Thursday, March 6, 2008

When exchanges don't go so well

There are all sorts of temporary foreign exchange programs going on all over the world, ranging from "let's be a tourist for a month and see Disneyland" programs to full school-year programs in which the exchange student enrolls in a local school and has a local experience.

My occasional references to the "Eurodaughters" is related to three European students who have each spent a year in our home. Although two of the students have not met each other, they share a general bond as Europeans who have spent a year in America, and a specific bond in having to put up with me for a year.

So naturally I'm interested in these exchange student stories, and the story of Jonathan McCullum certainly caught my eye. Here's how Fox News reported it - you decide.

Jonathan McCullum was in perfect health at 155 pounds when he left last summer to spend the school year as an exchange student in Egypt.

But when he returned home to Maine just four months later, the 5-foot-9 teenager weighed a mere 97 pounds and was so weak that he struggled to carry his baggage or climb a flight of stairs....

McCullum says he was denied sufficient food while staying with a family of Coptic Christians, who fast for more than 200 days a year....

But he does not view the experience as a culture clash. Rather, he said, it reflected mean and stingy treatment by his host family, whose broken English made it difficult to communicate....

Friends and teachers at his English-speaking school in Egypt urged him to change his host family, but he stayed put after being told the other home was in a dangerous neighborhood of Alexandria.

After returning to the U.S., he was hospitalized for nearly two weeks. The 17-year-old has regained about 20 pounds....

In response, AFS said...well, they didn't say much:

Marlene Baker, communications director at AFS headquarters in New York, declined to discuss McCullum's experience. She referred calls to the program's lawyer in Portland, Patricia Peard, who said she could not comment on McCullum's case because of the potential for a lawsuit.

But the host family said plenty:

The host father, Shaker Hanna, rejected McCullum's story as "a lie," suggesting that he made it up because his parents were hoping to recover some of the money they paid for his stay as compensation.

"The truth is, the boy we hosted for nearly six months was eating for an hour and a half at every meal. The amount of food he ate at each meal was equal to six people," Hanna said. He added that the boy was active, constantly exercising and playing sports.

Hanna, an engineer, said his family went out of its way to prepare special foods, including fish and chicken, for McCullum during the fast periods.

I first heard about the story on Twitter when Andrew Badera tweeted it on February 28:

wow; Coptic Christian host family starves exchange student:

05:57 PM February 28, 2008 from web

My initial reaction when I read this story was as follows:

@andrewbadera afs should have had field people in egypt to take charge. however, problem is lack of host families.

03:16 PM February 28, 2008 from web in reply to AndrewBadera

And, AFS subsequently made a statement in an ABC News article.

"This situation is unique," Margaret Crotty, director of AFS Intercultural programs, told "Good Morning America." "It's not the norm." Crotty also insisted that student safety is always the organization's first priority. AFS USA, founded 60 years ago, organizes abroad programs in 40 countries.

However, is AFS is organized anything like YFU, McCullum was the responsibility of AFS Egypt, not AFS USA, during its stay.

Huliq has a number of comments on the story:

You did a great job writing this story and telling the true facts, of Copts!
The boy clearly could have told his parents but WANTED to stay and complete the year.
You can go out and get Mcdonalds and Pizzahut for about $2 American Dolars.
I don't think he was saying the truth....or has mental issues.
I hope he has fun as he states he is going to south Africa next!

I saw this boy's photos on the Web -- it was clear he was starved. Bones and all, quite a shockingly different photo than months earlier. The Coptic family might be observant, but something else was going on. I wouldn't put them in the same category as perhaps typical fasters or Coptics. In the press, the father of the Coptic family made statements about the boy costing them a lot of money and that they didn't think their daughter (who was in the U.S. in the exchange program) was costing her family as much as the boy (which sounds delusional). And when they heard that the boy's family was upset, they said that the family just wanted their money back. Sounds like a single-track mind, right ... $$$? I'm sure Coptics are generous, but this particular family wasn't. I find it odd that they participated in the program at all. Very strange indeed.
I was an AFS exchange student and I can safely say that AFS has a very sophisticated support system. The simplest thing that this kid could have done is tell someone about it, and AFS would have acted.
Plus seriously, he was hosted in Alexandria, the second largest city in Egypt. The easiest thing he could have done is go out there and buy some food. I can't believe that a straight A student with parents as lawyers doesn't have the inelligence and money to go out and by a bigmac or something. What an idiot. I think they just want money out of it.

I really hope that AFS does not get too much bad publicity. I was an AFS student and it really changed my life upside down. Such a priceless experience.
Ok, I was an AFS volunteer in Egypt When i Lived their and AFS laws doesn’t force their students to stay in a specific family and they allow you to change your family if you don’t like your family or if you where badly treated and this is not done by AFS Egypt only but this is an International AFS Law, which my brother changed his family during his year program in the USA. and McCullum could have asked AFS Egypt to change his family because they don’t offer him food, which i think they would do in the same day if they had evidence and buying food in Alexandria is the easiest thing you can do and you can also buy all kind of food their. what i think is that McCullum is not saying the truth, also Egyptians are very kind people and most of the people visited can feel this and that means if your family don’t offer you food you can eat at your friends home. and the funny thing is that no one starves in Alexandria or all Egypt even poor people. and i think if i were hosted in poor African Countries by a poor family which doesn’t offer me food i can still eat and not starve.
McCullum: you should say the truth.

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