By Taha Elbaruni (YES 2018-2019, hosted by AFS in Hamburg, NY)
Let me tell you a story about the best year of my life. It’s been nearly three weeks since my exchange year ended, and it’s a dream come true that I will always remember. It began when my older brother Mohammed came rushing into the house saying, “Taha, there’s this program my friend told me about.” I completed my YES application, and I had the feeling that I was going to leave for the U.S. I told everybody but nobody believed me except my dad. He always supported me and made sacrifices for me, like driving me to exam centers sometimes 300km from our hometown.
Time flew by until I was told that I was selected to be a finalist! I was so excited and all I could think about was what my exchange year would be like. There was so many questions in my head, but I was never afraid of the answers. I didn’t have time to be worried or sad from all the goodbyes - I just wanted the date of my flight to arrive.
If you ask me about my exchange year, I’ll tell you it was the best and most challenging year of my life. I didn’t want to waste a minute of my YES experience, so I started by setting a goal of waking up every day at 5am to enjoy a walk alone. A lot of people thought I was crazy since I was hosted in Hamburg, Buffalo, NY, and I would go out in the freezing weather during winter. Nobody understood that walking alone in the early morning was something I couldn’t do in my home country, Libya, without worrying about my safety. I also stopped watching TV and stopped playing video games so I could play basketball or ride my bike instead.
One of the most important highlights of my year was joining the soccer team – we were a family! My coach, Tony Shiappa, would always tell me, “Taha, you have three uncles.” Coah Shiappa was referring to himself, the two assistant coaches, and my 20 teammates, or rather, my brothers. I’ll never going to forget everything we did together as a family from giving our best during practice and games, to celebrating a victory on the bus and singing, “Country Road,” on the way home. Soccer was important to me because not only did I gain a brotherhood, but I got the chance to talk to them about Libya.
I got the opportunity to talk about my life in Libya with the local newspaper, “The Hamburg Sun.” They published an article about my story as a high school student coming to the US from a completely different culture called, “The Tales of Taha’s Travels.” I also participated in International Education Week where I held presentations about Libya to people of all ages from Kindergartners, to adults and the elderly.
I would say I that I ended my travels in the US with no regrets. I did my best to waste no time, and to represent Libya in the best way possible. So as I said before, this was both the best and most challenging year of my life. I wouldn’t have wished it to be different, as I gained so much knowledge, self-confidence and wisdom, and I’ll forever be grateful for this life changing experience.