Exchange organisation US: EF Foundation – 3 states (Oregon/Washington/Idaho)
Exchange families: 7 families – temporary and so-called permanent
My exchange year was 06/07. I had been looking forward to my exchange experience for many years. Like many here I trusted that EF was a good and trustworthy organisation – something that later turned out to be a naive expectation.
Like many others I was told by EF that it was not unusual to not have a permanent exchange family by the time I left my home country. I had been given a welcome-family that would also function as my IEC representatives.
EF told me many times that a welcome-family was plus in that it created a larger network in the US. So I felt this was the least of my problems.
I chose to attend EF’s Language and Culture Camp at Rhode Island and the friendships I found here turned out to be the only support I felt I had during my stay in the US. EF say to proudly that this will be “the best year of your life” and that they have a great support network for you, 24 hours a week. I might have been blind to this network but am afraid that it was non-existent rather than a real thing. Unfortunately I was not alone in experiencing this. At camp we were told to make certain of the subjects at the schools we were being placed at. The state I was going to was Orgeon – and I knew I could end up at three schools: McMinnville, Sheridan and Willamina. It turned out only McMinnville was a school that offered a certain spectrum of subjects – the other two were more limited. They did not offer French – something I accepted – and hardly any math classes.
I contacted my present IEC and asked if they could try to place med at McMinnville. I was told I’d been placed with a family in Sheridan – and that this was where I was supposed to live! This family was excited about having me come live with them. I felt reassured.
At the airport in Portland I was met by what I thought was to be my future exchange family and my IECs. I remember the first thing my IEC’s said to me was: “Isn’t this weird XXXX, this is going to be your family for a whole year…” The family itself was really nice, and I have nothing to say against them. The strange thing was the family situation when I got to their home. Exchange mother’s mother was dying from cancer and a lot of time was spent with her. Exchange father was a police officer who had recently been in a shooting incident where he had been the shooter. This made XXXX wonder why the family would take in a permant exchange student? I had been given the youngest daughter’s room… But this was really strange. She slept in the middle child’s room on an air mattress. This couldn’t be right? XXXX’s suspicions were confirmed when friends of the family came to visit. They asked a lot of questions about schools and other things. I think they suspected I was a bit confused – when exchange dad later talked to me about how much he liked me, and that I would have been a great fit, but that he hoped that it wouldn’t be fair for them to keep her. That they were only a welcome-family was not meant as an insult. I told him what my family and I had been told – that this was to be my permanent family!
Exchange father was extremely provoked at my IEC who had called and nagged them over a longer period. After a lot of pressure they had agreed that I could live there temporarily – max 3 weeks, while they were looking for another family. When I tried to confront my IEC with this – he told me further lies about exchange mother phoning him stating that she wanted me to stay, but not exchange father. And he did not have time to talk with me about this. Exchange father became even more provoked over these continued lies – and phoned my IEC again and told him that exchange mother had NEVER spoken with him.
EF later accused me for having complained to the exchange family that I had to attend school in Sheridan (never happened) and for me making such a mess I was practically thrown out of the family. This was not true either as I had asked to not go on a camping trip with the family and move out earlier instead, because I was at that time incredibly upset, angry and worried with EF. Therefore I did not want to join them camping because I was afraid I would ruin the experience because of the situation I was in. This led to me moving in with the RC of the area. I was supposed to live temporarily with them until something else turned up. EF has yelled at me repeatedly because I have called both of these exchange families as they were only temporary families. I realise this is correct – but they were still families I had to adjust to. This was an elderly couple – where the days were spent with the exchange father watching sports on TV. I had little or nothing to do. I got breakfast when I rose around 9 am (i.e. cereal and milk) and there was little chance of other meals between breakfast and dinner. I did not dare to ask. Dinner was not until 8 pm. So long days, with little food.
After this I was moved to a very lovely couple. They tried to help me as much as possible. Unfortunately I was unable to stay with them as they were not able to find a school to take me in.
