Food Not Included: AFS Exchange Student Starved in Eygpt and Hospitalized Upon His Return

The American Field Service (AFS) is facing a possible lawsuit in a shocking case of alleged abuse and negligence. Maine teenager
Jonathan McCullum lost 60 pounds while placed with a family in Egypt. When he returned he was so weak that he had difficulty carrying his luggage and had to be hospitalized . AFS has refused to comment and referred inquiries to a lawyer who has also refused to comment. This could present some novel tort issues, but it appears that AFS has much to answer for.

When McCullum left for Eygpt, he weighed a healthy 155 pounds. He returned in skeletal shape at 97 pounds. He was in such bad shape that doctors believed that he was at risk of a heart attack.

AFS assures students and parents that the host families will feed students and that it will monitor conditions. Click here Yet, McCullum was in such bad shape that teachers wrote his parents raising alarm over his situation.

That situation appears bizarre. AFS placed him with a Coptic Christian family that follows strict religious fasting rules for more than 200 days a year. However, McCullum has said that the family was simply cruel and that the only reason he did not demand new quarters is that he was told AFS would place him in a dangerous area for Americans. As a result, he reduced at one point to stealing food.

What he did receive was meager:

McCullum said he never got breakfast and his first food of the day usually was a small piece of bread with cucumbers and cheese that he would take to school for lunch. Dinner consisted of beans, vegetables and sometimes fish.

The most implausible reaction was from the host father, Shaker Hanna, who insisted that McCullum stuffed himself despite the fact that he was less than 100 pounds upon his return. He called the allegation a “lie” and said that the Americans were after their money back: “The truth is, the boy we hosted for nearly six months was eating for an hour and a half at every meal. The amount of food he ate at each meal was equal to six people.”

It is doubtful that Hanna would face a lawsuit, which would likely have to be occur in Egypt. AFS is a different matter. The organization can be charged with both direct negligence and vicarious liability for the case. McCullum’s failure to tell his parents or seek a change would be the critical issue at trial. However, his belief that he would be placed in a dangerous neighborhood could rebut such charges. Moreover, it is astonishing that a boy could lose 90 pounds and be in such an obviously abused condition without AFS noting the problem or taking action.

For its part, AFS seems to be treating the matter as purely one for the lawyers and blissfully continuing to recruit new students. AFS lawyers could at least start by expressing some concern for the boy and note that an investigation will be carried out — rather than say that no comment is appropriate in light of possible litigation. The no comment response is a textbook mistake in such cases. Presumably, AFS wants to recruit other families. One can express concern and take public measures without losing any defenses.

For the story, click here.

17 thoughts on “Food Not Included: AFS Exchange Student Starved in Eygpt and Hospitalized Upon His Return”

  1. I was AFS student hosted in sweden 1983/84, and I had a wonderful year, I grow up and my life change ever since I lived an AFS experience, my oldest son was hosted in China on 2012, and he had a great year,my daugther is leaving tomorrow to China also with Afs, I really hope she enjoy her year as I did and my son did too,

  2. I am an AFS volunteer. First though I was an AFS exchange students from Italy to the States. I had a great experience so at the end of the program I decided to become a volunteer.

    I do realize that there are issues in AFS. After all, though, it’s an organization supported by volunteers which ‘handles’ teenagers, and teenagers are not easy to begin with.
    AFS tries to select their participants so that they are ready for this experience, but sometimes the problems are very well hidden. In some countries, also, the selection process is not completely accurate since they are very new to the organization.

    The main supporters of this organization are also volunteers, so basically people who are not paid and have a life, a job and a family to take care of. Volunteering is something you do in your free time, so an AFS volunteer might have some problems with running at the students as soon as there’s a problem. Of course you might find the volunteer who has a lot of free time and care for the good result of the experience, and the volunteer who is having a bad time and have difficulties in following what’s goign on.

    I myself was a liason three times. All three of them there were problems. The first time I wasn’t very experienced, so I’ll admit that I didn’t make a good job. Luckly it wasn’t something serious.

