‘Giving’ needs no translation for these teenagers

Community service just part of exchange students’ life while attending Mahar

Recorder/Paul Franz
Cliff Fournier and his exchange students at the Community Supper at the Bethany Lutheran Church in Orange. Working the supper is just one way these students are getting a close look at life in the United States.

Recorder/Paul Franz Cliff Fournier and his exchange students at the Community Supper at the Bethany Lutheran Church in Orange. Working the supper is just one way these students are getting a close look at life in the United States.

ORANGE — More than 50 people — young kids with their parents, as well as seniors and families — patiently await the twice-weekly community meal in Bethany Lutheran Church’s parish hall, which is all decked out in the days before Christmas.

Some are telling stories and laughing with one another, others are playing cards as the Muslim students arrive, one by one, with cheese, vegetables and other pre-dinner canapes.

Pakistani Muhammad Khattak and Indonesian Decky Isidan pass along the cut vegetables, olives and cheeses, as fellow Mahar exchange students Farhad Ali from Pakistan and Karim El Miari from Lebanon bring out the rolls and Palestinian Ibrahim Abukhiran tends to a new supply of napkins.

Welcome to the Orange Community Meal, where North Quabbin comes face to face with the Mideast and beyond. Along with Mormon and Jewish volunteers, a community service detail from Orange District Court and others, these five students from a world away get a taste week after week for what life is like in the real America. And a dose of how we help one another.

It wasn’t necessarily what these 16- and 17-year-olds — all in their junior year at Mahar Regional School — had in mind when they applied for the Youth Exchange and Study Program, started by the U.S. State Department in the year after 9/11.

“We had just read in stories and seen in movies about New York and Boston and Florida,” said Khattak, who is from Peshawar in northwestern Pakistan “These are famous places. I had never heard the name of Massachusetts. When I heard of Orange, I checked out on the Internet, and it had a population of like 8,600 or 8,700. I thought I was going to live in Boston or some (place) like that. I came here and it was different, but I like it. It’s very good.”

Isdian, for his part, recognized Massachusetts as the home of MIT and Harvard, and he imagined immediately “all Americans are like our age.” The median age in Indonesia, where Isidian lives in the East Kailman city of Tenggarong in, is 26. (In Orange, the median age is 37.)

Back in the southern coastal city of Saida, Lebanon, El Miari said that when he heard he was going to Massachusetts, he recalled seeing a photo of a Paul Revere statue in Boston. An avid sports fan, he and friends had rooted for the Boston Celtics. But he adds, “I don’t like cities too much. The best place for me to live is small town.”

In fact, says Clifford Fournier, who has Khattak and El Miari staying at his Whitney Street home this year and coordinates the YES program in this area, these exchange students get a better feel for what American life is really about than do their friends assigned to cities.

“When they hear they’re coming to a small town, they think nothing happens,” he says. “Then they find out later the kids sent to cities become totally bored … There’s no neighborhood things” beyond the major attractions of the cities. “They come to a small town, they find they can walk to Walmart, they can walk to Mahar or to somebody’s house, or they can bicycle there. There’s more freedom than in the cities.”

As for keeping busy, these exchange students — who are required to do 20 hours of community service during their year-long visits — have about all they can handle, says Fournier. Four months into their stay, Khattak has done about 160 hours and Isidan has accomplished about 200. Two or three of the students last year had 400 hours, he adds. Then he stops just long enough in the church kitchen to check on a big pot of the beef stew he’s cooking and sending Khattak back into the dining room with more bread.

Serving a community meal week after week — as well as working with Fournier in the Orange and Wendell food pantries — in an area with a heavy concentration of poverty is something of a jolt for teens whose main view of America has come from Hollywood.

“We know in every place, even the richest country, there must be some percentage of poor people, but not like we see here,” says Abukhiran. “There are more poor people than we expected. We delivered (Mahar Key Club) baskets for Thanksgiving to poor families. And we saw their houses. They are really poor people. Everything I know about the U.S. is they have money. If the government has money, I expect the people should have money.

El Miari adds, “When we went to the Wendell pantry, we brought food in trucks. When I saw the amount of food there, I was surprised because (I thought) there’s going to be leftovers. We came back after all the people took their food. There was almost nothing. I thought there’s not many poor people, but in fact there is.”

Then again, “poverty” is a relative term, as Pakistani student Ali makes clear.

“In Pakistan, there are 30 percent, maybe 40 percent of people, they don’t earn a U.S. dollar a day. The big problem, they’re not dealt by the government, like they don’t care about it that much. Here, in Orange, we see there are people with different needs, and other people take care of them. In Pakistan, we have to just take of ourselves.”

Fellow Pakistani Khattak adds, “I thought in the U.S., people are very rich. When I came here I saw the people. They are (economically) good, but they are not that good that I thought they are. In America, the poverty is like when you do not have the best things. The poverty in Pakistan is in bad shape: People are fighting for their life. In America, people can live but they are wanting some better stuff than what they have. In Pakistan, people want to have any kind of stuff.”

Notion of giving

The whole notion of giving, and of seeking help is different, says Abukhiran.

“Not everyone wants to show people he’s poor, so the poor people don’t want to show themselves. But sometimes they have to, because life forces them.” So, the Palestinian student says, they put their name on a list, which the local mosque, or an organization like UNICEF uses to see that food is brought to their houses.

Lebanese student El Miari adds that before the holy month of Ramadan, he works with the local mosque, where “We try as best as we can to give food to all the places we can just in that area. The idea for that thing came from a little kid. Although some people have plenty food, some people have nothing. The rich people throw their food away, so if they can do like Wendell, it’s better.”

