INTERCULTRUAL EXPERIENCE FOR FOREIGN EXCHANGE STUDENTS TURNS INTO ABUSE, TERROR AND SOMETIMES EVEN DEATH
It started out as an adventure. Lara, a 16 year old German Student had been saving her money since she was 12 years old, working odd jobs and making excellent grades in school so that she could take a year off and spend it in America. She wanted the International Cultural Experience that the F.I.T. Organization promised her in the brochures. Her family had read the brochure and felt that it was a safe and well structured organization. But, Lara's arrival into the United States was far from the brick home she had seen photographs of, nor were there smiling and friendly faces meeting her at the airport. Lara arrived in the United States at the Columbia Metropolitan Airport in early August. Tired, but still very excited about meeting her new host family, she couldn't wait to get off the plane and finally meet the people she had spoken to on the phone those few times and see the home she would be living in for a year, while she went to high school here in SC.
As Lara got off the plane, she was expecting to be greeted by her host mother Pam F. Instead, she was met by Pam's older daughter and her younger sibling. She was not greeted with a lot of kindess but with indifference. They loaded up her luggage in their small car and Lara was on her way at last to see her new home. As they pulled around the corner into a neighborhood that Lara thought they must live in, they pulled up in front of a very large and beautiful brick home. Sitting in the back seat, Lara did not see the faces of the two girls right away, but heard their laughter first. As they began laughing louder, the oldest daughter looked at Lara with a smirk on her face and stated "betcha thought you would get to live here didn't ya"? Lara, not sure what they were referring too, innocently asked, "this is not where we live"? The girls laughed out loud again and said "yeah right" and drove on down the road. They made a few turns and then came to a small trailer park, something that Lara had never seen before. In Germany, as they don't have mobile homes. They pulled in front of a small single wide trailer that was occupied by Pam, her two daughters, 20 and 11 years old and one other host student named Maja.
Surprised and confused, Lara entered the home which had only 3 small rooms, a den and 2 small baths. But only 1 for her and the other 3 girls to share. Not really understanding how she ended up in this single wide trailer with so many people crammed inside, she tried to adjust to her current situation. Having met Maja, she was a little more relieved to know that there was at least another student there with her. She decided to give it a few days and learn to acclimate herself to her new surroundings. After all, she had been saving for this trip since she was 12 and her parents too had provided her with a lot of funding for her trip to the U.S.
It's been over a week since Lara arrived into America. It took a very short time for Lara and Maja to become friends. They both had a lot in common. They enjoyed, laughing, singing, dancing and just talking among each other about their expectations for the time they had planned to spend in America. School started in less than two weeks and they both were very excited to start high school and make new American friends. Both girls came from very good homes. Lara from Germany and Maja from Poland. Both families had working parents, siblings and nice homes. Their new living arrangements were a lot less than what they had been use to living in.
At first, Lara was made to stay in the room with the 11 year old girl. Later, Lara and Maja began sharing a room. There was a small bed and a air matress. The room was very small. The home was not clean and had minimal amounts of food. There were roaches crawling in the shower, in their rooms and on the counters in the kitchen. They also had never seen palmetto bugs, until they arrived in SC and were very surprised to find them in the home they were staying at.
Pam was gone at night for work and her daughter finally moved next door into a place of her own. The girls were often left at night alone and made to baby sit the 11 year old daughter while the host mother worked the night shift. They were also never supplied with emergency numbers, given 911 information, so had there been an accident, the girls would have had no way to contact someone for assistance.
After the girls began going to school, they were made to ride the school bus. They were not allowed to have friends come home from school and over to Pam's house to visit them, nor were they allowed to leave the trailer and go to other friends home. They were not allowed to go shopping or to any stores, aside from the local Walmart, when Pam needed to go for groceries. To that end, the girls were made to wash clothes for the family, clean the home, cook the dinners, babysit the 11 year old and only allowed to call home for 15 minutes once a week and that was done in the presence of the host mother so that nothing negative could be said to their families to inform them of their living conditions. It seemed like this was going to be a very long 9 months in America.
It's now been over 3 weeks and things are now getting worse. The host mother is rude and uncaring. The Area Representative Tony was dating the host mother Pam, so there was no one that they could go to for support or help. They were told that if they complained, they would be sent home and their J-1 Visa revoked.
Maja, had finally had enough of her environment, and the way she was treated. She first called the Operations Manager of this program, Joy to find her a new host family. Joy kept pushing Maja off and telling her that there were "no other families for her" and later threatened that she" must go home if they could not locate a new family for her". She was also labeled a "trouble maker" and "dramatic".
