Exchange students learn new holiday traditions

Tonight, Nouredine Mama will celebrate Christmas for the first time. 

The 16-year-old exchange student from Cameroon is Muslim, and though at home in the capital city of Douala he got a vacation from school in December, his religious holidays fell in the summer and fall. So the lighted tree in his host family’s house is exciting.

“I’m here to share and learn,” he says.

Mama has been in Homer since the end of September with the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study program (YES), established by Congress in 2002 to connect students from predominantly Muslim countries and the United States in positive ways post-9/11. He’s been going to church in Anchor Point every Sunday with his host father, Matthew Mitchell. 

But even as he learns about a new culture and faith, Mama says he’s found ways to keep practicing his religion on his own. 

The Islamic faith requires Muslims to pray five times a day, facing toward Mecca. Mama “googled” the direction and now prays once in the morning before he heads to his 11th-grade classes at Homer High, and four times at night. Each prayer has a specific name and physical component, so though the prayers are traditionally spread throughout the day, he’s been able to consolidate them.

“It’s God that permitted me to come here and I can’t come here and start messing up with my prayers,” he says.

For Karoline Geiker, Homer High’s other exchange student this year, coming to Homer didn’t require as much religious adjustment. Geiker has been at Homer High since the beginning of the 

school year, doing her senior year with the Rotary Club’s exchange program. She was raised in a Christian household in Copenhagen, Denmark. 

For her family, religion is more cultural than spiritual, though — they head to church for Christmas and Easter some years. 

But they always have a real evergreen Christmas tree, and after a special Christmas dinner, her father decorates it with real candles. Then, in Danish tradition, the family holds hands and circles the tree, singing carols. Danish kids don’t have to spend a long night waiting for Santa, she says — they open presents on Christmas Eve.

Neither Mama nor Geiker left home thinking they were Alaska-bound. Mama had hoped to go to New York after years of seeing the city glorified in movies but was happy when he was told he was going to Washington, D.C. Geiker packed for sunny Southern California. 

Then, last-minute changes in host family availability plucked Mama from the nation’s capital after just three weeks at a local public school and Geiker was told she’d be heading a little further north.

For both, the cold weather took some getting used to — on the November day that Mama visited Nikolaevsk School to present about Cameroon, walking across the icy ground in traditional sandals, the air in his hometown was 92 degrees with 94 percent humidity.

But they’ve both jumped into Homer life, joining the basketball team and spending weekends exploring town. 

Geiker says she was pleasantly surprised to discover that the negative stereotypes she’d heard about Americans mostly weren’t true, although she had her first encounter with deep fried ice cream in Alaska. She loves the nature and the casual dress — a stark contrast to urban, fashion-conscious Copenhagen. She’s also a fan of the small town hospitality and general friendliness.

“The community is really supporting each other and I like that as a change from the big city where you can’t even say hi to people when you walk past without them being like, ‘Why are you saying hi to me?’” she says.

Although Homer isn’t where she originally thought she’d end up, Geiker says she’s glad that things turned out the way they did.

“I kind of like that I’m going to a place where not a lot of people from the U.S. have been because it’s not like a typical vacation place,” she says. “It’s a unique opportunity.”

Cameroonian exchange student Nouredine Mama poses in traditional dress during a presentation about his country for students at Nikolaevsk School on Nov. 25.-photo by Annie Rosenthal

Cameroonian exchange student Nouredine Mama poses in traditional dress during a presentation about his country for students at Nikolaevsk School on Nov. 25.-photo by Annie Rosenthal