AFS-USA and Youth Exchange Study participant Elsaid Youssef with his suitcase the day he returned to Egypt (Alex Rogals/Staff Photographer).

Over the last eight months, Elsaid Youssef made the most out of his time in the United States.

Commuting from Oak Park to Garfield Park during the week, the 16-year-old sophomore at Providence St. Mel High School excelled in the classroom, carved out a role as one of the “Brainiacs” in St. Mel’s production of “High School Musical” and made the golf and basketball teams. He quickly became a member of the community and the community quickly recognized him as one of their own.

However, due to the global outbreak of COVID-19, Youssef’s time with the AFS-USA and Youth Exchange Study (YES) exchange programs has been cut short months before he was supposed to head back to the suburbs of Cairo, Egypt. 

“Going to the airport, not being able to get gloves or hand sanitizer at any markets, and going on two planes that people have been on, of course I am worried,” said Youssef during an April 2 phone call with Wednesday Journal, the day before his flight back to Egypt. “My host family was able to find two handmade masks which is good, but I am worried, yes.”

Youssef took a connecting flight from Washington, D.C., back to Egypt on April 3, but he was placed in quarantine for two weeks in Marsa Allam, Egypt, about 460 miles away from Cairo.

After being notified that he was going to be sent home a week before his flight, the end of Youssef’s time with YES and AFS-USA felt abrupt for a variety of reasons.

When he first arrived in the United States last August, Youssef met other exchange students at the program’s orientation in Washington, D.C., before everyone went to their assigned locations.

Originally, those students were going to reconvene in Washington to share their experiences. However, AFS-USA and YES had to send their students back to their home countries, meaning he wouldn’t get to see the people he met last year.

“I communicated with them a lot, but it’s also really nice to see [the other students in the program],” said Youssef. “[Going to Washington] was our only chance to see each other, and now we won’t get to see each other again.”

Youssef’s host family was stunned by the news they would only get one more week with him before he had to return to Cairo. When he first arrived, he was going to stay with a River Forest host family.

However, for logistical purposes, his original hosts notified AFS that they couldn’t take him in and the program was left searching for another route. That’s when Oak Parker Laura Stamp and her family stepped up and welcomed Youssef with open arms.

“When we first discussed bringing him in, [Stamp’s daughters] were a little hesitant, because it was their senior year and they weren’t sure if they wanted to have another person in the house with so much going on,” said Stamp on April 3. “But after a while, [AFS] still couldn’t find a place for [Youssef] to live, and the kids had actually met him since they had friends who knew him. They said, ‘Oh yeah, let’s do it’ because he is so funny, smart, and charming. It was no problem at all.”

The connection was instant for both sides.

The Stamps supported Youssef by attending the musical he performed in, along with his choir concerts, basketball games and golf matches. While it was difficult driving him every day to a different high school than the one her daughters attended, Stamp and her family got to know the community at Providence St. Mel.

“The things that started as being a little bit of a pain ended up being a new way to meet people,” said Stamp. “We were able to get more involved in the community and we got to find out about Providence St. Mel which is a wonderful school. They were thrilled to have him there and really accepted him.”

Since he had never been skiing before, the Stamps took Youssef to the Deer Valley Resort in Park City, Utah. Before the COVID-19 outbreak, they were planning a road trip to New Orleans with Youssef at the end of March.

There was also a plan in place for Youssef’s father to travel to the U.S., so he and Youssef could travel to California.

Even with the complications that came at the end of his experience with AFS, Youssef found his time in the United States very enlightening.

“Since [Providence St. Mel] is 100-percent African-American, I got different perspectives,” said Youssef. “That was absolutely great, because I got to see the difference in how people adapt being African American or being a white American or being a Latin American. If I was only in Oak Park, I wouldn’t have gotten to see everyone.”

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