Trotti, Ragna: Hostage in America (2009)

Used with permission from CSFES

Following the humiliating, early repatriation of 17-year-old exchange student Synne Marie Fjellvoll only 9 weeks prior to the completion of an international exchange program, Norwegian father Per Fjellvoll took matters into his own hands to ensure that his daughter was credited for her Sophomore year at a US High School. Fjellvoll is among a growing number of foreign parents distressed by the US State Department’s failure to supervise organizations sponsoring exchange students and enforce current regulations. Said Fjellvoll, “Students are put at the mercy of the sponsoring organization and the host family from the day they arrive in the U.S., in what can only be described as a hostage situation. Students and schools have no say in their own fates.”

By: Ragni Trotta

Says Synne; “I was so excited to study abroad in the United States of America. It was a dream come true.” Synne’s dream would soon to turn into a nightmare.

The granddaughter of two Norwegian school teachers, Synne’s high school exchange was made through the US with The Education Foundation for Foreign Study (EF), an exchange sponsor designated by the United States Department of State. Under the slogan “Personal Service”, “Safety”, “Quality”, EF charged the natural parents the equivalent of US$12,000 for Synne’s one year “cultural experience” in the U.S.

Placed with Tommy and Gidget Vickers in Branchville, South Carolina, a family made up of a mother, an out-of-work father, 4 children and 2 dogs, Synne’s chores swiftly added up to include daily babysitting for the family’s two youngest children from 3:00 – 6:00 pm, mowing the lawn, walking the dogs, doing the dishes and even washing her host sister’s clothes on Sundays. She was told she would be “on a plane home to Norway” if she refused to perform the many duties assigned to her. Explains Synne; “I never felt like part of the family, I felt like a maid.” Regulations stipulate that exchange students may only take on voluntary, sporadic jobs.

With two untrained dogs urinating and defecating around the mold-ridden Vicker’s home, the host family’s abode was clearly questionable by most health & hygiene standards. Says the exchange student; “The stench was disgusting. Several holes in the roof and walls were scantily covered by cardboard and boards and the window in my room was broken.”

Host families are required to provide meals for students. However, Synne was quickly told that she had to buy her own food. She was not allowed to eat from the family fridge and had to pay for her own meals when the family ordered Chinese takeout, which was frequent.

Grounded for weeks and isolated in a foreign country far away from home, her personal cell phone was confiscated and her internet access revoked by her host mother, making it impossible for her to contact her parents in Norway for help. Synne’s student card did not include the toll free help line of the US Department of State, as required by law.

According to Federal Regulations, foreign exchange students must be placed within a “nurturing environment” in a “financially stable” home and sponsoring organizations must ensure that the host family has adequate financial resources to undertake hosting obligations. EF’s gravest of several violations was the failure to do criminal background checks on the host family and the local EF representative.

36 judgments and liens registered against the Vickers would have thrown up several red flags, had they ever been carried out.

Numerous criminal convictions and judgments would also have turned up against her local EF representative Linda Davis (a.k.a. Linda J. Teller), who ensured a steady flow of exchange students to the Vickers despite repeated complaints from prior students. Local area representatives, who are paid US$ 400-700 to find homes, are required to check in with students at least once a month and must be contactable to the exchange student 24/7. But Davis ignored Synne’s repeated pleas for help for several months and told her to “stop whining” and that “Norwegian students are always the hardest.” Synne’s requests for a new family were also ignored by EF’s Head Office in Boston, MA, who had received reports from teachers at Branchville High School regarding the Vickers’ treatment of a German exchange student staying with them only two years earlier. At that time, teachers had to buy food for the student and place it in the fridge at school to feed her.

Following months of desperate pleas for help, Synne was “removed from the program” in a whirlwind of trumped-up accusations in March 2010. According to EF, she was being repatriated to Norway due to “bad behavior”, “bad grades” and too many “social activities”. While EF maintained that she had been “expelled” from school, a phone call to the Principal at Branchville High School revealed that this was a complete falsehood.

The Fjellvoll family were informed that EF had cancelled Synne’s VISA and that she had to be on a plane back to Norway that very night or she would be deported by US Authorities. In actual fact, foreign nationals who enter the US on a J-VISA have 30 days to leave the country following the cancellation of student sponsorships. Says Synne’s father; “We were shocked. We had just received an email from EF in February 2010 saying that everything was fine and Synne was “doing well in school”.

