Keith Johnson, Deseret Morning News
Tarek Maragha

PROVO — Hanging in the window of a Palestinian antique merchant's shop in Jerusalem's Old City is a sign that says, "My money and my daughter go to BYU."

Brigham Young University hasn't sent students to its Jerusalem Center since 2000 because of concerns about safety in the Middle East, but a little-known scholarship program has continued to send a steady flow of young Palestinians from the Holy Land to BYU.

A number of Palestinian, Muslim and Arab parents choose to ship their money and their sons and daughters to BYU because the LDS Church-owned university's moral values are closely aligned with Palestinian-Muslim ideals.

The unique fit between two cultures that honor large, strong families and shun immodest clothing, alcohol and premarital sex also appeals to those students who get full rides to BYU through the scholarship program.

Middle Eastern students account for 7 percent of the international students at BYU. Students from abroad make up 6 percent of BYU's some 30,000 students.

"It's the same doctrine, the same culture, the same values," said Tarek Maragha, a Palestinian student from Jerusalem.

BYU's West Bank/Gaza Scholarship Program provides housing, tuition, books and meals for up to eight students at a time, said Erlend "Pete" Peterson, BYU's associate international vice president.

A freshman named Baseem Hallak is scheduled to arrive this fall to begin a four-year scholarship. When funding is available, the program also brings one or two students to BYU for an intensive, two-month immersion in English during late summer at the English Language Center, west of LaVell Edwards Stadium.

Falah Alsiekh liked BYU so much after his two-month stint last year that he sought a full-time scholarship to finish a master's program. He arrived back in Provo in May after completing his degree in English literature from Al-Quds University in Jerusalem.

Alsiekh also recruited the two students who completed the summer program Friday and who are flying home today. One was Maragha, a senior at Al-Quds whose application failed last year. Alsiekh talked him into trying again.

Haneen Alshroukh needed different assurances, as did her parents. Muslims greatly value the virtue of women.

"Haneen was reluctant," Alsiekh said. "I encouraged her and told her family she would be safe here, that people here are conservative and respectful of other religions."

The Palestinian students and BYU Jerusalem Center volunteer Melvin Luthy, a retired BYU linguistics professor, agree that Palestinians and Utahns too often believe negative mass-media stereotypes about each other.

Alsiekh is on a self-appointed information campaign to show BYU students and members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that most Palestinian Muslims are peaceful people who would fit well into LDS communities.

Likewise, Luthy said that Palestinian suicide bombers who attack Israel are a tiny minority of extremists.

"The Palestinians are family-oriented and extremely hospitable," Luthy said. "You could never outdo their hospitality. We go into the Old City, and many of the Palestinian merchants ask, 'When are the students coming to the Jerusalem Center? We miss the students.'"

On the other hand, Alsiekh and Luthy said many Palestinians believe Americans are foul-mouthed and violent, wear skimpy clothes and engage in free sex.

"When my wife and I lived in Finland in the '80s," Luthy said, "I often commented that if my only source of information about America were television, I would never go there. We get the mainstream television stuff here (in Israel and Palestine), full of violence and sex. It doesn't make America look very good. Israeli and Palestinian viewers don't see Provo, Utah, on their TV sets, that's for sure."

The Jerusalem Center annually advertises the scholarship programs at Arab universities and in Arab papers. Peterson said the program began in the mid-1980s and has to date funded 52 Palestinian students.

BYU announced the resumption of its study-abroad program at the Jerusalem Center in the spring but scuttled it again after fighting broke out between Israel and Lebanon.

"Before the war in Lebanon, it was safe enough to send students back there," Alsiekh said, "but because the program includes commuting every day through the region, including northern Israel, it would be dangerous to send the students now."

The center, which overlooks the Mount of Olives, has room for 170 students. Alsiekh is anxious for the cultural exchange to again become a two-way street because he is disappointed more Utahns don't better understand the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"BYU's students can make a difference," Alsiekh said. "I've met a lot of people here who studied at the Jerusalem Center, and they saw the reality there."

The wall recently built near Jerusalem to improve Israeli security has cut off access to the city for many Palestinians in the West Bank. Alsiekh had to rely on Luthy and other American volunteers at BYU's Jerusalem Center to ferry applications and immigration and visa forms to him at a security checkpoint.

The wall is three lines of fence, one electrified, near Alsiekh's home outside Hebron in the West Bank. His family raises olives and sheep and lost 85 olive trees to the fence wall when it was built last year. The loss was doubly frustrating, he said, because there was no authority to which his family could appeal for compensation.

"Peace is the only solution for this problem," he said. "I think it's possible if people understand."

For Alsiekh and Maragha, that kind of cross-cultural and political understanding is a side benefit to their English studies at BYU and fuel to their hope that BYU students soon return to Jerusalem.

Maragha said when he arrives home this weekend, he'll have a message for his family and friends.

"The people at BYU are so friendly," he said. "They are so much like us."