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Building Connections with Host Families Beyond Language Barriers

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Marley, YES Abroad 2019-2020, Turkey

Before I began my exchange year in Izmir, Turkey, my biggest worries were about communication –how would I integrate into a family and make friends without being able to speak? What I learned from living with two amazing host families is that creating strong relationships is about the effort you put into your everyday life with them. 

My first host family was a single mother and her daughter. Though my host sister spoke perfect English, she went to university in another city, so from the very beginning it was mostly just me and my host mom, who spoke only Turkish. Over time I developed my Turkish skills, but my host mom and I really got to know each other first through our actions. I learned how compassionate she was by observing her everyday routine: she would wake up every morning to make me breakfast, and she would pack stinky cat food into her purse every morning to feed the stray animals she saw on her way to work. I strived to demonstrate my curiosity and enthusiasm to learn by working hard to learn Turkish, helping her in the kitchen, and accompanying her on daily errands. This foundation of effort between us made it easier for us to become even closer once my Turkish improved and we could get to know each other through proper conversations.

Four months into my exchange, I transferred to another school, and I switched families. My first host mom had shown me how to be a more caring and open person. She helped me become a more confident in my Turkish conversation. I believe her example and guidance is what allowed me to integrate positively into my new host family, and to be a good big sister to my two little host sisters.

Oftentimes, I couldn’t understand my host sisters, but I joined them in any way that I could, to show that I cared about them and our relationship. I braided their hair before school, and read Harry Potter in Turkish with them before bed. They helped me pronounce tough Turkish words, and I helped them pronounce the funny English names!

Even though I returned to the U.S. earlier than expected due to COVID-19, I ended my time in Turkey with two new wonderful families, and with more compassion and patience because of the process of building bonds together!