At this time I was given my 4th – yet first permanent family. I was told that I was to live with a German exchange student. EF once again broke their rules. They were supposed to ask my parents if it was OK for me to live with another exchange student. This never happened. From the first time I met my exchange mother I felt this would never work. This was a woman who smelled strongly of sweat – covered with strong perfume. She was very direct – and several uncomfortable episodes happened around her. When we were in a store and a guy sat selling cell-phones the woman would go up to the guy and tell him I was from Norway and interested in getting to know him. She would then laugh and walk away. The other thing she asked me about from the first days was: “XXXX, do you need any tampex or anything? Because you know, if you were my daughter, I wouldn’t let you use that stuff, it is not good for you… But I guess since you’re not my daughter I can’t control whether you use that stuff or not… But to put it plain – there’s only one thing you put up there, anyway, you’re not doing any of that while you’re here”… and looked at me angrily. This was the second day – 2 hours after we had spoken properly… The house was about 2.3 metric miles from other civilisation. It was large – but extremely dilapitated and gross. They had 10 cats and 2 dogs. One of the dogs was very unstable. It would bark and bite… The animals urinated and defecated several times in the hallway and basement and bath rooms. All exchange mother would do would be to throw sand over it all – some that led to a strong smell all over the house. The large amount of dust often led to me having problems breathing. The bath room was practically a hole in the wall – with cement floor. The house and bath-room were not washed in the nearly 3 months I lived with the family. One window was taped over with a piece of cardboard – as it was broken. It was not fixed for the longest time. The exchange family did not only live in a gross house. They were also (as several people in the neighborhood said) mentally unstable. I can tell of several episodes, but here are some of the worst.
The first episode was at the dinner table where I was doing my home-work. Exchange mother explaimed: “XXXX, do you want to see my mother?” I said, “huh?” She then said, “Yes, do you want to see my mother? I have her ashes in my closet. Do you want to see?” I said no. For an outsider this might sound like a joke – but unfortunately it was anything but. Another time she phoned a friend of mine and yelled at her because I’d not been able to get in touch with her one day. My friend thought I was very angry with her – something that wasn’t cleared up until later. When I confronted exchange mother with this, she stated that she could do anything she wanted even if it did created intrigue and misunderstandings. The day I left, I turned around and there she was with a scissor. She then said: “Come on XXXX, give me some of your hair?” “No, why should I?” I answered. She then said: “Sure, come on – I want it as a souvenir.” With a strange look in her eyes. I refused. Later she held my hand in a hard grip and said strictly: “look me in the eyes; will you miss me? ANSWER me.” While I was in that home I went to be at 6 pm every day to get through the days.
The German boy and I did not get along very well – in the beginning I blamed him too much for that. Mostly because I wasn’t possible to talk about our experiences with EF. Later on we became better friends when we realised that we only had each other. The situation in the house – plus its location which led to my driving the bus about 2 hours every day to get to and from schoo, made it a difficult situation. Only seldom was I allowed to speak with my parent and then only for 10 minutes. She could not have her telephone line held up. On her own part she spoke with her own daughter almost every day. There was no coverage for cell-phones or TV. The area was dangerous to go for walks in because of traffic. We could not go online – because of keeping the phone line busy. Fortunately I was able to speak with my parents via my Norwegian cell phone every day. I brought it with me to school and texted them. Those texts kept me going.
My IEC was extremely disrespectful. She spoke to me as if I could not understand what she said. She spoke to me as if I was a baby and it was difficult not to answer back in the same manner. On several occasions she would phone me and scream into the phone – just to yell. Everything I did was wrong. All I did was complain, try to get people to feel sorry for me etc. She never listened to what I had to say and interrupted me in the middle of any sentence. She made me cry and then called me a drama queen that would never get anywhere in life because I cried all of the time. And so on.
Today I realise that this was psychological abuse. Because how vulnerable is a 16/17 year old all alone in another country without a network. But EF would not listen to me. They refused to move me. I was desperate and talked to my Norwegian friend. She spoke with her exchange mother who reacted and demanded that EF move me there and then. This was not a great move on my part.
