“I don’t think the AFS (American Field Service) organization will accept us because we don’t have a two parent family”, my mom explained to me when I asked her if it would be possible for our family to be an AFS host family my senior year. “Sure they would…they’re desperate,” I replied. Six months later, we found ourselves at Harrisburg International Airport awaiting the arrival of Gonde (Kunda) Basstanie from Belgium.
The purpose of the AFS exchange program is to learn about different cultures, and, in exchange, introduce the American culture to young people from other countries. When I first learned of this program, I was eager to participate. A friend’s sister had spent a summer in India with a family and had a memorable experience. I wanted this experience as well. Although my mom raised me to be fiercely independent, and although she knew that I would soon leave for college and probably not return to Camp Hill, she wasn’t ready to let go of me prior to that time. Therefore, she said no when I proposed the idea of my spending the summer between my junior and senior year as an exchange student. This, of course, laid the groundwork for my proposition to be a host family during senior year. No fool was I!
Gonde stepped off the airplane and was greeted by a group of smiling girls carrying a large “Welcome” sign and a Big Mac. Yes, we actually thought bringing her a Big Mac was a good way to welcome her to American cuisine. She barely touched it. Nor did she speak much. It turns out that although she took many years of English in school in Belgium, she didn’t have the opportunity to use the language, and therefore, wasn’t able to communicate very well with us the first couple of weeks.
That soon changed. I knew that she had acclimated to our culture when she was in the kitchen one day and became very frustrated when several pots and pans fell from an overhanging cupboard. “Gimme some English swear words!” she said in an exasperated tone. So I did!!!#! Soon my mom burst into the kitchen to see what all the chaos and profanity was about. Gonde and I laughed so hard that we fell on the floor.
We had many times like this together, but outside our house Gonde didn’t cling to me. She made friends so easily, given her easy-going, non-judgmental demeanor. Camp Hill High School had many cliques during this time period, but Gonde seemed unaware of their divisiveness. She befriended everyone. I watched with envy and admiration as she would go out to the movies with one group or go to a basketball game with another, without a thought that others might talk about her behind her back or not welcome her into their group. It simply did not occur to her to befriend only people similar to her. In fact, there was no one quite like Gonde. This was evident when, on the day of our graduation from high school, she was the only student in the Class of ’77 who received a standing ovation.
Gonde died when we were 35 years old, the victim of a car accident. The world lost a great individual that day and I lost someone that I admired. Although I learned a great deal about her culture and the Belgian way of life the year she lived with us, she taught me an unexpected lesson about diversity and discrimination that influenced me profoundly from that year on. Gonde set a role model for me as an individual who did not discriminate against anyone because of anything. She taught me that it is not only important to accept and get to know others NOT like you…it is essential for personal enrichment and also for peaceful coexistence in a multi-cultural world.