Becoming "Mom and Dad" to an exchange student from Turkey

Through international student exchange, people from different cultures come together to discover what they have in common and celebrate how they're unique. And on a personal level, host families for AFS Exchange Students can develop a relationship that spans continents.

The Dordal/Boyd family embraced the opportunity to do just that by welcoming Gamze from Turkey into their home. Before long, they had created a lasting bond with a teenager from across the globe, who quickly came to call her host parents "Mom" and "Dad."

When asked why her family decided to host an AFS Exchange Student from Turkey, Sonja Dordal says that her daughter, Elsa, played a large role: "She was a recipient of the Kennedy-Lugar YES Abroad scholarship and spent a year in Turkey. When she was there she really encouraged us to consider hosting."

Gamze and her family.

Why host an exchange student?

Like Elsa, Gamze was also a recipient of the Kennedy-Lugar YES Program scholarship, which brings students from countries with significant Muslim populations to live with host families in the U.S. The YES program's mission is to encourage peace and understanding through international exchange, something the Dordal/Boyd family strongly supports.

"I think that is the best way to do that kind of bridge-building between countries, to do it person to person. Because otherwise, it kind of feels like people can be anonymous, like if we don't have any experience with a certain group of people, then it's easy to have a belief about them that might not be true," says Sonja.

Hosting quote.

Brian, Gamze's host dad, also believes that hosting an exchange student from Turkey has had a powerful effect on his family and the community in general:

I think of all of the people that Gamze met this year. I think of the impact that it's made on us; we're having a going away party for her next weekend and there are dozens of people who are coming out. Gamze is probably the only person most of those people know who is from Turkey or from that part of the world, or for many of them, the only person that they know who's Muslim. I just think that there's nothing like having a deep and authentic relationship with someone who's living their life out in a different part of the world… It's kind of hard to find words to describe it but it reminds you that despite all the other dynamics going on politically or the more general things that we see that influence our thinking, that people are caring and open-hearted all over the world.

First-time host parents

In addition to encouraging diversity and intercultural friendship, welcoming a Turkish teenager into their home has given the Dordal/Boyd family the chance to really explore another language and culture.

"We're a Jewish family, so having a Muslim exchange student living with us was a great opportunity to learn about the way that Islam shows up in families," Brian says. "We've also learned that Turkey has amazing food. Gamze has done a lot of cooking for us. They have an amazing culinary culture."

Even though first-time host parents Brian and Sonja were a bit nervous about introducing someone new into their family dynamic, they're happy that they decided to take the leap. "I think we would have regretted it if we hadn't. We would have been wondering what we missed out on," Brian says. "I would say, especially if you're considering doing it when you have young kids or students in your home, that life is short, and you only have a few opportunities to make a decision like that. It's not like you have unlimited opportunities to have life-changing relationships with people from different parts of the world."

Halloween with Gamze.

Bringing the family closer

Brian also emphasizes the way that hosting Gamze brought his family even closer together. Because his daughter Elsa was about to enter her last year of high school, he was worried that hosting would take away from the limited time they had together. But according to Brian, it actually turned out to have the opposite effect:

We probably saw Elsa so much more this year. Our whole family connected on a different level because we have an exchange student. We did stuff we never would have done, you know, taking Gamze out to the Olympic rainforest, or a big road trip down to California, or multiple skiing trips. Things I'm sure that if it was just us, we would have said, 'Oh, we've done that before, we're not going to go to Seattle for the weekend.' But when you have an exchange student, it kind of gives your family a new cause to be together.

Want to find out how you can become a host family for international students like Gamze? Visit the AFS-USA website to learn more: