International Friendship Outreach 'an incredible blessing'

by Shellie O’Quinn

It’s funny how one email or one phone call can change your life forever.

About three years ago in late October, I received an email from my cousin, Danna Sawrie, about a program called International Friendship Outreach (IFO).

She thought my husband, Devo, and I might be interested in participating. The program partners local families with international students at the University of Central Arkansas and Hendrix College to help them become acclimated to our culture and form lasting relationships.

Having no children of our own, we jumped at the opportunity and met our first “partner,” Allie Elyahb from Rwanda. Danna had met Allie at an IFO Conversation Club meeting, where he sang a song in Swahili. Through her keen discernment, she knew we would be a good match. (Conversation Club is a group that meets weekly and gives international students an opportunity to practice conversational English.)

Allie soon introduced us to his good friend, Habib Njie, from The Gambia. They very quickly became our “sons” and spent the entire Christmas break at our house. Some wonderful memories were made that year. We were able to see the look on their faces when they saw it snow for the first time. Allie helped me cook sweet potato pies, apple pies and pumpkin cheesecakes on Thanksgiving Eve. We shared a wonderful Thanksgiving meal with extended family and many friends.

About a year later, Edouard Niyonsaba came into our lives. He is also from Rwanda and spent this past summer there doing an internship as a requirement for his Presidential Scholarship. Allie, Habib and Edouard are all UCA students majoring in various math and science fields. They are excellent students, hold jobs on campus, play soccer and are leaders in everything they do. As a proud mom, I have to brag on how smart, handsome and just all-around awesome they are! They have many friends who have become our “sons” as well. We frequently have every seat in the house full when celebrating birthdays, holidays or just watching movies together. Some of our experiences over the last three years have involved birthday parties, driving lessons, riding the jet ski, sailing, snowball fights and sledding.

Just like all families, things aren’t always fun and games. We have consoled each other during times of loss and sickness, and even made a trip to the emergency room. We have learned of their first-hand experiences during the Rwandan genocide, and I continue to be blown away by the capacity for forgiveness that permeates their culture.

Fall must be a lucky time for us, because last November, thanks to the discernment of another wonderful woman, Jenny Wallace, we became host parents for a Norwegian exchange student. Emma Lovaas, a beautiful blonde 17-year-old
senior, moved into our home and our hearts the week after Thanksgiving. We all formed an almost instant bond with her, and before long, it was as if we had known her forever.

Emma quickly discovered that I live a fast paced life during the week, and she was content to spend most Friday and Saturday nights on the couch watching movies and eating popcorn with a rather boring 40-something couple! To get to
experience almost an entire senior year with prom, graduation pictures, parties and receptions was something we would never have experienced otherwise.

We also have had the amazing opportunity to get to know her parents, Kari and Lars, and her sister, Julie. I was not surprised at all when they arrived a few days before graduation and we instantly bonded with them. They spent three weeks with us and fell in love with the beauty and weather here in Arkansas. Julie loved it so much she decided to stay until her visa ran out in July. She worked at Backachers Ranch, living her dream of working with horses. She has also become like a daughter to us, and we know our lives will forever be connected thanks to the wonderful experience of becoming host parents.

Through these experiences, we have made some wonderful memories, taken thousands of pictures and laughed until we couldn’t breathe and our sides hurt!

Boy, do we have some great stories to tell! After telling the story about our first Christmas together, in which my husband had a “gift injury” and had to go to the ER, a friend of mine said, “They are never going to forget y’all.” More than that, we will never forget them because we plan to be part of their lives forever. We look forward to celebrating this holiday season together and being thankful for the time we have. No matter how far apart we may be in the future, at least we can Skype!
IFO and the exchange program have been incredible experiences that have given me the chance to be a “mother” that I may have never had otherwise. For them to call me “mom” is one of the most precious gifts I have ever received. And
for that, I am most thankful.

Our family may not look like most, but there is just as much love. Our African sons and Norwegian daughters even all each other brother and sister. We celebrate our differences, talk about our cultures and try to learn from them to improve our little corners of the world. I love that our Creator likes variety, and I look forward to the day that all people recognize there is only one race — the human race. After all, we have far more in common than not.

The IFO program is a wonderful benefit for the students and an incredible blessing to the partnered families. There is always a need for more local people to get involved. (For more information about IFO Conversation Club or how to become a partner, please contact Miseon Seong at [email protected] or 501.205.9207.)