International students connect through friendship foundation

Gabriela Brown was just a 16 year-old exchange student from Paraguay when she set foot onto the University of Oregon campus for the first time. She said that back then, she never would have imagined that she would be here, now 28, gearing up to start her masters in prevention science with an emphasis on child abuse as a Fulbright scholar.

Brown is one of roughly 3,200 international students studying at UO, and last Sunday, she was one of roughly 90 students currently involved with the local nonprofit, Friendship Foundation for International Students, enjoying a picnic at Alton Baker Park.

The FFIS was founded in 1950 and has been working with international students from UO ever since. FFIS is dedicated to promoting cultural understanding by giving international students opportunities to engage with each other and the greater Eugene community through seasonal events, like the welcome back picnic, and opportunities to share their cultures with conversation partners in weekly informal meetings.

One of the most successful FFIS programs is the short-term home stay program, which places students — this year about 90 — with local families during breaks from school, or periods where their normal housing is unavailable.

Gabriela Brown, 28, gets to know fellow international students at a recent Friendship Foundation for International Students picnic. Brown is a Fulbright scholar who plans to someday implement a child abuse prevention program in her home country of Paraguay. (Olivia Sanchez/Emerald)

Brown got involved with the FFIS through the home stay program because she needed to be in the U.S. for orientation over a week before her apartment would be available, and she did not have the financial means to stay in a hotel for that long.

She said her host mom helped her get acquainted with Eugene by taking her to buy a cell phone and things she would need for her apartment.

“People are very, very nice here in Eugene. I already feel welcome,” Brown said. “I don’t really feel lost because there are so many resources for international students and so many places that I can go.”

But the home stay program doesn’t just benefit students. Hosts say they cherish the memories they make with international students.

Dan Kay, 73, has been hosting students through the home stay program since he met his wife, June Brooks, in 2005. Brooks, who has been hosting students for 28 years, introduced him to the organization.

“We want to rub elbows with people who are different than us,” Kay said. “Through the students that we have had, and that my wife has had even longer, we have friends all over the world.”

This fall, Kay and Brooks hosted two UO students, one from Turkey and one from France. He said he loves to learn about the different cultures and share a bit of his own — he always tries to take the students to at least one Oregon football game.

In the past few years, FFIS leaders have moved to also partner with Lane Community College, according to FFIS event organizer Matthew Fisher. That is how 21-year-old Lebanese student Leila Jebara got involved.

Jebara arrived in the U.S. just six months ago, but she is already serving as an FFIS peer mentor to other international students in the Willamette Valley. Jebara was born and raised in Kuwait but lived in Malaysia for two years prior to moving to Eugene. She says it is because of FFIS that she is thriving at LCC.

“Being an international student in a country where you have no idea what’s going on is really tough,” Jebara said. “When I came here, I found it tough in the beginning, but then it started slowly to go smoothly. The things that they [FFIS] do here, the picnics, the involvement with the college and the university … All the activities get you more prepared for life.”

In the past, Jebara said, her social circles have been composed primarily of fellow Arabs. But through the FFIS, she has diversified her community and is starting to feel at home in Eugene.

Many of her friends from home have told her she is brave to come to the U.S. right now as a young, Muslim woman who wears the traditional head covering known as hijab. She says they are right. But for her, it’s worth it.

“It’s not easy, but I got used to it,” Jebara said. “I’m just trying to put my finger print on each and every person’s heart that I get to know. We’re all one.”

Jebara is here in the U.S. to study microbiology, and one day, hopefully, she can be a medical researcher. But she is also here to deconstruct the stereotypes people have about Muslims. She says she has grown accustomed to the dirty looks and the slurs people mutter under their breath, but she still gets scared.

“We’re not like that,” Jebara said about the stereotypes. “That is not who we are. We want to live peacefully just like other people.”

Jebara wants to share her Islamic culture and educate people, but she also wants to learn about other cultures. Through FFIS she has found a way to merge her fascination with microbiology and her passion for multicultural understanding in a way that is fulfilling to her. Kay, who has been hosting international students for the past 13 years says the same thing — he is learning about the world in a way that he never would have without FFIS.

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Olivia Sanchez

Olivia Sanchez