After several days of trying to get the organization to assist her and move her to a cleaner and safer environment, Maja decided to take initiative and began taking photographs of her environment and forwarding them on to her parents in Poland. After receiving the photographs, the parents immediately contacted One World and then F.I.T. to request that she be removed from the current host family. Having no other option but to respond at this point, Joy then went to pick up Maja from her current host family. However, knowing exactly what kind of environment she was in, they left Lara behind to fend for herself. Maja was taken home with Joy for a few days. Maja describes walking into her home. It was large, spacious, and she was certainly making a very good living from her job with F.I.T. What Maja was not aware of was that Joy had been contacting other Area Representatives to try and get Maja placed because she did not want her in her home.
Finally she called an Area Rep in Lexington SC whom after much begging and threats of sending Maja home without the option of being allowed to complete her already paid for exchange experience, the Area Rep agreed to bring Maja into her home to live with her and another exchange student from Germany that she was already hosting. According to the Area Representative, they met her halfway between NC and SC. She literally pulled up, put Majas things into the Reps vehicle along with Maja and then left with little to no words.
Imagine how Maja must have been feeling during this whole transition. The Area Representative was kind and Maja and her new roommate Anna were introduced. Maja was very excited about her new host family. They had a beautiful home, she was able to remain at the same high school she had already been attending and things were finally the way they were meant to be.
Lara however was still in the trailer park with her first host family. By now they had begun charging her 60.00 a month to use a cell phone they were only paying 10.00 a month for. When Lara bought food for herself to eat by the time she came home from school, they had already eaten it. Things had gotten to the point that Lara started buying raw carrots to eat, because no one would eat them and she would have something of her own to eat without having to ask permission to get food or drink from the host family. The Area Rep was not allowed to have more than 2 students in her home at once. She wanted to move Lara, but was unable to because of the rule.
Lara and Maja remained in contact at school, but Lara's host mother Pam refused to allow Lara to have contact with Maja by phone any longer, claiming that Maja was a "trouble maker". Lara was now left alone to do all the chores by herself, cook, clean, wash clothes and babysit at night, all while trying to maintain her academics. She was still not allowed to have friends, nor was she allowed to participate in any school events, and was only allowed to call her parents 15 minutes per week. The phone calls had to be made in the presence of the host parent so she was to afraid to say anything about her situation to her parents. In Germany, her parents thought everything was fine where their daughter was staying. Because of the restraints put on Lara's communication and having to be in front of the host parent, she could not request to leave. Lara did make a call to the same Operations Manager Joy whom did nothing to remove her from her current situation.
A Way Out
Things were progressively getting worse for Lara. Since her and Maja communicated at school. Lara relayed events that were happening to Maja whom in turn told her new host family and Area Rep.
The Area Representative that hosted Maja was very worried about leaving Lara in those conditions. Since she could not have a 3rd student residing in her home, she began trying to locate a new family for Lara as well. Which is how I became involved in the equation. On October 10, 2009, I received a phone call late in the evening from my father whom is a 76 year old Respiratory Therapist. He was approached by the Area Representative whom happened to be a nurse at the same hospital. Since she had worked with my dad for years and knew that him and my mother had raised all their children and lived in a home with extra rooms, she explained the plight of Lara and asked if he would consider taking Lara in. Unfortunately, my mother was out of town dealing with sick relatives and they were unable to take Lara in. But, my Dad decided to call me to see what could be done to help this student. I was going through training as a Guardian Ad Litem for abused and neglected children at the time, and my dad thought there might be some kind of law out there that would protect her.
After talking at length with my dad and realizing that I could not help her legally, the only thing I could do was offer to be her host mom and try to fix and already tainted experience to America. We had a quick family meeting with my husband and two sons. Having two sons meant that one of them would have to give up their bedroom for almost a year so that Lara could have her privacy. My 18 year old son Stephen stepped up immediately and offered to sleep on the sofa downstairs. With that said, rules in place on behavior because they had never had a little sister, we offered to bring Lara home.
It's now Sunday, October 11th. I went through a whirlwind application process that took only an hour to get my family approved as a host family. The Area Representative came by to meet us first and brought Maja and Ana the other German Exchange Student. They looked around our home and looked into Lara's new room which we had already changed to make it appear a bit more girl friendly. Later in the evening around 4:00pm, they all arrived back to our home and this time with Lara in tow. We all went outside to greet her and the boys immediately went to get her luggage. Lara however jumped out of the car and started hugging all of us immediately. It took 5 minutes with her to realize that she was going to be a natural fit for our family. When she came into the house her eyes teared up. The girls all went upstairs to look at Lara's room and get her settled, the whole time with tears in Lara's eyes.
