By Nour el Houda Remli (YES 2015–2016, Morocco, hosted by Greenheart in Austin, TX)
Leaving home to go on exchange on August 25, 2015 was one of the most terrifying moments of my life. I had no idea about what was going to happen, and although there were no certainties, I knew I had to do it. I had to leave home to explore my horizons, and see the world. Honestly, it was the best decision of my life.
Upon hearing that I was accepted into the program, I imagined I’d be placed in a small town where everyone knew everyone. As fate would have it, I was placed in the coolest city in Texas: Austin. It was a dream city! I was placed with the best host parents I could’ve asked for, Gus and Lauren. I was also lucky enough to have an extraordinary double placement, with Denice, the greatest of all Danes.
At first, it was all too much for me. When I left home, my mom had just had a surgery and I felt like I had abandoned her. So, on my second day in my new home, I walked up to Lauren in the kitchen and spilled it all out to her while crying my eyes out. She gave me one of the most memorable hugs of my life, and I felt safe, understood and accepted. We sat in front of TV, drank tea and she listened to me while I vented about leaving home, and how I felt about everything. She assured me that what I was going through was perfectly normal as she had hosted many exchange students who had also felt similarly. Before that moment I was almost convinced that I had enough and I wanted to go home. I’m so glad I didn’t, because now I have an unforgettable experience. My experience cannot honestly fit into a few words.
My host family taught me tolerance, respect for others, responsibility, and kindness. You can always count on Gus and Lauren to sit down with you and hear you out and make you feel heard and understood. Opening up about your feelings part was a revelation for me as we do not often do it in Morocco. Gus, Lauren and Denice were so awesome that on Eid, a Muslim celebration, they all dressed up in traditional Moroccan clothes I had brought them and we ate meat just like we do in Morocco. Lauren even wore a hijab even though it made her feel itchy and hot. I wanted to cry that day, not out of sadness, but out of gratitude and happiness.
Even when I needed to complete my 100 hours of volunteer work, it was my host family who helped me find opportunities and Gus even drove me to wherever I was volunteering. He also drove me to all my debate tournaments and drove us everyday to school. They were there for me throughout the whole journey even when I was difficult to handle, and encouraged me to try new things and do what makes me happy. Not to mention all the money they spent on us. Even my host grandparents were incredibly sweet and taught me so many lessons.
School was also a spectacular experience. At first I struggled to find my place at James Bowie High School where there were about 3,000 students. The learning experience was so challenging yet so compelling, thanks to my teachers. Everyone was just so nice to me from the school staff to the students. And I got to meet other exchange students and make long-lasting friendships. Some of my friends even welcomed me into their families and it made me feel accepted. School also allowed me and Denice to grow a stronger bond, as we had a class or two together and we knew we had each other for whenever one of us needed anything.
Leaving Austin was just as hard as leaving my family in Morocco. I felt my heart tear apart on that last day at the airport, and wished that day had never come. It still fascinates me how one can feel homesick and call a place they lived in for only a year home. But the memories and the whole experience make Austin the home I’ll forever long for. I feel like I never thanked Lauren, Gus, Denice, Lynn, my friends and their families, my school and teachers, the great city of Austin and the YES program enough. I probably won’t ever be able to thank them properly. But for now I will just say: thank you all for making my exchange year the greatest experience of my life. And just like the Yanomami Indians of the Amazon say "ya pihi irakema" which means, “a part of you has entered me and will forever live and grow.” It also happens to stand for I love you.