    Second time the girl was here only for a short period in the summer, so she was having many problems with making friends. I met her more than once and helped her out, giving her suggestions and organizing a couple of events. I had the feeling she thought she was on vacation, but I talked with her and sort things out, trying to make her realize this program was something more.
    She did make friends, and she did go out with them. When she wasn’t answering her phone late one night I was the first one her host mother called. It was past midnight but I still called at least five people trying to figure out where she was. It turned out she was just late.

    Third time the boy was having big issues adapting. Again, I met him more than once, make my best to give him advice and try to sort things out. We talked with the host family, and not once did we blame on him what was going on. During the last period of his stay I talked with him very often, listening to his problems and the difficulties he was having. Yes, I had exams in that period and yes, I didn’t study as I wanted to because I had to see him often, and he lived very far away.

    I like to think that I helped all of these exchange students, and I learned from each one of them so that for the next time I knew something more and I was able to improve. If that wasn’t enough I do attend AFS organized meetings to learn and improve our experience as AFS volunteer.

    As an exchange students myself I had also problems. I changed family, and I had many friends who changed family. A perfect match between a student and an host family is actually very different. It is made by the information we have got, but they’ll never been enough. I still have problems within my family, and I have been living with them all my life!
    When I had problems though I received immediate support. There was a meeting with my host family, we discussed the problems and we noticed it wasn’t anyone’s fault, it just wasn’t working for us.
    That same year I made friends with exchange students and I saw them abandoned to themselves, with no idea of what to do when they had problems. My AFS area was, instead, very helpful and always there for me. Of course, it depends on the area and the volunteers who work there, so you might have a liason not doing her/his job. What I have learned, though, is that the family and students can also be helpful and tell the referent that the volunteer is not doing his/her job.

    As a final note on the story we were initially talking about I’d like to say that many exchange students write a blog, so I do believe that if it has diseappered maybe it is because something interesting was written on it. And if someone said he didn’t say anything about not eating I am having a hard time figuring out what was going. I had friends who celebrated Ramadan because they wanted to try it, but I also had friends who weren’t ready for it, so they asked to be changed of family. AFS listened to them and solved the situation. Plus, It’s even stranger that the exhange students didn’t call his parents. If he was starving and wasn’t feeling good I think even a young kid would have thought of calling home, or friends. He could have also contacted other exchange students for support, because they tend to keep in touch a lot with each other and it’s hard to believe that even they wouldn’t advise someone. And I also need to note that you can find food on your own, if the situation is that serious.

  3. AFS cares about things in following order:

    – AFS
    – Host Families
    – Exchange students

    As you can see, the one participating the program is in the third place.

    Reasoning for this order is following :

    AFS has to keep it’s reputation. They will do _anything_ to silence bad PR for them, as that would lower the number of participants.

    Host families are they key to the AFS programs (ie. they are the free asset). Without host families, there won’t be exchange programs. AFS will protect the host families as far as necessary.

    There is plenty of Exchange students, every year. New batches of students every year. New paying clients every year. One bad experience doesn’t really matter since those people aren’t there next year having the bad experience.

    Also, AFS is able to manipulate exchange students to think that the bad experience was their fault. AFS does this in order to keep the host families.

    AFS is one of the biggest perversions I have seen in my life.

  4. I agree with AFSissues. Having hosted a 17 year old who ended up going home early and was miserable here after about one month, I would say that
    AFS cannot quickly, properly or adequately respond to any interpersonal problem or any situation UNTIL AND UNLESS it is a full-blown emergency.

    Our AFS student ended up going home early, but ONLY after I pushed the issue and informed the organization that I needed a different placement for him and they kept speaking with me about “managing expectations” and how many channels things had to go through before it could be resolved (AFS protocol etc., NONE of which appears in the Host Family Handbook, of course). Stating that is it to give the student’s an independent unique experience, they don’t WANT you communicating with the parents back home, so I didn’t. My student communicated with them constantly, so I assumed he was telling them what was going on. He wasn’t. They were shocked to find out the depth of his problems, and I was shocked to find out for all the talking he had done with them, constantly and against the AFS rules (not my rules). Again, they are mere suggestions.

    He didn’t WANT to go home (he was on “vacation” here, and was busy FaceBooking and Skype-ing in all his free time, to the point where he didn’t want to make plans to leave the house on weekends so he could be home when his family at home was home and ready to Skype him). Strangely, he never wanted to come here, either. I learned that when I spoke with his parents for several hours. It left me wondering why they had sent him, but apparently whatever this kids says he wants, they wanted to fully “support”. Much more liberal idea of parenting than I have, that’s for sure.

    Not only would I NOT host with AFS, I wouldn’t send my child as a minor (even one day under the age of 18) to anyone else’s care in their home within the U.S., much less out of the country, unless they were personally known to me and personally responsive to me.

    It took me a while to realize that it is money-driven, and I only realized this when I kept hearing, “We are all volunteers here” over and over while the problem escalated. The AFS handbook is a carefully crafted legal document. It specifically states that “while host families are important to us and integral to our functioning and success” etc.etc. you, as host families are NOT volunteers. When I stated this to the regional director (who was a “volunteer”) it was met with dead silence. Oh, I guess many people don’t read the legalistic manual.

    The program is designed to let your child go, but physically and emotionally. You cannot keep your finger on the pulse of the well-being of your own minor child.

    No one should let their “child” go on such a program. A person should have the rights and responsibilities of adulthood before being sent on such a program.

    If you are thinking of hosting a teenager, think of all the possibilities of having all of the responsibilities that go along with taking care of a teenager, with none of the rights or decision-making authority. The teen years are tough to navigate regardless, but when the teen is from a foreign country, and knows you cannot do anything or say anything, and that your “house rules” (such as no internet after 9:00 p.m.) are only suggestions, they treat your house like an extended stay America hotel. That’s what we had, and it got to the point where I did not want to be around him and I did not want him around my child.

    No, thank you, to AFS, YFU, and whatever other acronyms you go by. Might as well be RFD, as in “Recipe For Disaster”

  5. I’m an ex AFS exchange student – 1982-1983. I left south africa to stay in Minnesota with a truly strange family. They had two yound children, a tiny house and no disposable income. Over one particular period of about a month the mother had to prepare an evening meal from very little and we ate a kind of oatmeal like porridge stuff. Overall they were a depressing bunch and utterly dull. AFS were less than unhelpful. I certainly wouldn’t recommend it to anyone. A boy from Argentina stayed on a dairy farm and they had him up every morning milking cows. He was from the city and had no interest in cows or milk – he couldn’t wait to get home.

  6. Coptics are TOO greedy , they eat 1-meal a day. so It’s normal that they didn’t feed him.

    Ask any Egyptian about Coptics and you’ll hear everything about their customs.

    — They fast 200 days a year !!!!!

  7. I was hosted as a AFS student for one year in the United States, where I had the best time of my life. AFS took care of me and my host family. There was a AFS person coming to my American hone and checked on me and my host family often. They had talks with me and my host family to check if it is a good experience for me and my host family. Besides that AFS offered a lot activities where we did great things as a AFS group together.

    In my opinion this is a very rare case. AFS should check the local AFS people and try to find out why no one took care of the issue earlier.

    Max Schumann (Germany)
    -hosted in 2009/2010 in NY USA-

  8. My daughter is currently in Italy with AFS and we are very frustrated and disappointed with the experience. So far, AFS has basically abandoned her and it has taken months to get any response from anyone in the program. Thankfully she has a great host family, but they are also frustrated with AFS and say that they will never work with them again and that our daughter would have been better off not having anything to do with the program. My question is how AFS has been allowed to function without any oversight? Their PR is so Positive. Now that I am looking more closely, there are a few horror stories, but they are hard to find. Any ideas of how to get the word out that this is not such a great organization. Exchange students beware!!

  9. My children are the most precious people in the world PERIOD. I wouldn’t send my daughter to stay with Mother Teresa. I fail to understand how people can watch their pets more closely than their children. However, I have to question how a 17 year old couldn’t pick up a telephone and call his parents for help.

