Keri Tully will never forget the first night they welcomed AFS exchange student Onur Oktay into their Menlo Park home. Coming from Antalya, Turkey to attend Menlo-Atherton High, the 16-year-old senior spoke limited English.
“The first night was really funny. We were trying to talk to him about our family rules and what his chores would be in the house and where the dirty laundry goes, and we were doing all of that in sign language and me talking really loud,” said Keri. “Everyone knows the stereotype, about talking loudly to someone who doesn’t know your language, and there I was, doing it.”
Before Onur’s arrival, Keri admitted her family knew very little about the Middle East. “We had to look up what countries bordered Turkey. That’s embarrassing to say, but it’s true.” But the learning curve turned out to be swift —both for Onur and the Tully family, including Tully’s husband, Griff, and children, Will, Grace and Jack.
By the time Onur’s school-year stay ended, the Turkish-speaking student was fluent in English and an avid snowboarder. And the Tullys say they had a “broader view of the world,” including Turkish cooking, Middle Eastern politics and the definition of family. “The experience was irreplaceable. Back in Turkey, Onur was a younger brother, and here he finally got to be a big brother (to our three children),” Keri said. “We built a lifelong relationship with him. It really expanded who we are as a family.”
In fact, Onur returned to Menlo Park two years later for a summer visit, and then for Spring Break 2012, the Tullys made good on a promise to visit him in Turkey. This past May, he journeyed to Menlo Park again, this time with his parents in tow. “His family could not be more delightful,” said Keri. (Photo above is from that visit.)
An estimated 36 AFS students will be staying in the Bay Area this school year, and AFS is still seeking a number of permanent host families. Locally, 16-year-old Agustin from Chile will be enrolling at Menlo-Atherton High School. Agustin loves rugby and soccer and has a passion for robotics and science. Families interested in hosting Agustin, or another AFS student, should contact Marika Strauss or visit the AFS San Francisco Bay Area website.
Keri’s advice to prospective hosts: “There’s no perfect time. That’s not how life is. If you’re thinking about it, do it. You won’t have any regrets.” Another valuable tip: “The quicker you make them a family member in all senses of the word, the easier it is. That was one of the things I was trying to convey in sign language, really loud sign language,” she said.
Photo by Irene Searles. Onur is pictured far left, along with members of the Tully family, friends and his parents