Hempfield Area foreign exchange students hope to return to U.S.
Sanad Saad and David Mrva, two foreign exchange students who just completed a year at Hempfield Area High School, couldn’t be more different on the surface.
Sanad, 17, is a devout Muslim from Tripoli, Libya, in North Africa. David, 19, is a devout Roman Catholic from Bratislava, Slovakia, in Central Europe.
But what connects them is a desire to ultimately return to the United States.
Sanad faces an uncertain future in his home country, which has been torn by civil war since 2011. His family — two parents and four siblings — is currently sheltering in neighboring Tunisia.
“I’m trying to come back here because it’s absolutely terrible (in Libya) right now,” Sanad said.
As for Mrva, he hopes to attend Point Park University on a soccer scholarship but may have to wait a year. His graduation from Hempfield did not come with a diploma, so he may have to finish high school in Slovakia, said his host mother, Dar Frederickson, 68, of Hempfield.
Frederickson, who has hosted exchange students since 1982, said Mrva may be able to take the HiSET test and enter Point Park that way.
Saad came to the United States through a scholarship from the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study, or YES, program. The host family match was arranged by AFS-USA, an international youth exchange program founded in 1914.
The YES program was founded after 9/11 as a way to foster understanding of America by people living in predominantly Muslim countries, Frederickson said. It is funded by the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.
Mrva’s father was an AFS exchange student in Wisconsin 20 years ago, so he felt pressure to follow in his father’s footsteps.
“I’m really glad I came,” he said. “I was really stubborn at first because I didn’t want to leave my family and friends, or my soccer club.”
Mrva learned that some American high schools have soccer programs, so it wasn’t long before he was a midfielder for Hempfield. He also played on the Hempfield hockey team and participated in indoor/outdoor track.
Saad spent his junior year studying and compiling community service hours at places like Christian Layman Corps, Greensburg, and Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, West Point. He received a certificate from the State Department for completing more than 100 hours of community service.
“I came to America hoping I could get a better education for myself, since, in my country, you don’t get the education needed to have a good life,” Saad said. “What I expected was to be in a big city somewhere and warmer weather, but I got hosted in Greensburg, which is pretty good.”
Saad learned English while living in England from 2005 to 2011. His father, a pharmacist, moved the family there because of his job, he said.
In 2012, after the Arab Spring and the death of Libyan ruler Muammar Gaddafi, the family returned, and things were OK for a while. Both his parents were teaching at the University of Tripoli – his father, pharmacy, and his mother, English.
“I don’t know what happened — things just started to go downhill,” Saad said. “It got to the point where it was really bad.”
Saad, a Muslim who faithfully kept the Ramadan fast, learned that on Monday, the last day of Ramadan, his family had to leave Libya. Eid al-Fitr, the holiday marking the end of Ramadan, is supposed to be a time of celebration but instead has been a time of turmoil for the family, he said.
“It’s annoying because my family spent Eid leaving the country to be safe instead of being around the people they love,” he said.
The Libyan capital currently is experiencing its worst violence since the death of Gaddafi in 2011, according to news accounts.
“I’m worried about him going back,” Frederickson said. “He’s on hour-to-hour.”
Saad’s return to the United States, if it happens, will depend upon his ability to get an F-1 student visa. His current J-1 cultural exchange visa expires Wednesday .
Saad left Hempfield for Washington, D.C., on Wednesday and plans to return to Libya via Germany and Tunisia.
“These kids are actually citizen ambassadors,” Frederickson said. “The State Department hopes that they carry back a more positive image of the American people (to their home countries).”
Frederickson said AFS-USA is looking for host families in the Greensburg area for the 2019-20 school year. Contact her by calling 724-836-5723 or emailing: [email protected].
“We used to have 24 schools in Westmoreland County that hosted exchange students. Every school had its own AFS chapter; now we’re down to a handful,” she said. “We used to have 50 kids at any one time. Now we’re down to 25, so we’re really dropping.”
Stephen Huba is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Stephen at 724-850-1280, [email protected] or via Twitter .