When the community got wind of Synne’s struggles with the Vickers, three local families volunteered to take her into their homes for the remaining 9 weeks of the school year. However, her host-mother and the local EF representative made it clear to would-be rescuers that anyone taking in the exchange student would be charged with harboring an illegal alien. After verbally attacking Synne at her high school, confiscating her phone and forcing her to leave without saying good-bye to her teachers or friends, Vickers dropped her curbside at the Charleston Airport to fend for herself. Synne’s  parents did not know the details of her ordeal or her whereabouts until she stepped off the plane in Oslo, Norway, where she fell into her father’s arms sobbing.

According to her father, Synne’s premature repatriation was based on minor episodes and lies by EF and her host family. Says her father; “Any accusations used by EF or the Vickers family to expedite the US deportation of Synne have subsequently been proven false by the Principal and teachers at Branchville High School.”  Fjellvoll tried every possible avenue to stop the unjust repatriation of his daughter only 9 weeks prior to the school year’s end. Says the father; “I was horrified to learn that sponsoring organizations have the power to simply withdraw a student’s sponsorship on a whim.” The Norwegian father expressed frustration at the U.S. State Department’s unwillingness to intervene with the EF Foundation on behalf of his daughter.

According to the US Department of State, a sponsor has the power to withdraw their sponsorship “for cause.” However “cause” is determined by the exchange organization itself, without any independent assessments. Said Fjellvoll, “Students are put at the mercy of sponsoring organizations and host families from the day they arrive in the U.S. in what can only be described as a hostage situation. The student is powerless.”

Unable to accept the injustice done to his daughter, Fjellvoll was able to arrange an agreement between Synne’s local high school in Kirkenes, Norway and her exchange school in Branchville, SC.:  Synne would complete her final exams in Norway before returning to the US to attend a 10th grade graduation ceremony at Branchville with her classmates.  There she was awarded a grade level completion certificate as well as two “Certificates of Excellence for Academic Achievement”, not to mention the chance to properly say good-bye to the friends she made during the academic year.

The graduation ceremony stands as a personal victory for the young Norwegian but also prevented a significant financial loss to her family.  The Norwegian State Educational Loan Fund sponsored the equivalent of US$6,000 to Synne for her acceptance into a program for students desiring to complete a study year abroad.  If for some reason the student does not complete their schooling the student is in ‘breach of contract’ and the grant becomes a loan.

Like many others, the Fjellvoll family found Danielle Grijalva, Director of The Committee for Safety of Foreign Exchange Students (CSFES) online and contacted her for help regarding Synne’s unjustified repatriation. A “thorn” in the side of the exchange companies, Grijalva committee is the only independent organization which assists the droves of young students who continue to find themselves stranded and alone in the “land of opportunity”.

Many students participating in foreign exchange student programs have become victims of crimes including abuse and sexual exploitation during their stays in the United States. Grijalva of CSFES stated, «Student placement agencies not interested in the complete health, safety and welfare of its students should not be allowed to place exchange students.»

While the U.S. Department of State claims to investigate approximately 200 complaints per year, The Committee for Safety of Foreign Exchange Students (CSFES) reports between 150 – 200 phone calls per week.  It is thought that only a small fraction of complaints come to the attention of US Authorities, because complaints are typically filed by exchange students upon return to their home countries.

On March 28, 2010, CSFES filed a complaint with U.S. President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on behalf of Per Fjellvoll regarding EF Foundation’s failure to adhere to the Federal Regulations in the case of his daughter. Complaints have also been filed with Stanley Colvin; Deputy Secretary of US Department of State, Mark Sanford; Governor of South Carolina, and Lindsey Graham; US Senator South Carolina.

A pattern of ignoring complaints, failing to find appropriate families and repatriating “problem students” early have become the distinguishing trademarks of EF’s operation. Despite stringent admittance procedures to EF’s program in student’s home countries, an increasing amount of foreign exchange students continue to be shipped back to their home country in disgrace and humiliation, prior to the completion of their program. Problems continue because the exchange industry continues to cite these cases as an isolated incident. However, the many similar stories reported by exchange students indicate that problems are caused by a systemic failure.

Synne was one of 925 youngsters to arrive in the US from the Scandinavian country of 4.3 million last year for a high school year abroad. In the last 7 years, Norway has sent 5,016 foreign exchange students to the US.

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