    That being said, AFS is obviously making money off of this enterprise and should be audited. Also, I have a great idea for them to make money, obese Americans should start sending their obese kids over there and bring them back when they get down to a healthy weight, just make sure they take vitamin supplements with them. It’s probably much cheaper and more effective than Jenny Craig or Weight Watchers.

  10. I’m currently studying in Brazil as an AFS exchange student originally from Thailand, and I’d have to say that the blatant negligence exhibited here on their part doesn’t suprise me in the slightest. I feel for the boy, but if you want something from AFS, you need to pack on the pressure or nothing will happen. Looking back, I should’ve followed my instincts and pulled out during the application process when things began to go wrong (they returned some important documents to the wrong address, amongst other things)

    I definitely would recommend another organisation for anyone wishing to go on student exchange, unfortunately AFS was the only one I learned of in time.

    They have a good publicist, I’ll give ’em that.

  11. I have both hosted a student for AFS and sent my child in the program. In both cases, there were serious issues. In my opinion, AFS will not take accountability for anything. I have watched AFS protect their international relationships, employees, and volunteers as a priority without regard to the students in the program. Host families are not properly screened or monitored. While tuition covers medical expenses, my child was denied medical care more than once. When we were able to get him to a doctor outside of the host family or AFS via a family friend, he was diagnosed with severe bronchitis and needed antibiotics. AFS responded to that with the request to kick my child out of the program for unapproved travel! I believe strongly in the concept of international exchange for youth, however, I will never advocate AFS to any parent looking to send a student or family interested in hosting. AFS stated to my child that the host families are more valuable to AFS than the students, which they now deny. From my personal experience, they continually take actions and make statements completely to the contrary of what is stated on their marketing materials. From what I understand, two international students died in the 2006-2007 in the US. I strongly believe someone of unbiased authority needs to do a serious audit on this organization.

  12. Interesting points. However, I still believe that AFS has much to answer for when a kid loses so much weight that he has to be rushed to a hospital. I also do not see how the host family could be correct that he ate like a horse but came out looking like a twig.

  13. As a citizen of this country I’m embarrassed that we have tried this Egyptian family in the press, with so little information coming from their side. I’m disgusted that mention of a lawsuit by the parents accompanied the first news items. Here is a student, who is just months short of attaining adult status in the eyes of the law. What are his responsibilities for his own health, even at age 17? They are immense. We would expect him to know not to have unsafe sex, not to drive while under the influence, and to loudly ask for help if he was not getting proper nourishment. In fact, he had a Facebook and Myspace presence, and was constantly in touch with his friends back home–though not his parents obviously. Egypt is a place where one can get food from a street vendor for pennies, shop at mini-marts, or eat American-style fast foods. If you think I believe he never dined out with his friends, I do not. I’m angry we are being taken for a ride by this kid and his parents. They deleted his previously public internet journal of his Egypt experience, and now they have made his other internet presence private. I visited his myspace page before it was made private. My impressions of him and his friends lead me to believe it is ludicrous to believe he could not find “anything under the sun” in Egypt. We are being hoodwinked, misled, and preyed upon by this family. I hope responsible journalism will show eventually that there is much more to this picture that has been told so far.

  14. I believe the main problem here is AFS itself, whether its AFS Egypt or AFS USA. If the kid is bullimic, which I highly doubt, then AFS USA should have made sure the kid has no medical problems before sending his to Egypt.
    As for AFS Egypt, didn’t they notice the weight loss? didn’t they suspect that something was wrong with him? did they do their homework in qualifying this family to become a host family? In the program, the kid should stay for a year but in this case he left after only 4 months, what were they thinking sending him to his parents in that shape??? Massive weight loss could be caused by depression, where are his counsels?

  15. I don’t want to seem callous here, but shouldn’t the host father, Shaker Hanna, consider publishing a “Shaker Hanna Quick-Loss Diet Plan” with before and after pictures of McCullum on the cover?

    90 pounds in a few months seems pretty effective!

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