Perhaps this represents most Americans' knowledge of the Middle East:
"I didn't know anything about the region at all. As far as I knew, the Crusades happened and there was lots of sand in the Middle East, and that was it."
Starting in his middle school days, Elexer Palko-Schraa - "Lex" to his Durango friends - had questions about the U.S. response to Sept. 11 and its invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq:
Why are we doing this? Who are these people we're fighting? What is Islam?
His curiosity ultimately led him to major in religious studies at the University of Colorado. And for the last year he's been answering those questions in an up-close-and-personal way. He ventured to Jordan, in the thick of the Middle East, where he studied Arabic and the Shariah (Muslim law), among other subjects.
Moreover, he met real Arabs. And if you're thinking they all treated the 21-year-old American with malice and suspicion, think again.
"The Arabs are by far the most welcoming people ever," he says during a coffee shop interview days after his return from the Mideast. On a visit to Syria, groups of 30 would come up just to shake his hand. Others offered tea.
He imitates the typical response, exclaiming: "Oh my God, you're an American, let me introduce you to my country and tell you what's going on. Can I buy you tea?"
He continues in a normal voice: "I mean, I had to literally fight people to have them not buy me tea. And sometimes I failed, and they bought me tea anyway," he laughs.
Their prevailing view is that Americans believe all Arabs are terrorists.
"They want to change that perspective, so they're even extra friendly because of that," he said.
The well-spoken Palko-Schraa obviously is no slacker. He completed high school in an advanced program by attending classes at Fort Lewis College. He spent the next three years at CU.
His studies included a year of Arabic, but Palko-Schraa knew a better way to learn the language and understand the people was to visit.
He was granted a Boren scholarship from the National Security Education Program, which pays for tuition, basic expenses and airfare. In exchange, the student must work for a year for the U.S. government in a national security-related job. Palko-Schraa will do that when he finishes school.
He considered programs in Morocco, Oman, Yemen and Egypt. The University of Jordan in Amman was not on his radar, but after Egypt put him on a wait list, it became a good option. And there was an upside. Jordan is one of the most stable and American-friendly Mideast countries, "which made my mother happy," Palko-Schraa says. His parents are Susan and Bill Palko-Schraa of Durango.
He arrived in Jordan in August, and moved in with his Christian host family. He quickly learned English is commonly spoken, and it might be difficult to practice his Arabic.
"Their 2-year-old (granddaughter) was bossing me around in English," he says.
At the 60,000-student university, Palko-Schraa studied in an American program, with some classes in English and some in Arabic. He also did independent study, meeting a couple times a week with a professor to discuss parts of the Quran as it relates to the Shariah.
He stayed busy, taking advantage of his opportunity. He traveled to Syria, Egypt, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands.
In 2009, he served an internship with a Czech-run nongovernmental organization that was running a program out of Amman to support development in Iraq. And he also got a job creating reports for a consulting firm that monitors and evaluates U.N. programs in Iraq.
When school ended, he took one final two-week trip to Israel and the West Bank, to the heart of a dispute that plagues peace in the region and strains relations between the United States and Arab countries. As an American, Palko-Schraa could roam freely in Israel. And in the West Bank, he traveled with English-speaking Palestinian friends he'd met in Jordan.
From Israel's perspective, "There are legitimate security concerns. ... The security threat is real."
The Palestinians he met all had at least five close acquaintances who'd been killed during fighting with Israeli soldiers, many during the Intifadas.
"I met so many thoughtful, loving, intelligent people who take perspectives, which are contributing to conflicts," Palko-Schraa says. Yet he retains a general faith in humanity. "I think it is in Israel's best interests to make (a solution) happen. ... So people will figure out a way."
He'll return in the fall to Boulder for his final year. After school, he'll spend that year with the State or Defense departments or an intelligence service. And he's considering a career in foreign service.
For now, he'll continue learning Arabic, speaking to Middle Eastern exchange students at CU and reading from the stack of Arabic language books he returned with, including several Harry Potter translations to work through - "really, really slowly."
[email protected] John Peel writes a weekly human-interest column.