I call her my borrowed Russian daughter (Diana), and I call them my daughter’s Swedish parents (Mats & Carina). All part of our extended global family thanks to AFS & their high school exchange student program.
Our larger world experience is all because of Annie and her passion for language & cultural experience. As a freshman in high school she decided she wanted to be an exchange student during her high school junior year. She knew which program she wanted and which country she wanted. She prepared a detailed presentation complete with a folder of pertinent information that parents would need to know when considering the whole exchange student situation. Or shall I say that she made 2 folders – one for me and one for her dad. (She must have been paying attention when I told her to never go into a meeting or situation unprepared to answer whatever follow-up questions there may be – because she was wickedly prepared for her exchange student presentation to the parents.) So what could I do? When the time came the next year to decide if I’d support her application my answer was yes. I was going to be an AFS parent – sending a child to Sweden.
But Annie wasn’t finished there. She wanted us to host an AFS student during her sophomore year. Our local chapter had copies of the applications of all the students who would be placed in our area the following year, and we could review them and see if we thought any of them would be a good fit for our family. (Although – truthfully – Annie had already reviewed them and made a selection before I saw any of them). So we talked about it as a family and decided to be a host family. Diana – a beautiful young girl from Kazan, Russia would be living with us for 10 months, part of AFS because of a State Department scholarship program called FLEX which is for students from the countries of the former Soviet Union. I knew we would learn a lot from her, and I knew Annie would learn a lot by going to Sweden.
When Diana lived with us she would often say how grateful her parents were that she was with our family. I didn’t really get it – what could be the big deal? She was part of our family now and we treated her that way. She was my third daughter and fourth child for that year. Sometimes I annoyed her just like I did my own children, and sometimes we argued when she changed her plans and didn’t let me know. But still she would tell me that her parents were so happy that she was with us and I didn’t give it a second thought. I didn’t really get it until the next year when I became the parent at home with a missing child living in a stranger’s family half the way around the world.
You give up your parental control and power for 10 months while your minor child lives in another country with no friends or family near – with a family you don’t know at all – who are all complete strangers – and it doesn’t do any good for you to Google them to find out more. You don’t get to decide what their curfew is or go to parent teacher conferences. You don’t know much about their culture and what kind of freedoms teenagers may have that you wouldn’t be comfortable with. You don’t get to know if they are spending the night at a friend’s house – because unlike when they are in your home there will be no call to the other parent to find out if they’re actually home for the weekend. All of those parental things are done by someone else. Someone who is a complete stranger. OK. So now I get it. How grateful you are when your child is on another continent with a family that has turned out to be kind and loving and accepts your child as their own. Now I understand that Diana’s parents feel the same way towards me that I feel toward Mats & Carina. I am grateful beyond words. They and their wonderful, loving extended family gave my daughter a real home during her year in Sweden and continue to be a part of her life – and by extension – our entire family.
Fast forward. This summer Caroline (my oldest) and I visited with Diana’s family in Russia. A remarkable trip we would never had experienced if it wasn’t for AFS. I don’t speak Russian, and Diana’s family (with the exception of her brother Bulat who is studying English) doesn’t speak any English, so we didn’t get to have a lot of conversation. But some things don’t require words. The way that we hugged hello and goodbye said everything that needed to be said. In those hugs from her parents and grandparents I felt their gratitude that we had loved and cared for their daughter, and I was so grateful that they were generous enough to lend her to us for a year. I felt it in their hugs and the way they smiled at me. I felt it when they made their special occasion dishes for dinner and send me home with their favorite Russian snacks and vodka. Didn’t need words to understand that. Same way I feel about Mats & Carina – Annie’s Swedish parents. Forever part of our family – all of them.
I’ll write more about my experience in Russia – but wanted to start out by introducing you to our AFS experience. And encourage you to consider hosting an exchange student in your home. It’s an invaluable experience that will enrich your family in ways that nothing else can. School is just starting and I’d bet there are still students in need of host families in your area. Check it out - AFS can be contacted here.
Your child interested in going abroad? Here's my parent's perspective Q & A's that I wrote while Annie was in Sweden: