Friday, September 17, 2004

African youth?s hopes and dreams squashed

Exchange student kept from studying in U.S. at last minute

Express Staff Writer

Ghanaian student Gabriel Kofi Twum is still at home in Ghana.

A 17-year old young man sits at home in Africa and weeps. He is not where he was supposed to be, although he did all he was told to and still somehow he was not allowed to go. His heart is broken, as is the family he was to live with in Hailey, the Taylors.

The story of the Taylors and their ?son? Gabriel Kofi Twum does not come out all right in the end. Instead, after months of work and communication between the families it has all come to naught. Gabriel lives in Ghana and through Youth for Understanding, an exchange student program, he was to live with the Taylors and go to school at the Wood River High School this year.

?You become very involved with the families,? Salomé Taylor said. She, her husband and their two daughters have welcomed into their home two other exchange students in the past. Taylor was an exchange student to Germany in 1979 and has remained close with her family there and the organization ever since. ?It?s my way of paying back, you do this out of love.?

Youth for Understanding is one of the most legitimate programs for students seeking to live and study abroad. There are seven others, including American Field Service, Rotary and EF, which don?t take money to situate a student with the right family. Youth for Understanding began shortly after World War II when an American minister, John Eberly, brought teens from war-torn Germany to the United States to live with a family and attend high school for a year in an effort to heal the wounds of World War II.

The selection and financing of the German students was initially paid for through funds from the U.S. government. Taylor?s German father, Uldrich Zahlten, was one of the original German students who came to the U.S. in 1951. He is now the president of Youth for Understanding. Currently, approximately 6,000 students a year participate in programs worldwide.

Two days before Gabriel was to come to the States he and seven others were told they were not being granted exit visas. ?He is crushed,? Taylor said.

Gabriel, who comes from a well-off family of merchants who make kenté fabric, was one of the 26 out of 1,000 Ghanaian students who applied to Youth for Understanding and were accepted.

?It?s a great loss to the school and community,? Taylor said. This young man could have added so much.? An aspiring banker, he was going to be in the Wood River High School?s Finance Academy. He plays soccer and couldn?t wait to have little sisters, as he is the youngest in his close knit family.

A week after the students were told they had no visas, they were instructed to return to the embassy on Monday, Aug. 30. With hopes raised again, the U.S. State Department told them, without explanation, that they were again denied. Taylor suspects pay-offs are the norm in these cases. She said Gabriel?s father, Moses, said ?a lot is about pocket padding.??

A series of events occurred right away. The U.S. embassy told the kids they needed separate student visas but the date was past. The embassy then looked into the family bank accounts and again denied them, Taylor said. ?They are the brightest kids. They?re just afraid the kids will leave and go off the program, be absorbed into American life and not go back. That may happened with older college age kids but this program is so well established. I don?t think there?s ever been an incidence of a kid not going back. These kids don?t want to work They just want to go to high school in the U.S.

?We have a 17-year old that cries on the phone at 4:30 in the morning. I think all our hopes are dashed at this point. A lot of the teens around here were all excited. These are just students just wanting to come to study and learn about the U.S. We should be promoting inter cultural exchange, not stopping it. We should be the leaders in this.?

Moses called Taylor?s husband Aaron last week.

??Aaron, my brother, I would do anything for my son. He?s upset, so unhappy, but I can?t get him out of the country,?? Taylor related.

Aaron Taylor dashed off letters to the U.S. Ambassador to Ghana, and to anyone else he could think of, he said.

He has not had any response. At this point, all the Taylors and the Twums want is an explanation.

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