It sounds like the start of a bad joke. A Saudi Arabian student comes to Seattle to attend a Catholic high school and live with a Jewish family that keeps kosher.
But it’s true.
Mohammed Ashgan is the student from Riyadh, and he is living with Hannah and Bob Cordes and their teenage boys, Sam, 15, and Isaac, 13 (and their dog, and their three chickens). Mohammed is a senior at Blanchet High School, where he has acquired the fine American art of playing football, while Sam attends Roosevelt High School and Isaac is at Eckstein Middle School.
U.S. State Department-sponsored program called AFS brought Mohammed here, and more specifically, a special AFS program called YES, which brings students from Muslim countries to live with American families for a school year.
It isn’t a common thing for Saudi students to do, says Mohammed, who speaks fluent American English with barely a trace of an accent. Few of his friends chose to participate in this competitive program for which students had to demonstrate language as well as social skills.
He was inspired to travel by two things. “My brother was leaving for college,” he recalls and “I didn’t want to stay home [without him].” Additionally, “my best friend was leaving” for an exchange program and asked Mohammed to help him with paperwork. That proved the inspiration Mohammed needed.
“I thought, ‘why not?’” He looked AFS up on line, gave the coordinator a call, and then asked his dad what he would think. With his father’s approval he went ahead with the application.
As one of the first of this year’s applicants to be accepted, he learned right away that he was going to a Catholic school (Blanchet selected him). About two months later he heard he’d been placed with a Jewish family.
“I thought they were kidding,” he says when the program coordinator began the call with “Don’t freak out….”
Mohammed’s dad asked for a few days to think about it and then decided it would be a good choice because Mohammed would be eating kosher food, which is accepted as halal by many Muslims.
“'‘There’s no difference between families,’” Mohammed said his father decided. “‘It just depends on what kind of people they are.’”
By the way, neither of Mohammed’s parents speak English, but decided their children should, so all of their entertainment and media growing up were in English.
Mohammed describes his time here as nothing short of life changing, especially compared to home where he says life changes very little. Now, “I’m doing something every day that’s different,” he says. In addition to football, he says the academics are more rigorous here and he’s taken up skiing and snowboarding. “I’d never seen snow before.”
When the three teens aren’t busy with homework and extra-curricular activities (Sam is in orchestra and Isaac is involved with drama), they indulge in the universal language of Xbox. “Madden,” the virtual football game, is their favorite. Mohammed calls home often via Skype, which helped stave off some early homesickness.
Mohammed is the fourth foreign exchange student that Hannah and Bob have hosted, but the first from an Islamic nation. Hannah says they consulted with their kids about having him.
“I thought it was great,” says Isaac, who also hopes to study abroad one day. “I love hosting students.”
Sam was excited to have a boy closer to his age in the house, as other students have been older. “The religion didn’t matter,” he said.
“People are really friendly around here,” observes Mohammed, noting that his English is so good he has trouble convincing people he’s not American. “Sometimes they don’t believe me.”
The Cordeses attend Congregation Beth Shalom and Mohammed has been to synagogue a couple of times, getting his first exposure on Simchat Torah! He attended “regular” services soon after just so he’d know that not all Jewish worship involves such wild revelry.
“AFS has opened our family up to the world [and] to what family is,” says Hannah, who is the chef at Hillel at the University of Washington.
Bob’s family was involved with AFS when he was growing up, so for him hosting continues a family tradition. The Cordeses maintains close relationships with all their exchange students.
“It’s a great way to grow our family,” says Hannah.
Since many of us associate travel with food, I asked Mohammed his favorite American food, expecting him to name a fast food restaurant. His answer surprised me.
“I like what Hannah cooks,” he said.
The family rarely eats out, and then it’s usually vegetarian or fish. There’s no need for fast food: “In Saudi Arabia we have most of the fast food restaurants,” Mohammed says.
What he does miss are the “big feasts we’d have at home” for special occasions, something he hopes his return will warrant when he returns home this summer.
For information on AFS, visit www.afs.org.