I was made to speak with EF in front of my exchange family. How easy is it to explain how bad the situation is then? While they were all listening in? Of course, I wasn’t able to say how I felt at that time. That was impossible. What I had thought was confidential between myself and EF was served up on a platter in for the rest of them. EF placed me on a behavioral agreement because I had broken “the chain of communication”. It stated that I should respect the family and computer and telephone usage (something I did, but OK) and I was also told that I should sign this and agree that this was the best family I could get and best school I could attend. Not only that, but I needed to treat everyone with respect etc. I refused to sign – I was not about to stay here the rest of the exchange year. I would rather end the year. I could not take any more time there. Apparently the agreement was supposed to be valid even without my signature.
In the period after this my parents were called up by EF Oslo who told them that I had been thrown out of the family and was now living with my IEC because of my behavior. My parents became terribly worried – until they were able to speak with me. These were untrue rumours – nothing even close had happened. I was in town with the other exchange student and nothing even similar had happened. I still don’t understand where that information came from. I visited my Norwegian friend and exchange mother. When they drove me home again the exchange mother entered the house because she claimed she needed to use the bath-room (probably an excuse to see my living conditions). Both she and my friend told me later that they had not realised that my situation was as bad as it was and that they were shocked. My friend exclaimed that she would not have stayed there even a day. It was simply too awful… And it probably was.
My dad phoned EF Oslo and told them what he had learned. He phoned several times. Finally he said that either you move her to a better home or you send her home. First then EF reacted. What I said meant little – only the exchange families’ versions count. To me it is incredibly that my exchange family could ever have been approved – and even more amazing that my IEC was allowed to be an IEC. I was then moved to another temporary family. But there was not space for me at a school.
I enjoyed myself there – but was of course worried because I could not go for too long without attending school. I needed my year approved.
I was moved to another state – Washington. EF called this another temporary solution. But I could stay if I liked it. I started my second school. I lived with an elderly couple. She was 86 years old and both were German. They spoke more German to me than English. He was very poorly. He used a walking frame and barely managed to get from his chair to the dinner table about a meter away. One time he fell over on the bath-room floor and I had to pick him up. During my stay there I was afraid of coming home one day finding one of them dead. I was supposed to have been included and invited by her daughter who was an IEC – and lived about 50 meters away. But was was kept alone there too. Long days filled with fear. Until I was finally told – after staying with the couple about 1.5 month – that EF had found me a permanent family. At this point my 7th family.
This family lived in Idaho – my third state. The problem was – as I discovered when I got there – that the school did not have room for me. None of the schools (three of them) wanted to take in another student until the trimester was finished. EF then decided that I could attend a private school for “problem children” – something I was fine with because it was a temporary solution. The problem was that this school was less than an hour from Idaho Falls – and that meant that it too was impossible. Later on EF talked about me home-schooling myself for 1.5 months. The did not even know if I could live there because they could not find a school. I liked the family a lot and would not agree to another move.
Even though EF said it was impossible to get into a school – my exchange mother and I want to Idaho Falls High School and asked to talk to the principal. Idaho is a gathering spot for mormons, so to speak – and the assistant principal had been on a mission to Norway and was fascinated with the country. He managed to convince the principal to admit another student in the middle of the trimester – even though they weren’t accepting any more exchange student for that school year. So I was really lucky. Who knows what would have happened if this problem had not been solved.
After getting back to Norway I sent a letter of complaint to EF – one that was somewhat like this, except this is a much less detailed one. I was recompensed – but never really apologised to. That is what I would like. Money can never make up for my being sent from one family to the other – and for experiencing one lie after the other. I never got a network in the US – and the rest of my time there was nice – but I was often home-sick because of my experiences. Sure, all organisations can make mistakes – but for me it seems as if EF are really good at making them. What kind of organisation allows such things to happen? How can they place students in such families? This is what I wonder… But a proper apology? An answer to my complaint and questions? Nah, I don’t see that coming …