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Exchange student says he was denied adequate food

Email|Print| Text size + By Jerry Harkavy
Associated Press / February 28, 2008

HALLOWELL, Maine - Jonathan McCullum was in excellent health at 155 pounds when he left last summer to spend the school year as an exchange student in Egypt.

But when he returned home to Maine just four months later, the 5-foot-9 teenager weighed a mere 97 pounds and was so weak that he struggled to carry his baggage or climb a flight of stairs. Doctors said he was at risk of a heart attack.

McCullum says he was denied sufficient food while staying with a family of Coptic Christians, who fast for more than 200 days a year, a regimen unmatched by other Christians.

But he does not view the experience as a culture clash. Rather, he said, it reflected mean and stingy treatment by his host family and a language barrier that made it difficult to communicate.

"The weight loss concerned me, but I wanted to stick out the whole year," he said in an interview at his family's home outside Augusta.

Friends and teachers at his English-speaking school in Egypt urged him to change his host family, but he stayed put after being told that the other home was in a dangerous neighborhood of Alexandria.

After returning to the United States, he was hospitalized for nearly two weeks. The 17-year-old has regained about 20 pounds, but his parents say he's not the same boy he was when he left under the auspices of AFS Intercultural Programs.

"He was outgoing, a straight-A student, very athletic," said his mother, Elizabeth McCullum, who was shocked when she met her son at the airport on Jan. 9 and saw he had lost one-third his weight. "Now, he's less spontaneous and more subdued."

Jonathan McCullum's parents said the exchange program should have warned them that students placed with Coptic families would be subject to dietary restrictions.

Marlene Baker, communications director at AFS headquarters in New York, declined to discuss McCullum's experience.

She referred calls to the program's lawyer in Portland, Patricia Peard, who said she could not comment on McCullum's case because of the potential for a lawsuit.

McCullum said that his host family gave him only meager amounts of food and that his condition worsened during the last seven weeks, when the family observed a fast limiting the amount of animal protein he was given.

The host father, Shaker Hanna, rejected McCullum's story as "a lie," suggesting that he made it up because his parents were hoping to recover some of the money they paid for his stay as compensation.

"The truth is, the boy we hosted for nearly six months was eating for an hour and a half at every meal," Hanna said. "The amount of food he ate at each meal was equal to six people."

He added that the boy was active, constantly exercising and playing sports.

McCullum sometimes bought food, but at one point was reduced to stealing it from a supermarket. He was caught, but the store accepted the small amount of money he had and let him go.

Still, McCullum did not complain to his parents. They first sensed that something was amiss shortly before Christmas, when they got e-mails from their son and one of his teachers about seeking a new host family. They also saw a picture of him on Facebook indicating he had lost a lot of weight.

In early January, the teacher sent another e-mail saying that McCullum was "in bad shape" and "really, really needs to go home."

The McCullums said AFS provided false assurances that he had seen a doctor and was in excellent health.

AFS, a nonprofit formerly known as American Field Service, is one of the largest and oldest organizers of student exchanges. Since its founding as an ambulance corps during World War I, the agency has arranged exchanges for 325,000 American and foreign students from more than 50 countries.

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