American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections
       Fall 2023      FAMILY

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Hosting Amr

by Jennifer Duffell-Hoffman

Jennifer Duffell-HoffmanFrom the Editor: Living and studying in another country can be a deeply enriching experience for any student who undertakes such an adventure. By the same token, hosting an overseas student can be a life-changing experience for a family. Fortunately, some exchange-student programs welcome the participation of blind students and students with other disabilities. In this article Jennifer Duffell-Hoffman, a longtime leader in the National Organization of Parents of Blind Students (NOPBC), recounts her family's experiences hosting a blind high school student from Egypt. She encourages other families to consider hosting international students who are blind.

In mid-August of 2021 I read a new post in the NOPBC Facebook group from Patricia Hasty, a local coordinator with CIEE. CIEE is a nonprofit study-abroad and intercultural exchange organization. Ms. Hasty wrote, "I am looking for a family that would like to host this precious boy from Egypt from September to June! He was selected to come on a scholarship merit to the South Carolina School for the Deaf and the Blind [SCSDB) in Spartanburg. He will spend the week at school and will spend the weekend with the host family. The family must live in South Carolina, and the school bus will bring him to a stop closest to the family. Please share with your friends/neighbors. PM me with any questions!"

Amr and one of his American brothers stand beside their scarecrow creation.Ms. Hasty attached the following letter from the student: "My name is Amr. I live with my family—my father, my mother, and my sister. We enjoy some activities such as going for picnics or sitting together at home. I'm interested in reaching and searching the internet in new fields that relate to blinds, specifically programs and technology. I have many hobbies, such as swimming. I'm a member of the Egyptian Blind Sports Federation. I'm also interested in arts. I'm a member of choirs for special needs. About my friends, I love them so much and I enjoy my time with them. I dream about receiving a high level in education. I'd love to be a specialist at the field of languages and translation. About my goal for this experience, it is to experience a different culture, improve my language, and introduce my country's culture to other people, to be an ambassador and introduce the Egyptian traditions and habits in a good way."

My husband Bob and I live in Lancaster, South Carolina, and we are both sighted. Two of our young-adult sons, Michael and Matthew Duffell-Hoffman, are blind. Matthew and I have been active members of the NFB at multiple levels since 2013. My third son, who is sighted, was in his senior year of high school at the time. Hosting a foreign exchange student was not in our plans for the school year, but we lived in South Carolina. Michael had attended SCSDB on campus for his ninth-grade year. Already it was almost the start of the school year. I knew Amr needed a host family right away, and my family and I knew that we could meet his needs. I quickly began the process of applying to become a host family.

Amr arrived three weeks later. The next morning he received his first COVID vaccination. Three days later Amr and I were in an IEP meeting at SCSDB. He began staying on campus that same day. Three days after that he was back in my home for the weekend.

Amr examines a laptop at the Apple store.School continued on schedule for the next two weeks, and then the school closed for two weeks and students were placed on virtual learning. School resumed after that, but there were other weeks when school went virtual.
 
When Amr introduced himself as saying he loved his friends, he really meant it. There were a lot of emotional ups and downs as he adjusted to life in South Carolina while his blind friends in Cairo and his family outside of Cairo continued their education and lives without him. While Amr missed Egypt, he also made many close friendships at SCSDB. He learned to be very loud! American boys certainly can be loud, and Amr enjoyed being a part of that!

Amr loves rap, and he loves beats. He quickly made friends who enjoyed producing raps and beats.

Amr began using an NFB straight cane, and he came to appreciate it, but he also wished I would be more willing to be a human guide more often. He and his sighted mother had learned Arabic Braille together while Amr was growing up. While attending SCSDB Amr learned the entire UEB Code.
 
Early on Amr began explaining to me his very exacting preferences for how his clothing was to be washed and how certain pieces should be hung to dry. I explained my very exacting preference for his doing his own laundry, which he did, week after week for the ten months he was with us.
 
Amr comes from a city outside Cairo, and he is used to a much larger and busier environment than Lancaster and Spartanburg. That aspect of American life was a very difficult adjustment for Amr, combined with it being a COVID year. There were many activities that we couldn't consider doing. Also Amr did find that the five days away from our home were tiring, and often he needed to rest on weekends. Nevertheless, we went to the University of South Carolina in Columbia to visit Matthew, who was attending there. Matthew showed Amr and Michael around campus. This was the first time Amr had ever been with other blind people without having a sighted person around.

