Traverse City Record-Eagle

April 17, 2013

Speaker: Halted Afghan student exchange program offers lessons

Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — 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.

“It was very stressful for this family,” said Pam Woolcott, the exchange program’s local coordinator. “And afterward, I began to learn more about it and saw there was a networking system to Canada. He apologized later for not telling me he was going. And I wrote him back ... ‘I accept where you are, and I wish you all the best.’”

Vive La Casa, a nonprofit that shelters international refugees in Buffalo near the U.S.-Canadian border, helped the teen,Toomey said.

In the next school year, Fierberg’s host son — Sayed “Mahmood” Langari — planned to return to Kabul because he wanted his younger brother to follow in his footsteps. But he opted for Canada when the State Department ended the exchange program for Afghanis, Fierberg said.

Langari’s father adamantly agreed that Afghanistan held no future for his son and urged him to go to Canada. So the Fierbergs put Langari on the plane to Buffalo.

“It broke our contract, but I wanted to be true to my morals,” Fierberg said.

Toomey since created a new opportunity for Afghan students called the Youth Solidarity English Language Program with funding from from the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. Like the YES program, it is administered by the American Councils for International Education.

Afghan teens will spend a month in India, formerly used as a stepping stone to America to develop English and leadership skills. But now the exchange will end there, Toomey said.

Despite the program’s difficulties, the Afghan teens made a very positive impression of themselves, Woolcott said.

Toomey will talk about the 300 or so Afghan students who went through the YES program since 2003. Many, including women, attended U.S. colleges. Only one returned to Afghanistan after completing a degree, but he’s a “dynamo of ideas” and involved in many different construction projects, Toomey said.

Toomey said many Afghans want to go home when it’s safe, but Fierberg doesn’t know if Langari will be one of them.

“He was very cynical and he had every right to be,” she said. “They have a very corrupt government. At best, he’ll make a good life for himself and his family. But just making a better life for yourself is a challenge.”