When a community’s population is less than 300, two newcomers stand out. Throw in foreign accents and the differences are even more pronounced. When that community is Seldovia, however, they’re welcomed with open arms, which is exactly the welcome given to exchange students Aydana Omar, 17, of Kazakhstan and Souleymane Sidibe, 16, of Mali.
“It’s kind of hard to break into a community with kids that have known each other their whole lives, but they both have really outgoing personalities and are persistent about getting to know people, which is good,” said Ruth Sensenig, the English and social studies teacher at Seldovia’s Susan B. English School.
“It’s a diversity I haven’t seen in Seldovia in all the years I’ve been here.”
Math and science teacher Justin Derks agreed.
“They’re great kids,” said Derks. “It really does add variety to our community. Seldovia is a fantastic place and to have these two quality kids around, well, I couldn’t say enough good about them.”
It began when Seldovia residents Shad and Tiffany Haller — Shad is the community’s chief of police; Tiffany owns and operates Creationz, a type of artist-co-op — decided to be a host family for an exchange student. After filling out the necessary paperwork with AFS, an international exchange organization, the Hallers received a one-paragraph bio of an available student.
“It said she liked volleyball and basketball, the only two sports we have, was a singer and we always have a band looking for a singer, and did community service, which is important to our family, so she seemed like the perfect fit,” said Tiffany Haller of becoming Omar’s host mom.
Two weeks after Omar arrived, the Hallers received word from AFS that five students were leaving their home countries within a few days and didn’t have host families.
“We had a family meeting and decided we could take one more. A week and half later, (Sidibe) was at our door,” said Haller.
With three children living at home and the Hallers’ oldest daughter and her husband living in the home’s downstairs apartment, the household grew to nine with Omar and Sidibe, not counting three dogs and a cat.
“It’s absolute chaos,” said Haller, laughing. “We have a very full house.”
Omar has done cheerleading and plays on Seldovia’s mixed-six volleyball team. Omar and Sidibe plan to play on Susan B. English’s basketball teams. On Nov. 9, Omar served a Kazakhstan national dinner for the community.
The evening program raised funds for an upcoming student trip to Washington, D.C. The menu featured beshbarmak, plov, borscht, salad, tea and Kazakh fried bread for dessert and highlighted interesting differences between Kazakhstan and local diets.
“It was Americanized a bit,” said Vivian Rojas, specifically noting substitutes for the horsemeat used in beshbarmak and lamb used in plov.
The evening program also included a presentation about Kazakhstan and a question-and-answer session. Sidibe will do a similar community event before returning to Mali at the end of the school year.
The differences between their homes and Seldovia are appreciated by the
“It is a very beautiful place,” said Omar, noting Seldovia’s small size and the peace and quiet Seldovia offers. With one sister and one brother, another difference is the size of her host family.
“We have nine people in the house and it’s pretty fun.”
The first one in her family to visit the United States, Omar is enrolled as a senior and will go through graduation with her Seldovia classmates in the spring. Sidibe, whose grandmother has taught in the United States, is enrolled as a junior. Plans called for him to go to Oregon, but “they switched it to Alaska. I don’t know why,” he said.
For him, the biggest difference is the weather. Small wonder since most of Mali lies in the southern Sahara. Seldovia’s size also has required some adjusting to — Sidibe lives in Mali’s capital city, Bamako, with a population of more than a million — but it is one he appreciates.
“I think it’s better to be in a small town because in a small town, if you have a problem, everybody can help you,” he said.
Like Omar, Sidibe comes from a family smaller than the one he is currently part of.
“I have three siblings. Here there are nine of us,” he said.
Differences aside, Omar and Sidibe “seem undaunted by the fact that this is a small town with very little to do. They’re taking advantage of every opportunity there is,” said Sunni Hilts of Seldovia, who represents Seldovia and other southern peninsula communities on the Kenai Peninsula Borough School Board.
There is one thing they won’t be experiencing, however: Thanksgiving with the Hallers’ extended family.
“I just had to break the news to my mother-in-law that we weren’t coming to her house for Thanksgiving dinner,” said Haller.
“There are too many of us. … So, we’ll just show them our family’s Thanksgiving.”
How big a turkey does it take for a family of nine?
“Honestly, I’ll just buy the biggest turkey we can find,” said Haller.