Saying goodbye to a child is tough under any circumstance and families are doing it now across the country. It’s an event seldom noted as when a youngster goes away to college, gets married or leaves home for other reasons.
Foreign exchange students began closing out their times in the United States in June as they traveled to make connections to go home. In many of these cases, the parents will never again see this child. The emotion is just as high as any other parent-child separation and that may be the one thing not realized by its participants when they begin.
Students leave in their wakes families who’ve housed them and cared for them over the past year as they adopted the teenagers into their hearts and into their family lives. The young people take with them new knowledge and new understandings of a world that goes beyond their own hometowns, wherever on the globe they may be.
One such student came from Karachi, Pakistan, in August to spend a year as a Van Alstyne High School senior and a fifth daughter of the Servati family of Van Alstyne. Before arriving on U.S. soil, Rida Noor Khan, 16 and measuring 4 foot 7 inches, had never been out of her home city, estimated population exceeding 21 million.
Since Karachi is widely considered to be a major hub of the Muslim world, it’s no surprise that Rida’s foreign exchange experience was her first time to be around Christian people. Not only did she come to an area where the people she would meet would be primarily Christian, her host father is a minister with Van Alstyne’s First Baptist Church. It’s a brave child who strikes out on her own to participate in a program halfway around the world from everything familiar to her.
“I loved going to church,” Rida said of her time in Van Alstyne. After attending Disciple Now, a program where the youth of the church stay in host homes together for a weekend, Griff Servati remarked that Rida told him the experience made her want to be closer to God. He was simply remarking on the irony of a Muslim girl finding the desire to be better in her faith at a Christian event.
For the Servati family, Rida’s arrival was the beginning of a journey of learning about a foreign culture, and of falling in love with a child from another country for the second time. The year before, they hosted a child from Thailand whose faith was Buddhism — JaJa Tirasawatdichai from Sakon Nakhon, Thailand.
Before leaving last week, Rida shared some of her impressions of her U.S. experience and a little about her life in Pakistan. She said she and her family — mother, sister and brother — live in an apartment in Karachi. Rolling electricity blackouts are common and average around three hours in length. She remembers one particular time when electricity was off an extended time. She said there were no lights and it was so hot with no air conditioning that the family couldn’t sleep.
One of her biggest disappointments is she didn’t get to experience snow while she lived in Texas. She was able to see snow falling one night, she said, but the temperatures were not low enough that the snow lasted. “I was hoping that in the morning it would be white,” Rida said. “In Pakistan it snows in other cities, but not where I am. I’ve only seen snow on television.”
When asked if she sees herself as a different person today from when she left Pakistan, her reply was “Yes. I speak so much, I am so outgoing. I have really matured, because I have been here a year and have done so many things. I think people are expecting me to be the same girl who left when I come back (to Pakistan).”
Rida’s host parents Griff and Kristi agree. She was very shy when they met her and took her home, and she’s much more outgoing now.
“I have wondered how my family will handle that (the change),” Rida said. “But I think they will like the new Rida.
“When I came (to the U.S.) I started counting the days left before I could go home, and then I started thinking how there is only so long left.”
A couple of major differences she points out between her culture at home and the culture here is the divorce rate. She said hearing of a divorce in Pakistan is rare and teenagers don’t really date in Pakistan. Showing public affection between a boy and a girl would not be acceptable in her home country where often marriages are arranged.
She said her parents had a love marriage, meaning it was not arranged. She said her father’s family wanted him to have an arranged marriage, so they married in secret and it took a while for his family to accept the marriage, but they did. She said her mother will approve either situation for her children. She wants them to be happy.
“My dad died when I was in 5th grade, so I have my sister, 18, and brother, 16,” Rida said. “And I see my mom doing so many things for the three of us like crazy. She is giving us everything we need, everything we want. And she is going to send me to a private college because the government colleges are not as good. She wants to pay for me and my sister.” Rida said her mother will have to pay for everything, because unlike here where teens are able to work different places to help with expenses, that is not done in Pakistan.
Rida’s program is the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study (YES) Program. The program’s website states it provides scholarships to high school students from countries with significant Muslim populations to spend up to one academic year in the United States.
She said there were four students from her school who applied to enter the program but she was the only one selected. Also, there were none selected from her home school this year, and she was hoping there would be several. Leaving Van Alstyne, Rida said goodbye not only to her host family and U.S. friends but also to other exchange students who lived with host families in Van Alstyne. Among them were friends from Thailand, Germany and Finland.
This was her first time to ever be around people from a different country. “I have never traveled,” she said. “Now, I have made so much good friends.” These friendships she intends to maintain and is already hoping to see them at home. She’s also now communicating with the Servati’s previous exchange student daughter and hopes to meet her as well.
When the foreign exchange program was presented at Rida’s school (Stanmore Public School) in Pakistan she said she didn’t think about entering. “I did not want to come here,” she said. “The whole thing I did for my mom because I wasn’t into it at all. I didn’t want to do this. I seriously was not into coming here. I thought if she wants me to do this I need to do it.” It appears that mother knows best because all who have come to know Rida in the past year, including Rida, agree she has flourished.
It’s not just Rida who’s changed in the past year. The Servati children have learned much about Muslim people and the Pakistani culture while accepting a new family member into their hearts. The four girls, ages 14, 11, 7 and 5, have had a big sister whose native language was not English.
The youngest, Kailan, was thinking about the structure of her family not long ago. Raigan, the oldest, and Jaidan, the 7 year old, are blonde like Kailan and their mom. Kerrigan, the second of the Servati children, has brown hair like her dad. Kailan reasoned that she, Jaidan and Raigan are from the Norton (Kristi’s maiden name) side of the family while Kerrigan and Rida, with dark hair, are from the Servati side of the family.
Kailan said she loved that Rida would let her “do her (Rida’s) hair.” Kerrigan said she loved being able to ask questions about Rida’s culture and her country. Raigan said she appreciated that Rida always went to watch her play sports. “I was very proud of Rida for trying a sport that she had never seen.” Rida played high school softball with the Lady Panthers. Raigan and Rida laughed together about the first practices and pain from workouts.
Jaidan also has special memories with Rida. She mentioned that they did “girl stuff” together, like fixing hair, painting nails and especially when Rida did henna designs on Jaidan’s hands.
Host home opportunities:
Griff Servati said he will be a coordinator for Youth For Understanding next year. There are more than 100 organizations but the key is to find groups with local organizations that support and linkup for recreational activities and mandatory orientations. The national site to help find an organization is www.csiet.org.
Servati said the YFU is using the FBC Family Life Center for their large group orientations, making it much easier for students and families in the Grayson County area.
For any who may be considering providing a host home in North Texas, Servati says he can help answer questions and steer through the maze of uncertainties. Send an email to him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Since Rida left Van Alstyne, one of her Pakistani friends wrote the following on her Facebook page: “heyy Rida i just read your wall :) i didn’t expect the foreign people to be this much kind and loving, thanks to all those who took care of you, loved you and most probably made your journey memorable one, am glad that you met such great people :)
P.S: i am proud of you, though you are small but you did big things which none of us could do.”
This note may demonstrate the best reason to support a foreign exchange program.