Meryem Aksbi: Madison East High School Student, 17

Moroccan exchange student loves East's diversity
Meryem Aksbi: Madison East High School Student, 17
Paulius Musteikis & Romulo Morishita
Meryem Aksbi

Any hope of blending into the sea of 1,604 faces at East High School was dashed the moment Meryem Aksbi accidentally set off the schoolwide fire alarm when she went through an emergency door. “I tell them I’m just an exchange student,” she laughs, recalling her fears that she wouldn’t make any friends, that she was “only a Muslim girl” who’d be invisible in vast, expansive, glittering America, where “people won’t really care about you.”

But the opposite has been true. The 17-year-old Moroccan citizen came to Madison as part of the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study program, a post-9/11 U.S. Department of State effort that welcomes kids from predominantly Muslim countries for one scholastic year. An exceptional student–she taught herself English in just two months and maintains a 4.0 GPA–Aksbi asked to return for her senior year. East readily reaccepted the student whose memberships include International Club, French Club, Creative Writing Club, Yearbook, Engineering Club, Homework Club, Monday Madness, Math Modeling and Kioja. Today, fellow students often squeal greetings or give her hugs when she walks the halls.

“I think East is the best school for diversity,” says Aksbi–something she didn’t experience in her beloved Morocco, a North African country that’s more than 99 percent Muslim. In Madison, at first, “Most of the people thought I was Mexican,” laughs Aksbi, who does not wear a hijab. She hopes to attend either UW-Madison to study engineering or New York University for international business. She relishes the diversity of America’s Islamic community, where she and her host family–the Moroccan-born Rachid Ouabel and his wife, American-born Teresa Pullara, who owned the recently closed Bunky’s Cafe–pray alongside Muslims from all over the world. Having a Moroccan American host family helps curb her homesickness (especially when they share a plate of spicy chicken), and she admires her American host mom as a role model, volunteer and businesswoman. Aksbi says Westerners often misunderstand the way Islam “prizes” women. “The wife of our prophet Mohammad used to work, you know what I mean?” she says. “The woman can do whatever she wants.”

Aksbi says that although the stereotypes she saw espoused on TV throughout the presidential election were deeply painful to see and hear, they didn’t match up with her lived experience here in Madison.

“The people here are nice all the time. I’ve never seen somebody who’s racist,” she says, recalling after Election Day when students and teachers were crying, and scribbling chalk messages on the sidewalks surrounding school: “We love immigrants here, we love Muslims here, we love Mexicans, we love Americans, everybody is equal.” She says she doesn’t want to belittle anyone’s political opinion, but says of Trump, “Maybe they think he’s good because if he’s a businessman, he can run the country, but [economics is] not the only thing that matters, you know? There [are] people. There [are] feelings.”

Click here to read the full Muslim in Madison feature.