My son came home from school on an October afternoon in 2013 and sat down at the kitchen table to have a snack. Even though he was a senior in high school, he and I still spent some time each day just catching up. (Now that he is in college, I really miss that time we used to share). That day he said, “Mom, remember I told you that I have a friend at school who is an exchange student from Ecuador?” “Yes.” “Well, the host family she is living with is not treating her right. There was a whole weekend when the family left her at home and all they left her to eat was cereal. They make her clean the house all the time and the host mom is always yelling at her. She has asked her host parents and the agency representative to talk to her parents, but they refuse to. She’s asking all the girls at our lunch table if she could come and live with their families or else she thinks she has to go home because she can’t live like this for the entire school year.”
“Then tell her that she can come here.” I responded.
Later that day I filled out paperwork that the agency representative sent me including the names of four references (none of which were ever checked by the representative). The next day I met the girl and the representative. Three days later she moved in to stay with us for the next eight months.
How could I do this you ask? How could I not? What if it was my child in a foreign country being mistreated by their host family who is also refusing to communicate with me? Okay, so yes, as my husband did inform me, I could have at least asked him first. But when I go into “mommy mode’ there is no time for asking him and I already knew two things, first that if this girl was my son’s friend, she was a good person and so I wasn’t worried about her being trouble, second, that if my husband had any misgivings, he would come around. When it comes to a child’s safety, everything else is secondary. It wasn’t like I was taking the time to decide to do this and researching which agency to use and which child to open my home to. This situation already existed and something needed to be done about it.
In the first days after she came to live with us, I sent a private message on Facebook to her previous Host Mother asking her if there was anything she thought I should know. Her response was horrific! She called the girl names and tried to justify how she treated the child by saying that she was a person who yelled at everyone and that since she couldn’t afford to hire employees to clean the house, she expected her exchange student to do it.
We spoke with her family in Ecuador on Skype to insure them that she was now safe and happy. They all had tears in their eyes, they had felt helpless and ready to give up on their daughter having the type of experience in the U.S. that they had hoped for.
At the time, I knew that I was giving her safety and a good home here in the U.S., what I didn’t know was what she would be giving me. She brought a lot of joy and life into our home and she opened my eyes to see how much we have here in America that we tend to take for granted.
She had only known the U.S. through movies, so when I took her to New York City, she wanted to see Central Park, The Plaza Hotel, and the toy store from Home Alone 2. She didn’t know Broadway, Times Square, or Rockefeller Center. Watching her face as she saw Manhattan for the first time was priceless! Christmas at our house is always the event of the year, and although she celebrates Christmas in Ecuador, it is nothing like we do here. She did not even know what a Christmas Stocking was. The first time it snowed, she saved a snowball and put it in my freezer. She wanted to bring it back to Ecuador with her. I finally had to throw out the snow ball and tell her that it would melt if she tried to bring it back. (She still reminds me, and will not forgive me, that I threw out her snow ball.) While she was here we looked into the possibility of her attending college in the U.S., but found that it was a near impossibility because financially, it is extremely expensive. There is no financial assistance to students who are not U.S. citizens. And to receive a scholarship, they not only have to perform extraordinarily well on SAT’s, they have to do it in English which is not their native language. It was hard to see her face as we exhausted all possibilities and realized that she would have to return to Ecuador to continue her education.
Our daughter, who is five years older than our son, is in a Ph.D. program at Tulane University and only comes home on vacations. In addition, we have a guest bedroom which became our exchange student’s bedroom. So when our daughter came home for the holidays, she met our exchange student for the first time. I will say that I was a little worried that she would feel like she was being replaced, but in no time, the two of them became close friends. In the spring, we found out that our daughter was going to be going to Ecuador for two months in the summer to learn Kichwa, an indigenous language, in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Of all places in the world, she was going to the home country of our exchange student!
In June, a week before her return to her country, our exchange student’s mother came for a visit and to accompany her on her trip back home. Our daughter had a few days overlap here to meet our exchange student’s mother. We had a wonderful time seeing our families blended together for that week! Later that summer, when our daughter had completed her studies in the Amazon, she spent an extra week in Ecuador at the family home of our exchange student. This time it was our daughter who was in a foreign country and she was being taken to see things that she had never seen before. Fate had brought our two separate families together. We could have lived our entire lives not knowing that the other family existed.
Since her return to Ecuador, we still keep in touch with her and her family. We hope she will come back again for another visit! Her room is waiting for her! And our daughter is going to be returning once again to Ecuador this coming summer and will probably be spending a lot of time there over the next few years since this is where her Anthropological research is centered. It’s funny how it all worked out like it was meant to me.
http://www.theresadodaro.com Author of The Tin Box Trilogy