By Pam Shebest
Special for Second Half
PARCHMENT — Pecan pie and snow are just two surprises Khaled Bukhamseen found as an exchange student at Parchment High School.
“Pies are not as famous back home,” he said. “I actually learned how to make them so I can do that back home.
“My favorite is pecan pie. Oh my gosh.”
The Dammam, Saudi Arabia, native, who played soccer in the fall and competed on the track & field team this spring, had never seen snow.
“It was pretty sweet the first couple times, but then I got sick of it,” he said, grinning. “It was like, ‘OK, we had fun, you can leave now.’
“I had to buy actual winter clothes.”
Another surprise was organized sports.
When Bukhamseen decided to try out for the Parchment track team, he figured he would just drop in for practice whenever he felt like exercising.
He got a reality check when he realized what a commitment he had to make.
“They told me about track and the activities you can do, like races,” he said. “I thought I would give it a try. I was pretty sure I would like it because I’m fast.
“I like the competition. Sometimes you do so good and you get first place and you feel like you’re the best on the team. That’s the good part about it.”
Parchment’s track season is over for all but the six individuals who qualified last week for the MHSAA Lower Peninsula Division 3 Finals. The exchange student is not one of them – but will finish his year in the United States with an experience valuable not only to him but his teammates and coaches as well.
The only high school sports at Bukhamseen’s school in Dammam are in physical education classes.
“I played soccer, but it was just a PE class where they try to vary the sports,” he said. “That was pretty much the only thing I did, and it was like once a week for 45 minutes.”
Once Bukhamseen showed interest in joining the track team, coach Matt Hodgson evaluated him for his strengths and weaknesses along with what the team needed.
“Khaled appeared to us to be stronger in the sprints than long distance,” Hodgson said. “I don’t think running five miles a day out on the road is something that interested him.”
The coach also made sure the sprinter knew what was expected.
“Organized athletics (in Saudi Arabia) are not like they are in America,” Hodgson said. “In fact, one day we talked about it and he said when he first came out for track he thought it was something you kinda showed up for and practiced when you wanted to and made a meet when you wanted to.
“He said, ‘You don’t allow that, coach, do you?’ I said no; when you commit, you commit and you’re expected to be here every day.”
Bukhamseen competed in the 100- and 200-meter dashes, 400 relay and long jump.
Hodgson said Bukhamseen brought a lot of energy to the team.
“We always expect something quite hilarious to come out of his mouth daily,” the coach said. “He’s a good teammate who has really bonded with a lot of the kids on the team.
“Because he’s not used to this organization of athletics, he’s oftentimes running around saying ‘Coach, when’s my event, what am I doing?’ We always expect him to be a little frazzled at times at meets, and it’s quite comical.”
Bukhamseen wasn’t the only one benefiting from the exchange program. Members of the track team did, too.
“He’s given us a different perspective on the world, and he’s told us about the people of Saudi Arabia,” said Donavan Hodgson, the coach’s son, who runs anchor on the 400 relay team. He’s a really funny guy and a really cool guy, too.”
Students also are getting a lesson in culture.
“I think in the United States, especially, there’s a really bad rap on Muslims and people from those areas,” Donavan Hodgson said. “Khaled’s the exact opposite of what (some may) think. He’s the most passive-aggressive guy ever. He’s a really good guy.”
Bukhamseen started the school year with the Kellay Fall and Bill Evans family and for the last few months has lived with the Kira and Franz Griggs family.
Kira Griggs was an exchange student in Paraguay when she was 15 years old and sees hosting a student as paying it forward.
“They really integrate into your family much more than you think,” she said. “You adapt to each other; he’s just another family member.
“He’s a typical teenager; always on his phone, out with friends. His English is so perfect. He’s a great kid, a great student. He has a lot of friends.”
Bukhamseen said it is not unusual for Saudis to study in the United States, especially for college, and his two brothers are currently studying in Seattle.
Although his native language is Arabic, Bukhamseen speaks excellent English.
“In Saudi Arabia it’s mandatory to learn English in first grade,” he said. “My dad has kept it up with me. My dad went to Houston to college.”
Bukhamseen takes most of his class notes in English, but, “If I have a note to the side, I’d write it in Arabic quick, especially a vocab test every Friday,” he said. “I would write the equivalent of the word in Arabic so I wouldn’t forget it.”
Track wasn’t his only sport at Parchment.
When he first came to the United States in August, he integrated himself by joining the soccer team.
That also was an awakening.
“Having a team and a coach and practices, it’s way different than having it just once a week,” he said.
“I had to work out a little extra. They started earlier than me because I came a little late (August) to start the season.”
Soccer coach Matt Streitel has had exchange students on his teams before and said that each boy brings something different to the team.
“It’s cool,” he said. “You get that culture you might not get from other students.
“Khaled had a little bit of skill and was excited to be there.”
Bukhamseen had to go through a rigorous workshop before being accepted into the AFS Intercultural Program.
“Khaled has a great sense of humor,” said David Person, co-coordinator for the West Michigan chapter. “He had to go to Riyadh for orientation and he said it was from 7 to 8, so he thought he’d be in and out in an hour but it was a 13-hour orientation.
“What he had to go through to get here was very stringent. He’s the cream of the crop.”
Bukhamseen is also part of the YES Program, a government-sponsored youth exchange and study, Person said.
“He’s here under U.S. government scholarship,” he said. “They go out and choose the best students ever, the future leaders.
“The YES Program works with programs that have large Muslim populations. He’s one of three YES students in this (southwest Michigan) area.”
The others are at Kalamazoo Central and Battle Creek Central.
Pam Shebest served as a sportswriter at the Kalamazoo Gazette from 1985-2009 after 11 years part-time with the Gazette while teaching French and English at White Pigeon High School. She can be reached at email@example.com with story ideas for Calhoun, Kalamazoo and Van Buren counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Khaled Bukhamseen rounds a turn during a recent Parchment track practice. (Middle top) Bukhamseen, Parchment coach Matt Hodgson, teammate Donavan Hodgson. (Middle below) Bukhamseen trains in the long jump. (Below) David Person, Kira Griggs. (Photos by Pam Shebest.)