The University of Iowa

An ode to the family experience: Why you should choose a homestay

May 2nd, 2015

By Alexandra Kolker*

A classic selfie with my host-sister, Abir (center) and host-cousin, Narjiss (right).

When I was applying to IES Rabat study abroad program, I struggled with the question of whether or not to stay with a host family so much that I submitted my housing application two weeks late. I had heard good things about homestays from friends who had studied abroad, but was worried about the awkward interactions that the language barrier would create, worried that I might lose all the independence I had gained when I moved to college after high school. Others warned me that I was moving to a dangerous country in which the culture was too different from my own for me to function within the confines of a foreign family unit. It would be more comfortable for me to live with other Americans in a condo in the city.

The truth is that it would have been easier to live in my own apartment by the University of Mohammed V. I would have been more comfortable in a cluster of Americans dealing with the same cultural deficiencies and frustrations I was. It would have been uncomplicated and smooth to live in a foreign country but stay in my American bubble, studying in a foreign city with all the comforts of cultural competency (among other Americans) that I would experience at home.

But I never would have met Houria Maroufi, famously known as Mama Kabira (Big Mama), around the old city - Mama Kabira, who makes the best briwetts (unbelievably delicious fried pouches of chicken, cheese, and peppers wrapped in triangles with tortilla-like dough) in town. Mama Kabira, who stands about 4’9” but has the biggest personality I have ever encountered, who yells at her husband on the phone when he’s late to dinner, scolds me as “kasoola bintee” (my lazy daughter) when I wake up late for school, but cries some mornings while watching an Arabic-voiced-over version Dr. Oz.

I would have never met my quiet, 18-year-old host sister, Abir, who tells me the secrets of the street I live on – the stories about Kiki the fat cat, whom everyone knows but no one claims, the man who sells used books from a closet between two shwarama restaurants, has three sons and a daughter but is lost in his fictional adventures. Most importantly, I would have missed out on a friendship with one of the most quietly understanding, eagerly willing-to-help women I have ever met.

I could have wasted all of my afternoons at the beach with the other students in my program, spent my time finding haram (religiously prohibited in Islam) liquor in the hidden basements of Carrefour to drink with my American friends on the weekends, but I’m glad that I was too busy sitting in my family’s living room with my sister, mother, and cousin, Narjiss. I’m glad I was preoccupied talking about Narjiss’s new boyfriend, the funny things that women did at the hamam (communal bathhouse), listening to my host-mother’s stories about getting lost in Mecca on the hajj.

If you want to truly immerse yourself in a country’s culture, consider living with a host family. Studying abroad is about experiencing a foreign country – and the most beautiful, important part of a country’s culture is its people.

*Alexandra Kolker is a senior from Mt. Vernon, IA., majoring in international studies and English at the University of Iowa. She is currently studying abroad on the IES Program in Rabat, Morocco.