I was only 17 years old, completely naive and completely sheltered. I signed up for the American Field Service exchange program, figuring that I’d spend a summer in Ireland or Austria or somewhere else that was fairly familiar.
When my acceptance and placement package arrived with the news that I would be moving in with the Barrak family of Kairouan, Tunisia, my reaction was a mix of panic and disbelief.
Where the hell was Tunisia? What would I be doing in a place like that? What were the people like? The food? The weather?
Luckily for me, AFS didn’t give me much time to back out. I read all that I could about the country, feeling somewhat calmed down when I saw that it was hot and dry in the summer, and that the beaches were gorgeous.
The Barrak family sent me letters, some in French and some in English. They were warm, welcoming, excited to meet me. I saw pictures of all of their beautiful, smiling faces and realized that I’d be moving in with a happy, healthy family. In fact, they sounded a lot like my own Italian American family. We had six kids, they had five. They were all fluent in three languages, which was way more than I could say with only my English and my shaky high school French.
I got my shots (OUCH) and packed my bags and off I flew to another world.
I spent 12 weeks with my Tunisian family. I discovered that hard working, family loving Muslims are just like hard working, family loving Catholics. I learned that sometimes the teenagers rebelled against the parents’ limits, just like we did. I learned that when I didn’t feel well, my Tunisian Maman made me special foods and came to check on me, just like my American Mom did.
I discovered that olive trees are gorgeous, that couscous with lamb is beyond delicious, and that it feels cozy and safe to wear a sefsari when you walk around a city.
My summer in Tunisia changed my life. I am still in contact with the Barrak family, through the magic of Facebook. They are still upbeat, warm, loving and still stylishly beautiful (that’s where we have parted ways!)
The ban on Muslim immigration breaks my heart. It is wrong on so many levels. It is the most unAmerican thing that I can even begin to imagine.
I want to write about my time with my Tunisian family. I want to share some of my stories about being a naive American who landed in the middle of a Muslim country way back in 1973, when war was raging between Israel and Egypt and when terrorism hadn’t yet made us fear the world around us.
Stay tuned, please.