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Bridging cultures

Exchange students share heritages with Mission community

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Marilyn Murchie and her husband R.C. Murchie welcomed their first exchange student into their home in 1998. Since hosting the student from Germany, they have had 24 more pass through their doors.

“We loved sharing our home and learning about other cultures,” Marilyn said.

Even after R.C. passed away in January 2011, Marilyn has carried on the couple’s passion for opening up their home for visiting students.

This year Marilyn is hosting Mohamed Saiad, a student from Morocco, and Zhanyl Nurbekkyzy from Kyrgyzstan, and the three have formed a “family” that spans miles and bridges cultures.

“It’s a wonderful exchange,” Marilyn said of her two additions to her family this year.

This is the first time Saiad and Nurbekkyzy had ever visited Montana, and last year when Saiad arrived, he found himself in a strange new land, far away from home.

One of the first things Saiad noticed was a cold, wet and white fluffy substance covering the ground.

It was the first time the 17-year-old exchange student from Howara, Morocco, a country in Africa, had ever seen snow. He remembers being amazed by its texture and temperature, especially as he hit the slopes snowboarding and sledding.

“I did pretty good for someone who never touched snow before,” Saiad said of the experience.

It wasn’t the first time Nurbekkyzy had ever seen snow, but it was the first time she has lived in a rural setting.

Nurbekkyzy is from Osh, the second largest city in Kyrgyzstan, located in central Asia. Though Montana’s geography and climate are similar to Kyrgyzstan, one major difference for Nurbekkyzy was going from being surrounded by people to sometimes being the only one for miles.

“There’s no public transportation. I’m used to seeing people all around me,” Nurbekkyzy said. “In the morning, mom (Marilyn) drives us to school, and we walk home and I don’t see anyone. It’s very calm, and sometimes it’s nice to be alone.”

A lot of (exchange students) are used to hopping on the bus or the metro but it’s not that easy (in St. Ignatius),” Marilyn said.

Marilyn explained that Saiad is a part of the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study Program established in October 2002. The program is funded by the U.S. Department of State and sponsored by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs to provide scholarships for high school students from countries with significant Muslim populations to spend up to one year in the United States.

“The program was designed after 9/11 to help rebuild relations between Muslim countries and America by way of the youth,” Marilyn said.

This is the first year students from Morocco were part of the program. Nurbekkyzy is from the Future Leaders Exchange program, which is comprised of students who are from countries that broke off from the former Soviet Union.

St. Ignatius High School currently has 13 exchange students. Murchie, a coordinator for Academic Year in America, oversees seven of the 13 exchange students at St. Ignatius and another eight students in different school districts in the Mission Valley. 

Saiad and Nurbekkyzy said they have enjoyed their time in Montana since arriving, despite some adjustments.

One of the biggest differences is what American teenagers do for fun and finding activities in rural Mission.

Saiad’s first conversation was an eye-opening experience. He asked a teenager about soccer and was answered with a blank stare. 

“What? There is no way,” Saiad said was his first reaction, because soccer is an internationally popular sport. However, he immersed himself in American sports such as basketball and football, and even joined a league soccer team in Polson.

“(Football) was really hard for me. I have never touched a football before,” he admitted. 

But Saiad and Nurbekkyzy said their “mom” is good at providing them with activities and entertainment.

“I really thought there would be like a lot of activities and there would be a lot going on and a lot to do,” Saiad said. “You have to make up activities. But people are really social, and if you had a host mom like mine you would really like it.”

“I’ve been doing it for quite a while, and I try to be creative,” Marilyn said of the activities she tries to provide for both entertainment and experience. “The students are busy enough.”

Since arriving, Saiad and Nurbekkyzy have served as representatives of their countries, and it has been an educational experience for the two as well as the community of Mission

“I’m always smiley, and people always ask me questions,” Saiad said. “This is my opportunity to change (people’s minds) … I’m really lucky to represent my country.”

“People here are really friendly and outgoing,” Nurbekkyzy said, adding that classmates often ask her questions about her homeland and culture.

Nurbekkyzy and Saiad both have made several presentations in the school and the community. 

Recently, Saiad had the cooks at the high school cooked up a Moroccan meal featuring “tajine,” a slow-cooked stew braised at low temperatures, which he believes is the best representation of his country’s cuisine. 

“We believe in homemade food,” he said, explaining in Morocco, they do not have hot dogs, but there is pizza. In the southern part of the country, there is a McDonald’s and Pizza Hut.

Nurbekkyzy said when it comes to meals in her country, the guest is the top priority. “We organize everything for the guest,” she said. “Here, it’s ‘help yourself.’”

But when the time comes for Saiad and Nurbekkyzy to return to their countries, the moment will be bittersweet for the two who have found a home away from home in Mission. 

Saiad plans to return to Morocco to finish high school and go to college to become a journalist, and Nurbekkyzy wants to become an engineer. Because they are part of exchange programs, the two have to work in their respective countries for at least two years.

“Living in Montana is fun. I would love to go back to Morocco to share my experiences,” Saiad shared. “It’s going to be really hard to leave. The people here are amazing.”

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