Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Foreign Exchange: Part 4, The One That Got Away

After Anett, I wanted to try again for a student from South America, and we found Eric, from Chile. Our first few students had to be picked up from Houston, but Eric flew from Houston to Baton Rouge and we picked him up at the airport. He seemed quiet, but he had had a busy few days in Houston after his long trip, so we figured he was tired. 

When he got into his room he asked, “What’s that smell?” We didn’t notice anything unusual and Eric decided it was “just the smell of the house”. When Anders was with us, he had left some sweaty gym clothes on the carpet for a few days and we did notice a musty smell but we had cleaned the carpet. We took Eric out for dinner and he fell asleep soon afterward and slept for most of the next day. 

We found out later that when Eric woke up Sunday he had called our AFS rep and asked to be moved to another family. In fact, he really wanted to go back to Houston and be placed with another family there, because he did not want to be in Baton Rouge at all.

The next weekend,  we took Eric and another AFS student, also from South America and staying with a family halfway across town, to the water park and then to a Mexican restaurant. They conversed to each other mostly in Spanish. At this point we still did not know Eric was looking for a new family. 

Eric did tell us that he almost did not get his visa to come to the U.S. The immigration official in charge of his case kept saying no and Eric finally had to meet with him in person and insist. In light of later events, we wonder what the immigration official saw. We became certain that Eric had decided to ask for a new family even before he met us, so maybe he indicated something of the sort to the immigration officer.

We also learned from Eric he had been responsible for his younger brother’s care since his dad left the family and his mother had gone back to work, and that he missed his brother badly.

I tried to make Eric feel happy and at home. Friday afternoon, which I had off, I made him empanadas, a food he especially liked. I consulted him over the recipe and followed tips he gave me. It took all afternoon, and while he seemed appreciative, I could tell he still thought of us as strangers and not people who wanted to make him feel welcomed.

Shortly after school started, Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast. We had only a tropical storm, but school was closed for a week and I had most of the week off as well. I took Eric to the house of a co-worker who had two teenagers, a son and a daughter. He enjoyed himself there and the family liked him as well. The three teens cooked up a plan for my co-worker and her husband to become his new host family, but her husband did not feel comfortable having a strange young man in the house with his daughter. So that fell through.

When school started again, things got even worse. Katrina had sent a lot of refugees to Baton Rouge, and since no one knew when the schools would be up and running again in New Orleans, parents were advised to enroll their children in the school nearest to where they were. Eric’s high  school was flooded with new students, and the guidance staff was overwhelmed. They tried to make time for Eric, but it was difficult. Eric was frightened that another storm would hit us, and, it was becoming apparent, badly depressed. I arranged for a pediatrician acquaintance of mine, an immigrant from Colombia, to see Eric when he started to have stomach pains. Dr F attributed the pains to homesickness and tried to convince Eric he’d feel better if he gave it some time.

We were still trying to make Eric feel welcomed. We took Eric to a Latin American festival held by a local church. He didn’t like it that most of the food and entertainment was Central American. He did run into Dr. F at the festival and was touched and surprised that Dr. F stopped to have a conversation with him.

Eventually, Eric decided to go home. By this time, the school nurse had opined that he needed to be on anti-depressants. My view was that if he needed to be on anti-depressants, he needed to be home with people who loved him and could monitor him effectively. However, although Eric wanted to go home and we wanted him home, his mother did not agree. It took a few weeks for her to agree to his going home. I could understand her point of view. She had paid a lot of money for Eric to come to the US, and I suspected she wanted him to have some time free of home responsibilities.

In early October, we said good-bye to Eric. He wrote us a letter, which he read us, thanking us for hosting him and offering to show us around Santiago if we ever visited there.

I was perfectly willing to say good-bye to being a host parent forever, but John wanted to try again the next year. And thereby hangs another tale.

(Part Three of my experiences as a host mom is here. Part Five is here.)

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