After a short tour of the house, we made our way to the kitchen. We are a family that loves fruit. So, in the middle of our kitchen on an island was a very large basket full of apples and oranges. Lara saw the fruit and started crying again. I had also made her a gift basket with girly items and toiletries so when she was given that, the tears came again. I was a little surprised so we sat down and I asked if everything was OK. Lara smiled and said "oh yes, these are tears of joy". We hugged and then went off to her room to make sure she had everything she needed to get her prepared for school the next morning. We later went to the grocery store together to find things that she would like to eat and I purchased some bright pink Tupperware for her to put things in that she bought herself so that no one would eat her special snacks.
It took a few days, but Lara finally began settling down in our home and was an instant part of our family. She won our hearts immediately and it was nothing short of wonderful from that day on. I could not have hand picked a child that was as close to a real daughter if I wanted to. We shopped, we cooked, we decorated, we made fun of the boys and interrupted them when they were watching sports just to see them turn 3 shades of red. Then we would all laugh. We watched movies as a family, sat out on the deck at night and had our girly chats. She joined school functions like dance, hung out with the tennis team, went to Clemson baseball and basketball games with us. She went on vacation to Florida with us. We also visited Charleston for Memorial day, had a great Christmas, a birthday party for her 17th birthday and many more special occasion's.
We added a Vonage phone line so that she could call her Mom and Dad everyday, as many times as she liked. She spent early mornings on the weekends talking to all of her friends in Germany and I gave her a cell phone from our plan that she used to text her friends at school and talk to them. Lara had friends stay the night with her and she was allowed to stay the night over at her friends house once I met them and they met my approval. She was treated no different than my own children.
We did an interview with Jodi Barr from WISTV to expose F.I.T. and the first host parent for placing her and Maja in danger and using them like they were nannies and maids and we even were able to work with our State Senator Jake Knotts, and the US Department of State to hold F.I.T. accountable for their actions and have their designation revoked indefinately. They were no longer allowed to recruit highschool students and bring them into the United States.
To this day, Lara and I still skype so we can see each other. She also talks to the boys and my husband. Since I did not want to disrespect her mother, and Lara did not always want to call me by my first name, we decided to nick name me "hommy". I was her "host mommy". I believe there is a reason that everything happens. I know that we were destined to meet and be a part of each others lives and we are both better for it. Lara plans to come back to SC to spend the summer with us next year and my oldest son Chris and I plan to fly to Germany in February of 2011 to visit Lara and her family.
Foreign Exchange Students are not being protected like they should be. These children and their families spend thousands of dollars for this experience. They expect that their children are guaranteed respect, safety and a genuine cultural experience. There are approximately 33,000 children a year that come to the United States in a Foreign Exchange program. 1 out of every 3 students are either raped, used as maids or nannies, placed in the homes of criminals, are malnourished, and sometimes their experience has been fatal. These children deserve to be protected and given the same respect and safety as every American child. They may be from a different country, but they are still someones child, sister and grandchild.
We are striving to change the laws and require a more thorough background check on all host families that include a national criminal check, not just a local background and that will require a DSS registry check to see if the family has ever had there own children reported for abuse or neglect in the past. Home inspections need to be done randomly to verify who occupies the home on a full-time basis. Just because a host family tells them someone doesn't live there, doesn't mean that they don't. Meaning a pedophile, or criminal could reside there, but wasn't there the day the home study was done. There are to many loop holes when it comes to the criteria used to approve families as well as Area Directors.
If you agree with what you have read here and would like to be a part of helping us change the law to make our Country a more secure place for students to visit and learn of our culture, please sign our electronic petition at www.ipetitions.com/petition/s_a_f_e_s
Thank you for taking the time to read about these wonderful young women. They are remarkable and they make quite a contribution in the lives of the people they meet. Lara will forever be a part of our family and in our hearts.
On a side note: I just received another phone call regarding abuse of a child in Florence, SC. Prior to this child being placed with this family, they had to remove another student from the same home in 2009 for neglect. Yet, the Agency and Area Representative placed another student in harms way, knowing they already had removed a child from an unsafe enviornment. This family has had their own child removed from their home for neglect. Makes you wonder why they would have ever been approved to care for another families child.
PLEASE, PLEASE SIGN THE PETITION AND HELP US CREATE A LAW THAT WILL PREVENT THIS IN THE FUTURE.