosting a student from the West African country of Cameroon, this year. As part of his exchange program, 11th-grader, Nouredine Mama, is visiting schools and churches. Recently, he visited the school in the ‘Russian Old Believer’ community of Nikolaevsk, just outside Homer.
Mama stands at the front of the classroom wearing a white tunic and pants with a black hat and a red, green and yellow scarf — the colors of the Cameroonian flag – the name of his country printed in bright yellow letters. He fields questions from a room full of curious students. They ask him how to say something in his traditional language of Haussa.
“Good Morning is ‘Inakwana,’ and in French, it’s Bonjour,” says Mama.
One student then offers how to say good morning in Russian.
“In Russian it’s dobroe utro.”
“Why is it so long?” asks Mama.
The day was full of such exchanges. The 16-year-old is attending Homer High School, serving as an ambassador from his country through the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study program, also known as the “YES” program, which was established by Congress in 2002 in response to September 11th.
Russian Orthodox people came to in the community of Nikolaevsk, about 25 miles north of Homer, around 1968. The town has a population of about 300, and around a quarter of them are school-aged. Most have never met someone from Africa.
Mama speaks Hausa — plus French and English at home with his father, mother and four siblings. He lives in a suburb of Douala, Cameroon’s largest city. He also knows some Arabic and is learning Spanish.
He says he’s excited about the opportunity to share his culture with Alaskans and to learn about theirs. Mama says he enjoys learning about other faiths and going to a Christian church with his host family in Anchor Point.
“I’m quite happy, glad that I am with Christians,” says Mama.
He says he doesn’t mind being, as far as he can tell, the only Muslim in Homer and one of the few people of color. And he likes school here.
“My favorite subjects are physics, chemistry, math and art,” says Mama.
Mama also likes Justin Beiber, soccer and basketball. He’s fond of his smartphone and enjoys Facebook. He says he would like to attend college in the U.S. and he eventually wants to be a doctor or a petrochemist.
Mama says it’s through small day-to-day interactions with people in Alaska that he hopes to help create cultural understanding.
“Today I went to school and I met one of my friends. I posted something in Facebook, written, Inshallah. And Inshalla means, ‘if God wills.’ And I like the way he came to me and asked me, ‘What does it mean?’ And he wanted me to explain it to him and I explained it to him and he was glad,” explains Mama.
After Mama’s talk, some of the Russian Old Believer students gather around to chat more casually. 11th- grader, Ellena Gordeev, says she was surprised to learn that Cameroon was such a diverse and peaceful place.
“I really liked that there was so much diversity. There are 200 different ethnic groups and languages, and stuff like that – I found that very interesting. I found it interesting that it’s peaceful with that much diversity. And to have peace is pretty cool,” said Gurdeyev.
And the students also talked about similarities between Russian Old Believers and Muslims in Cameroon, like how women from both cultures dress traditionally, in long dresses with their heads covered.
Heather Pancratz, who teaches middle school and high school English and history at Nikolaevsk says having students like Mama visit contributes to her students’ understanding of the world.
“I think it’s important because a lot of times we don’t get out of the state very often as villagers. And it’s important for them to recognize that people and the same wherever they go … and different and there are unique things about people that make them special,” says Pancratz.
Mama says he’s aware of the terrorist attacks in France recently by people claiming to be Muslims, and that makes his exchange, and those of others in the YES program, all the more important.
“You don’t have to judge all Muslims from other Muslims that are committing crimes. That’s why I came here through the ‘YES’ program. I came here to show the good part of Muslims and Islamism,” says Mama.
There are 10 ‘YES’ students in Alaska right now — they’re from Egypt, Gaza, Indonesia, Kuwait, Tunisia, Turkey and Yemen. Mama is the only ‘YES’ student in Alaska from Cameroon. He has visited several schools and a church in the Homer area and he says he’ll go wherever he’s invited.