For the teens, who come from places where there are few organized volunteer efforts, “It’s all new for them,” says Fournier. “It’s mind-boggling to them that we’d do something like this. Why we would give people a free meal? People from different religions come together and cook for everybody. We have some who are homeless, some little children, some older people.”

‘It’s like satisfaction’

Fournier, at 81, juggles many plates.

In addition to taking in exchange students since 1993, inviting them into his home at the rate of two or three a year and coordinating as many as 22 students in one year around the region that has included Greenfield, Northfield, Warwick, Belchertown and Petersham, the retired 32-year veteran special needs teacher also took in 215 foster children between 1963 and 1989.

He’s also been coordinating the Franklin County Community Meal about six years in Orange, where he also has been on the town’s Council on Aging for more than 15 years — much of the time as its unpaid director and also volunteers for the Orange and Wendell food pantries — often with exchange students at his side, to pitch in and take in a lesson.

In Orange, which doesn’t have many groups to share in the Community Meals rotation, Fournier is a godsend, says the agency’s director, Amy Clarke.

“Cliff can scrounge food better than anybody else,” she says. “He has saved us hundreds of dollars a month in what we used to spend. Salads show up, cakes show up. If somebody has a loaf of bread they need a home for, he will go pick it up and find a home.”

Often, Fournier will get a big kettle of spaghetti going at home on a Thursday, then bring it over to the church to serve, Clarke says. “He does an awful lot more than we hire him for.”

Orange’s twice-a-week program will serve more than 5,000 meals this year, she says, more than twice as many as when her program took over the meal in 2002. Much of that jump — about 25 percent for each of two years — came in 2008 and 2009, she said, as the economy fell apart.

Enlisting exchange students to participate is another key to the success of the meal there, Clarke says.

“Any diversity we have at the meal site is because Cliff brings the students,” she adds. “Many of the people have come for many, many years there, and it really has the feel of a family. When he brings his new exchange students, they’re immediately drawn into it, and he has them offer grace in their language, and has them cook foods from their countries and bring it to the site and share it with everybody. It’s a great exposure to many different cultures, thanks to his enthusiasm. Those boys could run the meal site on their own. Some of the kids he has staying with them are from very, very poor families, but some are not. This is really an eye opener for them. The hope is they will go back to their countries and do what they can in the world … because Cliff has introduced them to this.”

It’s fun

Isidan says, “It is fun. We get to socialize with people.”

As his Indonesian friend chuckles, Khattak — who attended a “semi-military” boarding school for a time in Pakistan where students had no contact with their homes and weren’t allowed cell phones, television or Internet access — reflects on working at the twice-weekly meal:

“It’s like satisfaction. In my country, I didn’t have confidence to talk to anybody. You were not allowed to socialize. So I had no skills to talk to anybody. When I came here, I got confidence, and now I talk. I think I’m going to improve a lot.”

One Moldovan student Fournier hosted years ago, when he worked with the State Department’s Future Leaders Exchange program, started a discussion about gardening with the Mission Covenant Church minister in the kitchen during a meal, and they shared their love of home-grown tomatoes. The boy wrote to his father, who sent tomato seeds for the minister to plant.

“I saw him the other day,” Fournier says. “He still grows those tomatoes, and he asked, ‘How’s that boy?’ The connection goes on a long, long time.”

Fournier, who is being visited over the holidays by two of the three foreign students he now helps through college — one a 22-year-old Greenfield Community College student from Kazakhstan — says he still keeps in touch with many of the visitors from years past. After having them help with chores like baking cakes for the annual Key Club Spaghetti Supper, he says, he gets letters from students with declarations like, “I learned how great my mother is. She’s been doing these things all these years, making all this food and doing the laundry, and I had never paid attention.”

“The payoff is when they go back their country and take part of us with them,” says Fournier, describing how the foreign visitors help him clean the Orange armory and care for its lawn in the summer, especially since the town can’t afford a custodian for the building where they help distribute shopping bags of food to seniors.

“We’re seeing America through everybody else’s eyes. It’s kind of nice,” says Fournier, adding that over time, people who attend the community meal talk with the students about their ethnic foods, their home countries. The students are amazed at how a small community in this country comes together.

“You’re learning all the time,” he says. “It’s a constant learning process.”

Christmas time

In Pakistan, says Khattak, “I used to hear on the TV that it was Christmas, and there were movies like ‘Home Alone,’ and I thought, ‘It’s a good festival.’ When I came here, it was a big problem for me because I had to buy gifts and I was uncertain what to buy: would this be rude, or would it be nice?”

These Islamic students have also been decorating Christmas trees, helping local families bring home their Christmas trees and getting their first taste of the spirit of giving that pervades this small, down-to-earth community at this time of year when snow should be on the ground.

“I just wondered, wow, if I can go there and feel how Christmas must be with a Christmas tree and all the snow is falling down, that’s like I’m only dreaming,” says Isidan. “We never thought we will have that experience.”

‘Dream country’

What surprises these students the most, beyond the pervasiveness of what we consider need, and what we do about it?

“Back home, we thought everybody’s separated from each other, there are no family relationships. It’s not 100 percent true. Back home we’re 100 percent together as a family, here we thought it was like zero percent family. It tends to be more than that.”

But for Ali, who lives in the same house near the Afghan border with parents, uncles, aunts and cousins, or for the Palestinian Abukhiran, who marvels at the fact that “you do not even know your cousin here sometimes,” the degree of relative separation of people from family is bewildering.

Still, he says he hopes to get a scholarship to some day return to this country after he completes high school to earn an engineering degree.

El Miari, who hopes to some day study medicine as his father did, agrees: “I think all of us exchange students who come to America search for opportunities to come back,” he says, the voices of those at this evening’s community meal still audible in the background. “Other people around the world, when they look at the U.S., it looks like a dream country, where dreams come true and there are many opportunities. It is, somehow.”

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