Giving Back | Travel

Doing Good: Experience Another Culture Without Leaving Home

FIUTS students during a homestay

For the past two years, my family and I have hosted students from Abode, an organization that places international students in homestays in the Puget Sound area. This year, Shiori Usui, 20, came to us from Yokohama, Japan, another port city like Seattle just south of Tokyo. She attends the University of Washington through an exchange program with Waseda University in Tokyo.

From the very beginning, Shiori became an instant member of our family. She comes with us on almost all of our outings, when she is not busy studying for an exam or writing a paper. We’ve taken her to Seattle Center, roller skating, to our CSA farm to pick pumpkins, trick-or-treating for Halloween, to my children’s music recitals, and to Port Angeles for the Thanksgiving weekend.

Shiori had never experienced Halloween before but demonstrated excellent artistic skills with costume makeup. And she is learning new things all the time. She told me she realized it was not necessary to leave the bathroom door closed all the time!

For us, having a foreign homestay guest is wonderful exposure to another country and culture, and by the same token, the exchange is a way for Shiori to experience what it is like being away from home and learn about U.S. customs.

Last month, the Foundation for International Understanding Through Students (FIUTS), hosted students from Bosnia and Herzegovina for a five-week youth leadership program. As part of this program, the students stayed with families in the Seattle area.

I had the opportunity to meet three dynamos from Sarajevo: Emina Hadžimuhamedović, 15; Lejla-Nur Smajović, 16; and Harun Ćehović, 15. (Please don’t ask me how to pronounce their names.)

They were very eager to chat with me about their impressions of America and what they have learned. I was impressed by their maturity and optimism about the future of their country. And while talking to them, I remembered what it was like to be that age, on my own for the first time.

Just like them, at age 16 I went abroad for three weeks as part of a high school exchange program and lived with a French family outside of Paris. I wanted to learn more French and see another part of the world. This experience did wonders for my self-confidence; it was the first time I realized I could be independent from my family and still survive.

I was terrified at the possibility of not being able to understand a word of French, even though I had been studying the language for five years. Point of fact: I am a lip-reader as a result of a profound hearing loss and depend almost entirely on lip-reading for comprehension. So lip-reading French was not quite my forte — I could speak it passably, although with a terrible accent.

But this was one instance where I surprised myself: Within the first 24 hours I found I didn’t need my pads of paper to communicate — all you really need, I learned, is a little humor and lots of gestures.

The students from Bosnia had pressing reasons for coming to the U.S:

Emina: “I wanted to improve my communication skills, learn about U.S. democracy, and diversity.”

Lejla-Nur: “Bosnia needs leaders and needs someone to change the course of its history.”

Harun: “I want to learn about different projects in the community and I already have plans to do some projects back home and make some changes.”

FIUTS kept the students busy with community service projects, workshops, visits to high schools, and activities with their host families. “The students get to see a wide cross-section of American culture,” explained Ellen Frierson, FIUTS manager of Community Programs.

The students went to a food bank to learn about community service, where they helped package 1000 pounds of food.  This activity had a big impact on them — never before had they seen such poverty up close..

“In Bosnia, there are a lot of hungry people, and we don’t have food banks,” said Lejla-Nur. “Americans have the same problems as Bosnians, but we are not solving the problems in the way we should be,” she said.

Their visit to the Seattle City Council, where they learned about networking and writing grants, galvanized them. “Youth don’t have a voice in Bosnia. [City Councilmember] Sally Clark showed us we can have a voice,” said Lejla-Nur.

As part of their leadership program, the students are required to write one blog post. Their posts were thoughtful and moving. Here are some excerpts:

“I think we should not judge people by their age. No matter how young you are — if you are wise and if you have a good idea you can make the difference. You need to know that your voice matters!” — Harun Ćehović

“I find that many people in Bosnia, especially after the recent war, continue to deny the history of the Balkans. Hiding the violence and not learning from the mistakes could just lead to further problems, such as the repetition of history. Also, acknowledgment of the pain that people have been through can help them overcome their pain and do good to the community. If history is part of our culture, it means it is part of every individual, and how can we grow as individuals if we are not willing to learn from our own mistakes?” — Emina Hadžimuhamedović

“Never in my life before have I thought of the ability of cultural background [race, language, ethnicity] to define who we are in society … suddenly a whole bunch of things that we thought are not important about us … become important in shaping and governing our views and perspectives of others. So this really got me thinking… should I embrace it [my assumptions] or work on overcoming this perspective? Is it even fair to do so? What is the right perspective or does it even exist?” — Lejla-Nur Smajović

The other perspective: homestay host

Marion Vokey and her husband, Scott, were homestay hosts for two students from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Lana Kurtagic, 15, and Nikolina Samardzija, 17, both from Sarajevo.

Before the girls arrived, the Vokeys didn’t know much about Bosnia, and what little they knew were misconceptions, which the girls were quickly able to dispel. In turn, the Vokeys were able to show them what life is like here in Seattle.

“At dinner we'd talk about their day [at the University of Washington], listening to their perceptions on a range of topics ... they couldn't believe that a Seattle city bus would stop to assist in boarding a person in a wheelchair … that traffic lights at crosswalks had a sound signal to alert the blind when to cross safely… that our state allows same-sex marriage… how much American high school students are allowed to talk in their classes,” said Marion Vokey.

Lana and Nikolina couldn’t be more different from one another. One is Muslim and comes from a wealthy family, and the other, a Serbian Orthodox, comes from a more modest background.

“The girls were remarkable in their ability to negotiate their differences and work together,” said Marion Vokey. And in spite of their differences, she said they both loved to shop and knew the words to many American pop songs.

“I was struck by the pride these young people have for their country. These students, all born post-war, were filled with optimism. But with young leaders like these… who cherish the vision of a multi-ethnic society living together peacefully, I have no doubt that the future for Bosnia is bright,” she said.

No matter what, being a homestay host or a visitor to another country are important ways for anyone to learn what life is really like in that country.

2171Elizabeth Ralston is a writer with a public health background. She writes about topics on philanthropy, including profiles of inspiring people and organizations on her blog, The Inspired Philanthropist . When she is not writing, she enjoys spending time in the great outdoors with her family. You can follow her on Twitter.

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