At 16 years old, it’s a tall order to say an experience will “change your life forever.” But that’s what Zakaria Abden, an exchange student from Bangladesh, has said with gusto about his past six months in Windham.

“It gave me the opportunity to make friends, it taught me how to be a leader and speak in front of people,” he said.

Abden hails from Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh and home to 17 million people. Bangladesh is a country in South Asia east of India and south of China.

Abden is visiting Maine through the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study (YES) program, which provides high school students from countries with large Muslim populations with scholarships to study in the United States.

Zakaria Abden, an exchange student living in Windham, spent three days in Washington, D.C. He is visiting Maine through the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study program.

Zakaria Abden, an exchange student living in Windham, spent three days in Washington, D.C. He is visiting Maine through the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study program.

Established by Congress a year after the events of Sept. 11, 2001, the program aims to increase cultural awareness and understanding, and dispel stereotypes among people from different cultures, Abden said.

He said he and his fellow exchange students are “here to overcome discrimination against Muslim people in America, and show people that not all Muslims are terrorists.”

A practicing Muslim, Abden has found an easy way to transition to life in Windham via a web-based application. Muslims pray five times each day in the direction of the Kaaba, a building in the center of the holy city, Mecca. The app helps Abden point himself toward the Kaaba no matter where he is, and sends alerts to his phone when it’s time for prayer.

Abden said he prays two or three times each day, and his host parents have been very supportive, telling him he should pray whenever he wants.

In other ways, the transition to Windham was difficult, Abden said, citing the lack of public transport (he has to ask his host parents for rides) and the comparatively quiet neighborhoods (“in Dhaka, there are people everywhere”).

But now, he doesn’t want to leave come May.

He’s jumped at chances to get involved in the school and local community. As a representative of his country and the exchange program, he sees educating the town about Bangladeshi culture as his charge and has given presentations at the library, as well as for the Town Council and middle-school students. Next, he said, he’ll give a presentation at the high school.

He’s played soccer, track and tennis at Windham, although his favorite sport is cricket, the national sport of Bangladesh. In his spare time, he’s volunteered at the soup kitchen and helped elderly in the community with gardening and maintenance. For the YES program, he’s required to perform 40 hours of community service, but he’s aiming higher.

“My target is 100,” he said. He’s already completed around 65.

He said his host parents, Helen and Francis “Sparkey” Hurgin, “have done everything for me” and now they “feel like my own parents.”

For Christmas and birthdays, Abden and his host parents cooked fried rice and Bangladeshi chicken korma, a traditional meal made with yogurt sauce and “lots of spices,” according to Abden.

Helen Hurgin said hosting Abden has been “really interesting and fun. I really like the idea of the program he’s in, which is to bring students with Muslim faith here so we can learn more about their faith and culture, and they can learn more about the U.S.”

Hurgin described Abden as “outgoing, very confident, and very social.”

“We gained a new family member,” she said. “Zak will be part of our life going forward and hopefully, we’ll be part of his life.”

Jeffrey Neal, Abden’s teacher for U.S. History, said his student “brings a lot of his cultural experience to the classroom and it’s certainly of value for our students to hear about the world he lives in and how that correlates to American culture and society.”

“He’s very outgoing, personal and friendly,” Neal said of Abden. “He has a warm spirit about him.”

One of the biggest differences between rural Maine life and life in Bangladesh is that people tend to be more private in Maine, according to Abden.

“When you have a guest over, you make them tea or coffee, and you sit in talk,” said Abden.

He said here in Maine, he hasn’t seen his neighbors, which surprised him.

Another major difference for Abden is the structure of the school system. Schools in Bangladesh are modeled like the British school system, Abden said, where a student finishes lower-level classes at age 16, and then takes two years of advanced-level classes before applying to university.

Abden plans to apply here for university, and he has his sights set on Stanford.

He’ll be a year behind his age group when he starts school again in the fall, but he said he’s gained “five years of life experience” during his exchange.

Between the friends he’s made in Windham and with other YES exchange students, the experiences he’s gained through volunteering, and the chance to experience a different culture, Abden said the exchange has surpassed his expectations.

The program, which is 100 percent scholarship, “gives you everything you want,” Abden said, and in return, simply “asks you to learn and do community service.”


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.