AFS brings 8 international students to central peninsula

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Faris Khawdlden’s last name.

A handful of visitors have been walking the halls at central Kenai Peninsula high schools this year, bringing a variety of perspectives from around the world with them.

The Central Kenai Peninsula chapter of the nonprofit AFS international student exchange program brought eight high school students to the Kenai/Soldotna area this year from countries all over Europe and the Middle East, stretching from Norway to Egypt. They have spent the year attending Kenai Central High School, Nikiski Middle-High School and Soldotna High School, taking classes and learning about Alaska.

Students don’t always identify Alaska as their first choice for a destination, said Laura Sievert, one of the organizers. Some of them, like Faris Khawdlden, who hails from Jordan, have never seen snow before. After review, he’s decided he likes it best when it’s freshly fallen, he said.

The students took the opportunity to play on the high schools’ sports teams, too. One student, Preben Strende from Norway, played basketball on Kenai Central High School’s basketball team, and another, Zeina Abouelkheir from Egypt, swam with Soldotna High School’s swim team this year.

Khawdlden played on Kenai Central’s football team last fall. American football, as it’s known internationally, isn’t as widespread in Jordan, and he learned on a previous visit to Houston, Texas and by watching videos before joining the team, he said.

“It was really nice (to play),” he said.

Kenai Central was a different kind of high school experience for him, he said. While he speaks English as well as Arabic, some subjects were easier than others — physics particularly presented a challenge to study in English, he said. When he graduates high school, he said he plans to go to college and study medicine to one day become a neurologist, and in Jordan, medical school classes are taught in English too, he said.

Though he said he’s excited to go home and see his family, he said he’ll also miss his host family in Kenai.

“I really feel like I’m part of the family,” he said. “… I don’t want to leave and also I do.”

Two Kenai-area students took off as part of the exchange program and are currently studying in Japan and Spain, Sievert wrote in an email. The students in the central peninsula are divided between two AFS programs — a core program and a sponsored program, which brings students from Germany and from Muslim-majority countries. The sponsored program was established after the events of 9/11 to give Americans a chance to meet and understand people from Muslim countries, Sievert said.

“Sitka and Kenai are the two towns of the state of Alaska that we always have a cluster of (sponsored) students,” she said. “…It’s pretty cool, actually. There’s exchanges going on in both sides of any (program).”

Every student has a host family he or she stays with as well as an adult liaison to help support them, Sievert wrote in an email. The program is always seeking host families and liaisons, and already has two students headed for Kenai for next year.

“As well as we get kids from more typical countries, like western Europe, Thailand … we always make an effort to have kids from (less common) areas,” she said.

The central peninsula AFS is planning its annual fundraiser dinner this Sunday at 6 p.m. at the Our Lady of the Angels Catholic Church in Kenai off Spruce Street. Attendees will meet the students and try food from their home countries. Tickets are available for $25 for adults and $10 for kids age 14 and younger from volunteers, River City Books in Soldotna and by calling 690-2779.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at eearl@peninsulaclarion.com.

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