Strangers in a strange land

Thousands of miles away from home is not how any student wants to spend the holidays. Yet, across the nation, international students are often left in the United States. They usually cannot afford to travel home to see their families. Mehrdad Shadmehr, a graduate student in the chemistry program from Iran, originally felt homesick enough to not attend classes.

“The first week you feel very alone,” Shadmehr said. “ I remember I just wanted to go back.”

Mehrdad Shaudmehr, SIUE International Student

The good thing about Christmas time is that the hospitality and generosity can break any language barrier. The spreading of joy and cheer can bring a smile to any face, no matter the nationality. At Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, a long-standing tradition has helped warm the hearts and fill the stomachs of countless SIUE international students who otherwise would have found themselves isolated in the United States over the wintery holiday months.

Joyce Schrader is part of a program that invites international students to her home for Christmas food and cheer. Schrader has been a host family for international students for over 30 years. She has been serving students meals over the holidays to help make them feel not as alone even if they are thousands of miles away from home.

“We started this when our children were small,” Schrader said. “Having students in for the holidays is just a wonderful time for us.”

She has gone out of her way to reach out to these international students so that they too can feel welcome and loved at some place over the holidays, even if it isn’t with their own families. Each student is able to come celebrate the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays and share their own lives with people around them who can no longer be considered strangers.

International students can find it hard in America to find people to connect with. But, at SIUE many of these students have found a second family. They know that not just in the United States but around the world it’s hard to find people with the same amount of hospitality that has been discovered with the Schrader family. One student, Sai Chaparala from Iran, knows that these kind people have changed his life forever.

Sai Chaparala

“It’s a wonderful experience to have those people in my life,” said Chaparala. “They will be in mine forever.”

Each of these students will remember the times that they have enjoyed at the Schrader home, remembering the laughter, the company, and the good food. Experiencing this amount of acceptance and welcoming can be the pick-me-up that these students need to get over home sickness and the thoughts of leaving family behind.

But even international families that are on the SIUE campus can still feel left out and alone over the holidays. Hossiem Lavasami, a second-year civil engineering graduate student, and his wife, Sara, are also both from Iran and thousands of miles away from relatives for the holidays. Then, they discovered what the Schrader family does for international students, and ever since they have been less homesick, enjoying the company of others who are also missing their families.

“The hardest thing is when you are away from your home is the holidays,” Sara said. “When we have people like this, we tend to miss home a lot less.”

People like the Schraders and what they do for the international students on the SIUE campus is what Christmas is all about. Spreading joy and helping others is something that only a few, kind people seem to do anymore. By showing students like Mehrdad, Sai, Hosseim, and Sara what the holidays in America can really be like, it shows them that the United States isn’t only about buying presents and drinking egg nog.

Christmas is a time about being selfless and giving to others. Presents aren’t the greatest gift that can be given this holiday, it’s what the Schraders give to the international students every year. Companionship and maybe most importantly good food, makes these students feel at home, even if they are strangers in a strange land.

by Daniel Harris

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