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WORLDVIEW: Cold welcome for international students

EDITOR’S NOTE: Visit “WorldView Conversation,” the blog related to this column, at http://worldviewconversation.blogspot.com. Listen to an audio version at http://media1.imbresources.org/files/134/13419/13419-75278.mp3.

RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–A foreign student preparing to return home after several years at an American university left behind a full suitcase with his roommate.

“What’s this?” the roommate asked.

“It’s full of the gifts I brought to give Americans when they invited me to their homes,” the student replied, a tinge of sadness in his voice. “No one invited me.”

The student, incidentally, was from Saudi Arabia.

Perhaps you’ve heard similar stories. The cold “welcome” frequently shown to foreign students who come to America isn’t exactly news — except to the bewildered students themselves who struggle with isolation and loneliness far from home.

Many of them come from families and cultures where hospitality to visitors is prized and the opposite is considered shameful — families more similar, when you think about it, to the ones we read about in the Bible than the hyper-private collections of individuals we exalt these days. Foreign students don’t understand that many Americans no longer open their homes to their next-door neighbors, much less strangers.

“Most of our people who study in the U.S. are amazed they can live there for four or five years and never enter an American home, much less a believing one,” says a mission worker serving in North Africa and the Middle East. “Why is it that God delivers the lost Muslim to our doorstep and we treat them as if they are not there?”

I suspect a more sinister force than suspicion, fear or prejudice is at work: apathy. Too often, we don’t know they are among us. If we do know, we don’t care.

“We spend a lot of time reaching out to the rich, the famous, the cool, the successful, the powerful, the influential, the ones with the right style of glasses,” mission strategist Justin Long observes. “I could be wrong, but it seems to me Jesus didn’t spend a whole lot of time with people who rejected Him. He didn’t spend years trying to persuade them. So why is it we spend years trying to persuade the stubbornly, rebelliously atheistic cousin (or nephew or uncle or whatever) and never reach out to the foreign exchange student?”

Long asks another, related question: “Why is it that so many Muslims and Hindus and Buddhists (85 percent, to be somewhat precise) do not have a personal relationship with a Christian? … Somehow I doubt it is the fault of most of those Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists.”

Don’t stop telling your cousin and your uncle about Christ. Maybe one day they’ll listen. But take a look around and notice some of the strangers in your midst.

More than 671,000 international students were enrolled in American colleges and universities during the 2008-09 academic year, according to a report funded by the U.S. Department of State. The leading nations of origin: India (83,833 students), China (67,723) and South Korea (62,392). China and India account for more than 45 percent of all foreign students enrolled in American graduate schools. Other top 20 student senders include Saudi Arabia, Nepal and Vietnam.

“Thanks to a push by their government to make secondary education universal, more Chinese students are seeking college degrees, but there are not enough [Chinese] colleges, and too few high-quality institutions, to meet the need,” the Chronicle of Higher Education reports. “A decline in the value of the dollar has put an American education in reach of middle-class Chinese families — who probably had already been salting away much of their disposable income to pay for education.”

One top Chinese student interviewed by the Chronicle was so eager to study at an American liberal arts college that she applied to 28 of them before enrolling in an elite institution. “They really value education and develop you to be a full person,” she said. “They give you a lot of attention.”

I wonder if this young woman, who is likely to become a leader and influencer when she gets home to China, is getting any attention from Christians in the community where she attends school. It would be a tragedy if she, too, leaves behind a suitcase of unopened gifts.
Erich Bridges is global correspondent for IMB.

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