HOLLAND, Mich. — Two students and their teacher spent nearly 24 hours on a plane to travel over 9,000 miles to get to West Michigan. It may have been a long trip, but they say it was worth it.
The trio flew from Malaysia to Holland, but not just for a vacation.
The three plan to carry out a series of cultural workshops at Holland High School, hoping to reduce negative views of Islam.
The girls arrived April 1 thanks to Sophie Boudreau, a former student at Holland HS.
"Islam is a religion of peace, and what we see in the media about these radical groups, that’s not representation of the religion," said Boudreau. "When I first moved to Malaysia, I had a lot of negative reactions from people back at home because it is a primarily Muslim country. A lot of people have misconceptions about what it means to be a Muslim."
In January 2015, Boudreau left Holland for 10 months to teach at SMK Chalok, a school in rural Malaysia. The opportunity was made possible through a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship grant, she said.
"It gave me a world view and really allowed me to experience a new culture first-hand," said Boudreau. "I've seen TV shows about Asia; I've read books about various cultures; but this was my first time really living up close and personal among people of that culture."
During her time there, Boudreau made several friends, including Una Mamat, Egiey Ibrahim and Hafidzatun Nadwa Mamat Yusoff. "Over the course of my time in Malaysia, we've become something like sisters," said Boudreau. And they are visiting Holland for the next two weeks, which makes for a little culture shock for Bourdreau, "waking up in the morning and being in my normal surroundings with my family, and I turn to the right and there’s one of my Malaysian students. It’s kind of a bizarre feeling."
Boudreau helped get her friends here with the help of her GoFundMe page in an effort to give two of her students and one of her co-workers a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to visit Michigan.
Now, these four women are on a mission to bring up the harsh reality of religious stereotyping. They're also promoting their message with a series of cultural workshops at Holland Public Schools.
"I felt that I kind of had to do it after all they gave me when I was in Malaysia," Boudreau said.
Nadwa Mamat Yusoff is thankful for the opportunity. "[Americans] always think Muslims are bad people," she told FOX 17 News. "We have bad Muslims and good Muslims, just like Christians: we have good Christians and bad Christians."
On April 4, the Holland Museum will hold a community reception called "From Malaysia to Michigan" from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.
You will be able to meet the girls from Malaysia, learn about Islam and get a taste of Malaysian food.
As for the culture education programs at Holland High, those will begin April 11.
"I want them to know Islam is not a religion that promotes terrorism," said Yusoff. "We love peace, and peace is our priority."