Seventy foreign students from five continents came together to celebrate an important Muslim holy day. Though not everyone who helped celebrate Eid al-Adha in Denver last month are Muslim, they have all become friends. Most of the students are Turkish, but neither nationality nor religious differences mattered to anyone. In fact, to the cultural exchange participants, the party was another opportunity to learn about other cultures and interact with people from other countries.

That’s the reason these international students are living and working in the United States, participating in a cultural exchange program. They want to explore, expand, and empower themselves through educational and enlightening experiences. The Eid-al-Adha celebration was one such opportunity to do so.

Some of the party goers knew nothing about the Muslim celebration or its meaning, but at the end of the evening, everyone learned more – not just about Eid-al-Adha – but about each other and other cultures, religions, traditions and countries.

That’s the purpose of cultural exchange, and that important outcome was Adam Saltzman’s goal for the evening he planned.

Adam is a Regional Relationship Manager for Alliance Abroad, working in Denver, Colorado. In this role, he wears two hats as a U.S. host company account manager, and as an outreach coordinator for visiting foreign students.  Though his responsibilities are twofold, Adam has but one goal: to make sure that both employers and participants have a successful experience.

At times the role can be challenging, and issues arise that need special attention. Ironically, it was one of these occasions that became the impetus for this cultural awareness activity.

When one of the exchange students was having difficulty adapting to his new work and living environment, Adam asked participant what was important to him.  The Turkish student explained that his Muslim faith was extremely important. Adam began asking questions to learn more about his faith, and about the religious days they observe.  As it turned out, one of the most important celebrations was just days away.

Eid al-Adha is known as the festival of sacrifice and the special occasion includes prayers, greetings and gifts of various kinds. The Muslim holiday celebrates the occasion when Allah came to Ibrahim in a dream, and asked him to sacrifice his son Isma’il, as an act of obedience to God.  Because Ibrahim was willing to obey God, his son was spared, and a lamb was sacrificed instead.

The student educated Adam about how Turkish communities commemorate the occasion by preparing meals and sharing the feast with those less fortunate.

Adam was inspired.

When Adam suggested that they hold a celebration at the apartment complex where many of the Muslim and other students lived, the idea was met with great enthusiasm.

“It’s not always easy getting participants to come to cultural activities that we host,” Adam explains. They’re busy, they have competing obligations, or they’re unsure about the event. This was a great opportunity to bring the event to the students in their own home.”

The apartment complex management supported the idea, allowing Adam to use the barbeque, pool, ping pong, and fire pit facilities.

“I expected about 40 students, but many more showed up. Of the 70 attendants, about 40 were Muslim.  The others joined the celebration because they were interested or simply wanted the fun camaraderie with new friends,” Adam explains.

“It was really, really cool to watch the participants interact. They were really interested in educating others about their customs, traditions and religions and learning similar things about their co-workers and friends.”

The students came from North and South America, Africa, Asia and Europe and many countries on these continents.

During the evening, stories were shared about how the students were supporting each other. In one case, a Bosnian student, who is an Orthodox Catholic, greeted his co-worker in his native Turkish language, wishing him a happy Ramadan.

The other student was touched.

“The Turkish student told me he was homesick, and the fact that another participant took the time and interest to remember a religious holiday and greeted him in his own native language meant the world to him,” Adam explains.

There were other stories of support and friendship, as the group feasted on the food Adam grilled. After dinner Turkish coffee and Turkish delights, provided by the students were served. During the evening participants cooled off in the pool, played games of ping pong, and sat around a fire pit chatting and getting to know each another better. Several of the male participants played a spirited game of soccer.

“I’ve discovered something important when you have an event with people from Europe or Africa,” Adam jokes.  “A soccer ball.”

When Adam left several hours later, the students were still enjoying each other’s company.

The event reminds Adam why he finds his work so gratifying. The Eid al-Adha celebration brought young people, from so many differing countries, cultures, beliefs, religions and political views together connecting as friends.

There is a great lesson in this story for everyone.  Tolerance, compassion, understanding and open-mindedness don’t just make for a great party; they make for a better way to live.

The food, festivities, friendship, and, of course the soccer ball, made for a fabulous evening that these students will likely never forget.