VALDOSTA -- Many Americans cannot fathom what it would be like to grow up in in a war-torn country. What would life be like without a stable political and governmental structure?

Meet Maral Meredova of Turkmenistan, a former Soviet republic in Central Asia, which borders Afghanistan to the northeast. Turkmenistan is a country left to pick up the pieces from a war between the Soviet Union and Afghanistan.

At first glance, she is no different in appearance from most other Valdosta State University student and, with them, she shares common goals and aspirations. She is the sixth of nine children and an English major. One day she says she wants to work in foreign relations or international affairs.

But there is one thing many would not know about this intelligent 19-year-old; she is Muslim.

Since the tragic terrorists attacks on Sept. 11, many misconceptions have been formed about those who follow Islam, and Meredova felt the need to speak out. At a vigil Sept. 20 at West Hall, she delivered a poignant speech that promoted the cause of peace. During a more in-depth interview this week, Meredova spoke more about being Muslim and the recent terrorist attacks that devastated America.

Meredova came to the United States at the age of 16 under the Freedom Support Act Cultural Exchange program. She said being here is much different from living in Turkmenistan from political and religious perspectives, yet much is the same.

"At home I would be expected to act more shy and not laugh out loud and dress more conservatively," she said. "Traditionally, women were not allowed to wear pants, or paint their toenails ... but things are changing."

She was born into her current Muslim beliefs that are somewhat different from old traditional Islamic beliefs. She and her family fast and recognize Ramadan, but some of the older worship traditions like praying five times per day and methods of bathing are not as widely practiced among the newer generation of Muslims like herself. For a while, she said she couldn't discuss religion.

"During the Soviet Union control, none of the countries that were a part of the Soviet Union were allowed to practice their religion," Meredova said. "Up until I was 13, we were not allowed to speak about it."

She added that there is definitely a new age of Muslims, especially among teen-agers, that lends to different interpretations of the Koran. All the moral teachings remain intact, but much of the old tradition is changing.

Politically, she said her country is struggling in many ways, particularly in establishing a political identity. As a former Soviet republic, her country was suddenly left to fend for itself with no basis to build on.

"We have to learn how to grow to be a stronger country ... and we have to come to the understanding that we can exist as a country on our own and start from there."

She said life in Turkmenistan is as it is in any newly independent country in the wake of political difficulty, but she affirmed that people are the same everywhere and have the same basic needs.

"People there are just like people in America," Meredova said. "They get up and go earn money to put bread on the table and feed their families just like Americans."

She added that with no military or political framework, the Terkmen people still have a long way to go in affirming their independence.

Although the reason for the recent terrorist attacks cannot be narrowed to one single problem, Meredova said terrorism is against Islam and it was a horrible act that occurred Sept. 11. But she doesn't feel that bombing Afghanistan is the answer to the problem.

"I definitely don't think they should go and bomb Afghanistan," she said. "I have even heard people here say, they might as well bomb Afghanistan because there is nothing left ... but you can't say that because there is a nation of people there, the Afghani people ... they are not terrorists and killers."

She said bombing innocent people to try and hit Osama bin Laden is the

wrong thing to do, and it would further fuel the hate toward America that bin Laden followers already feel. That is the nature of war everywhere, she said.

"That is how war is always: The leaders send a country off to war, and the innocent people suffer ... they are the ones who feel the war the most," Meredova said.

When asked why Osama bin Laden and his followers hate America so much, she said America's foreign relations has a lot to do with it.

"I don't know how much of it is political and how much is religious, but I know that that man [Osama bin Laden] is irritated with the way the United States acts in the Muslim parts of the world," Meredova explained. "Some think that Westerners are trying to destroy the ideals of the original Muslim religion and change their way of thinking."

As an example, she cited Peace Corps workers. Many people in the Middle East appreciate their help, but they hate that many of the workers challenge their traditions.

"Some volunteers would say, who are they to tell you that you can't wear a dress, or that is not the way it is in America," Meredova said. "Many people in the Middle East think America butts its nose in other countries' business."

She said even the statements made by President George W. Bush give some Middle Easterners the perception that he thinks he is king of the world and that the world revolves around America. She said they see that America can go anywhere and buy, they can go anywhere and sell and they can go anywhere and destroy.

Meredova said American forces trained bin Laden years ago during the Soviet conflict with Afghanistan, and part of the resentment is from those events. She doesn't believe jealousy of the American way of life plays a part in bin Laden's hatred. His use of American tactics and weapons represents a bigger victory for him

"I don't think that Osama bin Laden is afraid of the United States bombing Afghanistan or that he is hiding, because he is not that kind of man," she said. "I think he is waiting there intentionally to draw more Americans over there ... because his ultimate goal is to destroy as many Americans as possible."

Meredova said in a way she is glad that America is involved in so many countries because it provides opportunities that would otherwise not be available to her elsewhere.

"There is only one university in Turkmenistan," she said. "It is good that America has an American embassy in Turkmenistan so that I could apply for a visa and come to here to go to college."

She said that aspect of America's foreign policy helps to unite the world. She said she is only able to visit her family during the summers. When she does, she tries to educate her countrymen and women about American culture.

"Most Turkmen believe that all Americans are fat and everything is about technology and everyone has money, but I explain to them that there are people here that are just like them," Meredova said.

She added that whenever she gets the chance, she tries to educate her people about America and clear up some of their misconceptions. Although there are good and bad people in every nation, she said as a whole, Turkmen like America and are happy that it exists.

Meredova added she is surprised that many Americans want to react with violence.

"I don't think that anti-Arab and anti-Muslim ideas should be occurring in this nation, this great nation that has come farther than any other country," she said. "I don't think the people of this country should react by answering violence with violence ... it leads to more killing of the innocent."

She added that just as America has the power to destroy, it has the influence to create unity and peace within the world. She added the fact that she looks like most American girls further exemplifies the fact that people should not judge others by appearance. She said she has cousins that have very dark skin that many would call Arabs, but they are actually Terkmen.

Meredova added that she loves being in America and learning its culture so she can share that knowledge with her countrymen and women for a true unders

tanding of what America is.

To contact reporter T.S. Rose, please call 244-3400, ext. 245.

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