Every Time I Pass An Empty House

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John Clark reflecting on an unusual opportunity Kate and I had as kids and what happened afterward. We weren’t ten yet, I guess, when Mom and Dad signed up for the IFYE program (http://ifyeusa.org/). Over a four year period, we hosted three young men and a young woman from foreign countries.. This was at a time when Maine was whiter than white. The only time we saw anyone with a different skin color was when Black people worked the carnival rides at the Union Fair. Nobody knew about Franco-Americans and my idea of a minority was Nancy Simmons, the only Catholic in my class.

Sampson Magsudpor was from Iran, Krishna Laldas was from Pakistan and Perveez Rustamji and Verendra Singh were from India. Not only did we kids get a fabulous cultural education from having them live in our farmhouse for four consecutive summers, but we got to learn foreign words, tasted new cuisine and got major bragging rights when at least one of them visited our elementary school classrooms for an uber show and tell.

IFYE group photo with Sampson.

IFYE group photo with Sampson.

In return, these young people learned to swim in a Maine Lake, cook American style, pick blueberries, take care of chickens, garden and discover how different American country life was. Given that this happened some 50+ years ago, my memories aren’t that clear, but I suspect at least a couple of them came from wealthy families and there was a certain amount of culture shock. Still, their stays were a good time for all and my parents kept in touch by mail with them for years afterward. Perveez even sent Mom a sari that we found in a drawer after she died.

I’ve often wondered what happened to them after returning to their respective countries and how the experience affected them in later years. For me, at least, it defused any unease I had about people from foreign countries. That sense of comfort remained with me when I went to Arizona State, a school that had students from all over the globe. My first friend freshman year was George Castano, a fellow who had come to ASU from Colombia to study architecture. I later made friends with students from Thailand, Sweden and Saudi Arabia, as well as Mexico. In hindsight, I don’t remember any racial, cultural or religious animosity on my part.

Sampson with Me, Kate and Sara

Sampson with Me, Kate and Sara

I mention that because of the climate of unease, fear and distrust surrounding us these days. Our daughters, Sara and Lisa were active in the Latin and German clubs at Cony High School. Sara spent a week in Europe, while Lisa hosted a German student for two weeks and then spent two weeks staying in Germany as part of the German-American Partnership program. She maintains contact with several members of the German contingent to this day. We also hosted a Russian teen and two teen girls from Japan for shorter periods when the girls were in high school. In addition, they had classmates who had come from several foreign countries including Cambodia and the Dominican Republic. Both girls entered adulthood free of racial prejudice and homophobia.

These cultural experiences made three generations in the Clark family better citizens of the world because we were exposed to foreign cultures early on. These days, all too many Mainers (of all ages) are more likely to be fearful and hostile at the idea of immigrants or refugees coming to the Pine Tree State. I believe we should be aggressive in encouraging people from all lands and cultures to come here. At least two articles have appeared in Maine newspapers recently regarding the dilemma older Maine farmers are facing regarding who will take over when they’re no longer able to work the land.

Think for a moment. How many refugees farmed at home before having to flee or before being displaced. I bet the number is high…AND they sure weren’t doing it with anywhere near as good equipment as Maine farmers have. What if we matched some of them with elderly farmers, subsidizing them until they were able to start building equity by producing crops. I bet there are plenty of immigrants who would find freezing weather beats the hell out of dodging bullets and getting burned out of their homes.

Every time I pass a house that’s been for sale for any length of time or has been abandoned and is in danger of going past the point where it can be repaired, I wish we could offer it, along with support and training, to a refugee family. Doing so would not only revitalize our rural communities, but offer our kids the same cultural opportunities my family enjoyed, not to mention creating that work force we’ll need if we have any hope of attracting new jobs to rural Maine.

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9 Responses to Every Time I Pass An Empty House

  1. Sounds like a great program to start! I love the idea of immigrant farmers taking over for the old Mainers.

    My sisters and I were active in American Field Service (AFS) in high school and were good friends with Brazilians, Italians, Argentinians, and whoever else came to our school for a year. Jannie ended up spending a year in Germany and I went to Brazil for a year. It changed our lives; we both ended up world travelers and language learners, while my older sister and younger brother, who didn’t participate, have had much more provincial lives.

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  2. C.T. Collier says:

    Sounds like a solution, John. Every time I see a sweep of brilliant foliage on the hillsides, I think of the Swedish exchange student who came for dinner one cold February day and watched a slide show of our family weekend in the Adirondacks. “Is this a trick?” she asked. “No, the color is what happens to our trees every fall.” There was much more to the conversation between us high-school-age girls, but that stuck with me. Our humble countryside had something to offer this beautiful blond girl from a Scandinavian capitol. Thanks for pointing out that our struggling farms have something to offer refugees. Compassionate problem solving– kudos.

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  3. Gram says:

    Great idea.

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  4. I appreciate this post and this suggestion, John!

    Maine Farmland Trust has programs to connect young people who aspire to a life in farming with older farmers looking for someone to take over for them when they’re ready to retire. MFT also offers loans and other business support.

    I suspect it would be keen to explore the idea you outline in this post.

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  5. Excellent post, John.

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  6. Lea Wait says:

    Wonderful — sharing and ideas!

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  7. Amber Foxx says:

    Great post. I will share it widely!

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  8. Sennebec says:

    Thank you all for your supportive comments. I’m mulling a pretty insane idea at the moment-creating an absolutely unthinkable platform and running for the state legislature in 2018. Traditional Democratic platforms die a horrible death here in Somerset County, so why not shoot the moon.

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  9. Beth Clark says:

    The benefits of such a program are so needed in a state like Maine where the is a lack of diversity and what we sometimes call “the pine tree curtain.” When I was a Girl Scout leader, there were many girls in my troop who had never left the State of Maine. Exposing our youth to different religious, cultural, and political ideas will make them better and more informed citizens. Thanks!

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