Four foreign students who visited Westhill High School earlier this week started out as strangers to their audience. But after telling their stories of survival and triumph, the similarities they had with Westhill students seemed to overshadow the differences. At least Zac Krowitz thought so.

“I wish more students could have heard them,” said Zac, a senior. He was among students in five Westhill classes Monday who listened to Ethiopian- and Sudanese-born Israelis relay how they left their birth countries and reestablished themselves in their adopted home. The speakers, all college students in Israel, were on a two-week tour as representatives of Israel at Heart.

The Israelis touched on subjects such as the country’s Army and other government service, the drive to excel academically, and popular culture. “Justin Bieber will be [performing] in Israel in two weeks,” noted Dina Lakao, to the surprise and delight of Westhill students. Lakao wore a single dreadlock entwined in her otherwise loosely styled hair – one of the latest fashion statements in Israel, she said.

Israel at Heart is an independent nonprofit that sends university students on speaking tours to discuss their lives and experiences. In the case of the group that spoke in Stamford Monday, those experiences include Israel’s multicultural, multilingual aspects.

Lakao told how her Ethiopian Jewish family escaped religious oppression by journeying on foot to Israel. Along the way, the family stayed in Sudanese refugee camps. “They were horrible, with diseases,” said Lakao, adding that many died in the camps.

Ruth Metaferya’s family risked lying to Ethiopian authorities, carrying fake papers indicating they were going to the U.S. Instead, they changed planes many times while actually heading for Israel.

Adam Bashar escaped Sudanese genocide in 2002, but had to leave family behind. “This is a difficult situation that is still continuing in Sudan,” he said. “It is a radical government.”

As an Ethiopian child growing up in Israel, Shlomit Berhanu experienced frustrations, including culture shock. However, “This whole experience helped us to build our personality and our identity,” she said.

“This was a unique experience,” said Zac. He was especially enlightened about “the different routes taken from North Africa to Israel,” he said. “I think this is better than being in a classroom.”

What do you think of the opportunity Westhill students had to hear from the Israeli college students? What would you ask if you had the chance?