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Coptic Illusion?
February 29, 2008 8:20 AM   Subscribe

An exchange student spending the school year with a host family in Egypt claims he was starved by the family. Johnathan McCullum, as part of an AFS program, was placed with an Egyptian family who, as Coptic Christians, fast over 200 days a year. His weight went from 155 to 97 pounds during his stay. He says friends and teachers wanted him to change his host family, but he felt he had to "tough" out the year. Others in the exchange program feel that Johnathan and his family are simply out to make a buck.
posted by misha (49 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite

 
Hmmm. I'm not sure that a 17 year old kid would starve himself to the level of that just to try and make money later.

Also, the father's response that "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," (from the first article) suggests that either the boy was bulimic or (more likely in my opinion) the host family is trying to cover up their actions. The same food as six people? Talk about over exaggeration as a smokescreen. No-one can eat for an hour and a half and lose 60 pounds without massive vomiting. It's just not possible.


I think the family is trying to make a buck on it NOW, because that is the american culture, but I am sceptical that someone of 17 years old would have the determination to do that to themselves deliberately (assuming no eating disorder) betting on the vagueries of the legal system to ultimately gain financially.
posted by Brockles at 8:32 AM on February 29, 2008


Also, people are jumping in those comments to defend the religion and its practices. No-one is saying that the religion was 'evil', but that the family were starving him using the pretext of the religious practice.

But as soon as religion is referenced or involved, obfuscation of the facts is inevitable, as are cultural related clashes and people getting very, very indignant with little or no actual knowledge on behalf of their own.
posted by Brockles at 8:34 AM on February 29, 2008


It's important that everyone realize that Coptic fasts aren't fasts from all food. As Wikipedia mentions:

According to the Coptic Orthodox tradition of fasting periods, the diet is mainly vegan, cooked with either oil or water. No animal products (meat, poultry, fish, milk, eggs, butter, etc.) are allowed.

The fasts don't explain the situation at all. Clearly, the kid lost a lot of weight, but nothing else about the story rings true. Why not change host families? Why not come home? Why not buy food on his own? So far, I'm not buying it.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 8:37 AM on February 29, 2008


255 to 197 more like.
posted by panamax at 8:37 AM on February 29, 2008


Fishy.
posted by kosem at 8:39 AM on February 29, 2008


well, if those photos are correct, he certainly did lose some weight. Hard to say where the blame lies without more info.

I don't know how much interaction the kid had with AFS staff; do these programs have some sort of oversight, or is it just a drop-off and "see you at the end of the school year!" ?
posted by dubold at 8:41 AM on February 29, 2008


fasting or pulling a fast one? You decide!
posted by blue_beetle at 8:42 AM on February 29, 2008


Just to be clear--I read the article. but I can't imagine why someone who was starving wouldn't switch to a family in a more dangerous neighborhood. It's hard to believe that an American kid doesn't have enough spending money to pick up food without stealing it. And, really, why not come back? If his story is true, the bigger problem is that he left home with no money, no imagination, no resources, and absolutely no ability whatsoever to take appropriate actions in a bad circumstance. I think he needs to forget about the Zimbabwe trip and start scoping out community colleges. Best to stay near mom and dad.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 8:44 AM on February 29, 2008 [2 favorites]


Do Coptic children his age and height usually weigh 97 lbs?
posted by DU at 8:45 AM on February 29, 2008


Be sure to watch the ABC News video (which I found one-click away from the FPP's last link).
posted by ericb at 8:47 AM on February 29, 2008


There's no quicker and easier way to make a buck than to send your kid overseas, have him lose 50 pounds, return him home after a year, then threaten to initiate a lawsuit involving multiple foreign parties.
posted by brain_drain at 8:47 AM on February 29, 2008 [5 favorites]


He appears pretty proud to be showing the ravages of his trip in each picture. Right in line with 'toughing it out':

I am on par with Pater Aletheias. I think that there is certainly more to the story - and the mental state of this 17 year old. Lack of common sense is a huge red flag here.
posted by caveat empress at 8:53 AM on February 29, 2008


Lack of common sense is a huge red flag here.

Right, because 17-year-olds are known for their common sense.

It's amazing to me how many people are happy to believe whatever version of a story allows for the most snark. Host family too miserly to feed exchange student, who's too idealistic/dumb/whatever to move? Boring. Kid starves self so American family can rip off poor Egyptian family and trash their religion? Now you're talking!
posted by languagehat at 9:00 AM on February 29, 2008 [6 favorites]


255 to 197 more like.

Uhh... did you see the pictures in the article? Unless he's like 8 feet tall, no way is he 197 in the freaky-skinny pictures.

Something really weird is going on with this. I don't understand why the host family wouldn't be worried he was getting so sickly, but there must have been additional mental factors preventing him from going outside for help, be it a predisposition for anorexia, Stockholm syndrome, or just being young and impressionable for his age.
posted by fermezporte at 9:04 AM on February 29, 2008


panamax writes "255 to 197 more like."

I was thicker than that when I weighed 145, and I'm 5'11".
posted by krinklyfig at 9:24 AM on February 29, 2008


I am Greek Orthodox, and our fasts are very similar to the Coptics'. At certain times in my life, I have tried to follow the fasts pretty strictly, and normal adherence to the fasts does not cause such a dramatic weight loss, nor is it associated with "starving."

