Sixteen-year-old exchange student Rema AlYahya was all smiles as she shook my hand in the kitchen of her one-year home in Brewer. Next month she returns to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, but for now she is living the life of a typical American teenager — schoolwork to do, graduation coming up.
All international students face a transitional challenge when they come to the United States, but the challenge is often greater for students from conservative, Muslim cultures. Rema’s success in bridging the cultural gap has been supreme.
After an hour in the company of one lounging family dog, two noisy parakeets, a Slovakian friend, Rema’s jovial host mom and dad, and the dazzling enthusiasm of Rema herself, I could see that this was an ideal family match.
Kris and Kathy Clark, whose two daughters are out of high school, planned to be an American Field Service “welcome family,” for only a few days this year. “But within five minutes of meeting Rema, we knew,” said Kris. Rema’s happy disposition charmed them instantly, and they invited her to stay for the year.
Before flying to the states last August, Rema had never heard of Maine. “I Googled it,” she said. The Clarks knew almost as little about Saudi Arabia. In the course of a year, they have delighted in their similarities as well as their differences.
For starters, Rema came from a home with nine bathrooms; the Clarks have one. Rema learned the routine of sharing and adapted easily.
Then there were Maine’s clouds. Rema had never seen anything like them in her desert city of 5 million people. “Everywhere I went, I’d look out the window and say, ‘Look at the clouds!’”
“Yes, she did!” said Kathy with a laugh.
Rema loved the cold, the snow, the shopping, and the day she spent fishing on Kris’ lobster boat. Her enthusiasm seems to have no bounds.
Nevertheless, Rema shows equal enthusiasm about Saudi Arabia. She pasted Arabic words around the Clarks’ kitchen, and poured her heart into school presentations about her homeland.
Women in Saudi Arabia may not vote or drive a car, and in public, they must always wear a head-and-body-covering garment called an abaya. But, Rema points out, change is coming. Her own mother has taken part in protest demonstrations against the driving law, “but change takes time.”
The abayas can be worn in custom styles. Women shop in specialty stores to buy special occasion abayas, and they needn’t wear them at home. When Rema speaks to students, she brings along an abaya and puts it on. “See? Still Rema!” she says with a smile.
I asked Rema whether she ever faces negative remarks about Saudi Arabia or terrorism. She was prepared for this and simply says, “My country is fighting al-Qaida too.” She also maintains a twinkling sense of humor in the face of questions based on stereotypes: “Oh yes!” she might respond, “I have a pink camel and seven oil wells!“
Mostly, however, Rema has felt entirely welcomed by Maine’s people. One Maine activity that was especially heartwarming for her was camping. Back in Saudi Arabia, her family sometimes leaves the city to go four-wheeling in the desert and cook marshmallows over a fire under the open sky. When the Clark family took her out to camp one weekend, her two homes felt closely tied.
Though she seems irrepressibly upbeat, Rema had one difficult period last October. During two important Muslim holidays, she missed home and family a lot. She tried to put her best face on, but crumpled into tears as she got ready for school.
“I couldn’t stand to see her cry,” said Kathy. “No school today!” she told Rema. They hit the grocery store, bought ingredients for a traditional meal, and Rema prepared a holiday “kabsa” for the family, just like at home.
One local AFS volunteer said, “Rema is one in a million.” The Clark family would agree. It will be a bittersweet day when this loving, international family separates in June. But they have forged a powerful connection that transcends boundaries.
“When I get back to Saudi Arabia,” said Rema, “I’m going to call Mom [Kathy] at just the right time, and we will go outside and look at the moon together.”
AFS is looking for host families for the 2011-2012 school year. If you might be interested, call Charlie and Nancy Grant at 866-4542.
Robin Clifford Wood welcomes feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org