Thirty students from countries across Africa, Central and Eastern Europe and Asia come to Iowa each school year to attend American high school, learn about American culture and gain an understanding of Western culture. However, these students would not be able to do this if they didn’t have one of the most crucial parts of their stay: a host family.

Host families come in different sizes and forms. Some are dual-parent households; some are single-parent. Some have children of their own while others do not. Some are retired, and some are just starting lives of their own. Iowa Resource for International Service (IRIS) has seen host families of all forms.

As part of our effort to enlighten others about what it’s like to host with IRIS, a multi-part story begins here with how one woman got into hosting. We are pleased to highlight an IRIS local coordinator and dual-host mother, Emerald Johnson.

Emerald originally began hosting college students through a scholarship program called SEED, Scholarships for Education and Economic Development. The program, sponsored by the U.S. Agency for International Development, brought five college-aged girls from Central America into Emerald’s home from 2012 to 2015. As she and her students learned how to live together, Emerald realized how her life was about to change.

“Being single, and never having had children, I was nervous about being able to support extra people when I started my first program,” Emerald said. “However, I also began cooking almost all our meals at home.”

The SEED program unfortunately lost funding in 2015, so Emerald took a year off from hosting to travel. She visited her students in El Salvador and Nicaragua. By the time she returned, Emerald felt the urge to begin hosting once again. That’s when she began looking into smaller programs and found IRIS.

“I liked that IRIS is based Iowa, so I could know the program staff,” Emerald said. “I also like that the YES program is working to build person-to-person relationships in places where there is both a lot of negative propaganda about [the students’] countries here, and about the U.S. in their countries.”

With the SEED program, Emerald had to adjust to having more young adults in her home and getting them accustomed to American culture. As she prepared to host teenagers with IRIS, Emerald not only had to get adjusted to having more people in the home, she had to adjust to having high school students in the home. Hosting teenagers meant extra driving for high school activities. For Emerald, it also meant getting adapted to the parental aspect and brought up a mild concern about how she would accommodate for her students’ religious needs.

In August 2016, Emerald welcomed Noor Ul Ain from Pakistan and Noor Al Mousa from Saudi Arabia into her Davenport home. The two girls were both Muslim, Emerald’s first Muslim students ever. She was prepared though, for in the months prior to their arrival Emerald reached out to local Islamic centers to ask for advice.

“I reached out to my community. I emailed and asked for advice. The main thing I learned was I just had to provide the girls with a clean, quiet place to pray. The local Islamic center was really great, and we made the rest work,” Emerald said.

Making it work is exactly what they did. With Emerald working four jobs at a time, she found that hosting two students was better because it meant they had each other at times when she had to work. She depended on the students getting themselves to school and helping with household chores. Emerald says living in the Quad Cities was an asset to making these things work for her students.

“The city bus is free and picks up two blocks from my house, dropping the students off at school, or they can walk the eight blocks. I show them both routes when they arrive, and they use the buddy system,” Emerald said. “I tell my students that in the U.S. a family is a team. If we work together to get stuff done during the week, we can have fun on the weekends.”

After hosting Noor and Noor, Emerald realized her schedule didn’t change as much as she expected. The girls said they didn’t expect to attend a mosque every week; in fact, they mostly prayed at home.

Emerald says that one of the most important things she’s learned from her hosting experience is patience.

“What I think I would feel coming here isn’t always what they feel,” Emerald said. “One of my students really struggled when they first arrived, and it made me realize how brave these kids are. They leave their families to live far away from home and speak a non-native language, and they are asked to trust strangers to care for them. That is huge!”

While she plans on hosting for years to come, Emerald says she’ll take a year off hosting now and then to travel, visiting her past students in their home countries. She also says that hosting IRIS students has helped her realize just how important the exchange program is, both to the host families and the students.

“It’s an adjustment for everyone,” Emerald said. “I visited my kids in Central America and when I returned to my home I saw my house and my life with completely new eyes. Hosting students has taught me how much leaving your home and returning can change a person.”

Emerald also shed some light on being a host parent and just how much this experience has changed her.

“Understand that you have to be a parent; these are not guests,” Emerald said. “We are strangers for less than a week, then you get to know them more and more. Then one day you’re tired and you are in their room picking up a t shirt and folding it properly, and you look over and realize that kid sitting on the bed is your daughter. It’s weird, but amazing.”

For more information about hosting with IRIS, please call our office at 515-292-7103 or email info@iris-center.org.

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