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April 17, 2013

Speaker: Halted Afghan student exchange program offers lessons

TRAVERSE CITY — Bringing teens from Afghanistan to live here for a year is tricky.

So much so that the U.S. State Department banned Afghan students from an international exchange program in 2011 because too many defected to Canada, including two who attended school in Leland.

Many teens feared violent retribution for living in the U.S., while others wanted more opportunity.

“In Afghanistan, there is no free public education, virtually no jobs available,” said Janine Fierberg of Leland, who hosted an Afghan boy in the 2010-11 school year. “Kids are sitting on the street throwing pebbles.”

Tom Toomey, who coordinated the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study program, believes the program will make a difference, ban or not.

“There may be dark days ahead in Afghanistan, but these kids are the bright hope,” said Toomey, who worked with the teens.

Toomey will speak on the topic at Northwestern Michigan College’s International Affairs Forum lecture on Thursday at 6 p.m. in Milliken Auditorium.

The two Afghan teens were part of a robust foreign exchange program at tiny Leland High School.

“It was great for them and great for our kids,” said Principal Charlie Gann. “They got to hear what these two boys had to say. That we are not at war with Afghanistan and we’re not at war (with them). They were firsthand sources and they got to ask them questions.”

The first Afghan student arrived in the 2009-10 school year. He was from a tiny village and feared the Taliban would harm either him or family members if he returned. His host parents, who hold the teen in fond regard, did not want their names published for the same reason.

The teen escaped to Canada and now attends school. The teen’s host family later learned that many Afghan exchange students choose to defect. In 2011, only 12 of 34 exchange students returned to Afghanistan. Prior to that year, only about half, on average, returned home,Toomey said.

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