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Home > News > PTI

US cultural exchange turns into nightmare for Pune girl

October 30, 2007 14:16 IST

Little did the 16-year-old Nikita Dhavle know when she left Pune for the US with dreamy eyes and an idealism of a cultural ambassador, that she would return in three months, with a scarred mind and a fractured hand.

In what turned out to be a nightmare, Nikita, a bright student of a city school, selected under a cultural exchange programme of the American Field Service, landed in of Minnesota in the first week of August unaware of the hostility that awaited her in the form of the host family in Pipestone.

"I was asked to clean the kitchen, dining room, wash clothes, clean utensils, mow the lawn. I also cleaned the barn where the horses were kept," the girl, who returned to India on October 26, told PTI.

"It seemed to me that what they wanted was a domestic slave who parades as a cultural ambassador," a disillusioned Nikita said.

Nikita, who joined the Raff family in Pipestone after an AFS local coordinator screened the host family.

She was in for a rude shock when after two weeks, Ryan, the teenage son who was away, returned home.

"I came to know later that he was on probation for drunken driving," she said.

Nikita, a keen learner with good academic and extra-curricular activity record, joined the Pipestone Central School to utilise her 11-month stay under the programme. But her problems with her host family continued.                                                 

"Ryan hurled abuses at me and said he the never liked the concept of cultural exchange. I used to wake up to violent arguments between the boy and the host mom and at times I saw them wrestle with each other on the floor. The lady of the house used to ask me pretentiously whether I was overworked but never cared to reduce the load," said Nikita.

"Once in a fit of rage, the host mom physically pushed me when I requested her to encash my cheque as I needed money. Ryan took every opportunity to insult me."

A fall in the barn fractured her left hand. The Raffs took her to hospital to plaster it but did not care to keep the follow-up dates with the doctor, Nikita recounted. By that time the girl who had made a favourable impression at the school, had begun to think of returning home.

She spoke to her parents in Pune and sent an e-mail to AFS functionaries in Delhi urging them to bring her back as she was no longer interested in completing the stay. Nikita was directed to the local coordinator of AFS who told her "You can change the host. But it could be from bad to worse. All families here are the same. Learn to accept and take things in good humour."

With her disillusionment mounting, and the fracture of the hand adding to her agony and she decided to put her foot down and told AFS officials that "students who come here do not deserve this treatment".

The emotional bruises inflicted on Nikita did not escape the attention of an alert faculty member of the Pipestone school who was fond of her and the teacher sounded the local sheriff that all was not well with the foreign student who looked sulky and depressed.

"I could have proper meal only at the school for lunch. At home the cooking was subject to the whims and fancies of the host mom. For two weeks, I only ate omlettes at home. When I requested her to teach me some American preparations, Ryan said teaching you amounted to teaching a dog," Nikita recalled.

"Sheriff Dan Delanie was a nice man, he spoke to me affectionately trying to understand my predicament. He said I could change the family if I want or return home as per my wish," Nikita said.

When she conveyed all the concerned that she wanted to go back she was advised to cite 'homesickness' as the reason for her premature departure.

But she refused despite repeated pressure and stuck to her stand that she was not comfortable there.                                                                               

Meanwhile, Nikita's mother, Anita, a school teacher, and her uncle Sarang Kamtekar, who is vice president of Bharatiya Vidyarthi Sena, the students' wing of Shiv Sena, contacted some Indian Americans settled in Minnesota appealing them to help her out.

Kamtekar said they got a very heartening response from the Indian community who contacted Nikita and was ready to arrange for her return journey. But her status of a minor posed some legal difficulties.

Finally on clearance from the Sheriff, the AFS functionaries decided to send Nikita back cutting short her stay.

She was sent to Chicago where she failed meet with an AFS contact who was supposed to put her on a flight to Amsterdam en route to Delhi.

"With none to escort me and my hand in plaster evoked suspicions at the airport and I was subjected to extra scanning at every point", she said.

On her arrival in Delhi, Nikita met Adnan Siddiqui, cultural counsel at the US embassy. He had been briefed by AFS activists. "He told me he would look into the matter," said Nikita, who returned to Pune with her uncle Kametkar who has demanded action against the host family in Minnesota who subjected her to mental and physical torture.

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