As part of his foreign exchange program, Amr was expected to complete community service hours. He and I built a scarecrow for a local Halloween contest. During the build Amr learned to use a drill. We built the scarecrow from 2x2s and dressed it as the NFB’s logo figure Miss Whozit. The scarecrow was complete with a straight white cane and stood with one foot forward, demonstrating that Miss Whozit was autonomously walking down the sidewalk and about to cross the street. The Lancaster Chapter of the NFB of South Carolina sponsored the scarecrow and used it as a demonstration of white cane travel, along with publicizing our chapter meetings.

To give Amr more community service hours, Amr and my husband worked to clear the wooded path for our high school cross-country course. But the community service that Amr enjoyed most was tossing surplus Army duffle bags for SCSDB students into the undersides of the school buses at the end of each school week.
 
Our family will always be glad that we decided to host Amr. It was good for us, and more importantly, it was great for Amr. In my opinion, it takes significant courage for a sixteen-year-old high school junior to decide to leave their family, home, culture, language, friends, and school to join another family whose lifestyle, culture, language, social circles, and schools are very different. It is an experience that should be available to any student, without blindness being held up as a barrier to participation.

In order for blind foreign exchange students to come to the United States, there must be families willing to host them. The year Amr was with us there was at least one other blind student in attendance, but I feel certain that many sighted families will feel that hosting a blind student is beyond their abilities. I also feel certain that many families do not have the philosophy of the NFB and NOPBC. I know that my home and our strong NFB philosophy benefitted Amr, and I expect those benefits always will stay with him.

I asked Amr to contribute to this article, and this is what he provided me on September 29, 2023:

A Journey of Self-Discovery: My Year as a Blind Exchange Student in the United States

In the summer of 2021, at the age of sixteen, I, Amr Eid, embarked on a life-changing journey from Egypt to the United States of America as a foreign exchange student. This adventure not only expanded my horizons, but also opened doors to new experiences, lasting relationships, and personal growth that I had never imagined.

A Leap of Faith: Being visually impaired, many might have questioned the feasibility of such an undertaking. However, I firmly believed in the power of dreams and the potential for personal growth through stepping outside my comfort zone. So I took the plunge, and August 2021 marked the beginning of an incredible ten-month journey.

Living with a Host Family: During my stay in the US I had the privilege of living with a warm and welcoming host family. This experience was invaluable, as it taught me so much about American culture, customs, and the essence of hospitality. My host family not only opened their home to me, but also their hearts. They treated me like one of their own, making me feel like I belonged in this foreign land.

Mastering English: One of my primary goals in the US was to improve my English skills. Although I had a basic understanding of the language, immersion was key to becoming fluent. Living in an English-speaking environment, I had no choice but to communicate in English every day. It was challenging initially, but with time I noticed a remarkable improvement in my speaking, listening, and writing abilities. Conversing with my host family, classmates, and friends further enriched my language skills.

Discovering a Hidden Talent: Life in America also uncovered a hidden talent within me—music and rap. It was something entirely new to me, but my friends introduced me to this world, and I found that I had a natural knack for it. With their guidance I began writing my lyrics and even recorded some tracks. This newfound passion allowed me to express myself in a unique way and gave me an avenue to connect with people on a deeper level through my music.

Fostering Self-Independence: Perhaps one of the most significant lessons I learned during my exchange year was self-independence. My host family encouraged me to take on more responsibilities, from cooking to managing daily tasks independently. These newfound skills not only boosted my self-esteem but also equipped me with invaluable tools for my life back in Egypt.

Bringing it All Back Home: Returning to Egypt after my incredible journey was bittersweet. I had grown so much during my time in the United States, but I was eager to share my newfound knowledge and experiences with my community. The skills I acquired, especially in English, have opened doors for me in terms of education and employment opportunities. My love for music and rap has also become a means of connecting with others who share the same passion.

Conclusion: My year as a foreign exchange student in the United States was a life-altering experience that will forever be etched in my memory. It was a journey of self-discovery, personal growth, and cultural exchange. I learned the importance of perseverance, adaptation, and the beauty of embracing new opportunities. This adventure not only enriched my life, but also enabled me to bring positive changes to my community in Egypt. It is a testament to the fact that, with determination and an open heart, we can transcend the boundaries imposed by our circumstances and emerge as stronger and more enlightened individuals. As I continue to pursue my dreams, I am eternally grateful for the people I met and the lessons I learned during my time in the United States. It was a journey that helped me see the world in a new light and discover the boundless potential that lies within us all.

Some Final Thoughts

I would like to see the NFB and the NOPBC seek a relationship with CIEE and purposefully consider hosting blind foreign exchange students. Foreign exchange programs prefer that the host family have children around the same age as the participant.

Here is a link to the foreign exchange program that matched us with Amr: https://www.ciee.org/.

A number of programs that welcome the participation of students with disabilities can be found at https://www.miusa.org/resource/tip-sheets/disabilityexchanges.

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