There are a few possibilities:

a) The family was very cheap and stingy and just didn't give the kid much food (this seems to be everyone's default assumption)

b) The student has some kind of eating disorder

c) The foods he was presented with in Egypt were very alien to him, and he refused to eat

d) The Coptic family had hybridized Christian and Muslim fasting rules (I have heard that this occurred in the past among Coptic families) and only ate after sundown (and only vegan food at that), and the student wasn't able to manage his schedule to eat enough food.

e) the student's metabolism is so high that he requires a heckuva lot of food to maintain his weight.

f) he caught some sort of parasite or other disease which caused him to lose lots of weight

Really, though, we're not going to know, and I doubt there will be much media followup solving this mystery.
posted by deanc at 9:32 AM on February 29, 2008 [2 favorites]


There's definitely some weirdness going on here.

The reality of foreign exchange is that some host families do suck. A lot. Some are even deliberately sucky. But that's why there's usually an option to move families to another one if the first one goes horribly wrong. The reasons why they didn't do that in this case seem a little vague -- and also the two different articles present it differently.

I suspect the host family was not deliberately starving the kid, but didn't exactly meet his nutritional needs. On the other hand, it's not unheard of for exchanges to refuse to eat much of anything the host provides, and practically starve themselves, either.
posted by jacquilynne at 9:42 AM on February 29, 2008


It's amazing to me how many people are happy to believe whatever version of a story allows for the most snark. Host family too miserly to feed exchange student, who's too idealistic/dumb/whatever to move? Boring. Kid starves self so American family can rip off poor Egyptian family and trash their religion? Now you're talking.

Or something in between those two extremes might be closer to the truth? I'm not looking to snark, but his story just doesn't add up as presented. Granted, a LOT of details are missing -- the story is being played more for shock-and-warning value than any kind of news.

I think that deanc's suggestions, particularly c) through f) are more plausible than either the family outright starving him or him starving himself to rip off the poor Egyptian family.
posted by desuetude at 9:49 AM on February 29, 2008


The idea that the son ate for "an hour and a half" at a time I find very unlikely--kids, and teens especially, are typically fast eaters.

I do think it is likely that he didn't like the food he was given, and picked over it, and didn't eat what the family ate when they fasted (they only cut meat and cheeses from their diet during this time, much like vegans).

That said, I can't think why the son wouldn't write home to ask for more money (there are McDonald's in Egypt, there are markets--Johnathan even says he stole food from a market), or why, if his teachers and friends were suggesting he find another host family, as he claims, the teachers didn't contact his parents?
posted by misha at 9:52 AM on February 29, 2008


(I should also note that, religiously speaking, if you have a guest at your home who is not following the fast, you should not restrict his diet to fasting food. It's just inhospitable.)
posted by deanc at 9:54 AM on February 29, 2008


255 to 197 more like.

Uhh... did you see the pictures in the article? Unless he's like 8 feet tall, no way is he 197 in the freaky-skinny pictures.


RTFA -- or the FPP text (above). His weight lose was from 155 to 97 pounds.
posted by ericb at 9:56 AM on February 29, 2008


*weight loss*
posted by ericb at 9:56 AM on February 29, 2008


Comment directed at panamax, not fermezporte.
posted by ericb at 9:57 AM on February 29, 2008


Actually, the teacher did finally contact them in January, so that lends some credence to Johnathan's story.
posted by misha at 9:59 AM on February 29, 2008


I haven't read the article. But I do know that it's not common for any AFS host family to force their guest to abide by their religious edicts if they are not that of the guest. I was enrolled in AFS in high school and they were very clear about that stuff. Plus while during fasts in Egypt there is immense peer pressure with other Egyptians (much more so than there was twenty years ago when there were actually many many restaurants that stayed open, much more than now), visitors from other countries and religions are NOT expected to fast. They aren't expected to slaughter sheep on Aid al Adha. And I did not wear a headscarf during my entire stay except for occasionally when I entered a mosque... and that was by my own choice not because I was told to do it.
posted by miss lynnster at 10:00 AM on February 29, 2008


I meant Eid al Adha, btw.
posted by miss lynnster at 10:01 AM on February 29, 2008


yeah but miss lynster this family is christian, they don't fast during ramadan, they follow more ancient christian fasting regimens which have specific fasts all throughout the year (the article says up to 200 days a year which I didn't know).
posted by cell divide at 10:07 AM on February 29, 2008


languagehat - Any 17 year old that is deemed responsible enough by his parents and teachers to participate in a program such as that certainly should have had enough common sense to get something to eat or to get help.

Do you think his parents left him flash cards and sent text messages when it was time to eat when he was in the US?

My point is that in this case, I believe that there are much deeper issues at hand that existed before he left the US.
posted by caveat empress at 10:10 AM on February 29, 2008


As I said though, AFS is pretty clear that with any exchange people are not to be forced to change their core lifestyle or belief structure during their stay. I was a vegetarian and I was going to a dairy farm in Austria. I was told that the family would by no means be able to force me to eat meat.
posted by miss lynnster at 10:17 AM on February 29, 2008


ABC News has an update:
Abroad Program Has Photos of Its Own.
Also -- from the update:
"'To me it seems like this was a personal choice,' [Sonja] Thorsvik [the study abroad coordinator at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles] said. 'Students are not prohibited from going outside to take their meals. Students usually eat one or two meals a day with their host families, but can still go out and eat. If everyone fasted for as much and as long as he did, the entire community would be malnourished.'

McCullum's father has speculated that the boy took to fasting because he was manipulated by the family and had developed Stockholm syndrome, a disorder in which people under duress sympathize with their captors, the AP reported.

Thorsvik offered an alternative reason why the boy starved. Sometimes, she said, students so wholly throw themselves into the culture in an attempt to 'go native,' but go too far.

'It is very rare for a student to go to Egypt,' he added. 'He would have to be very independent. Sometimes those personality types attempt to fully immerse themselves in the culture. They want to experience things so much that they do harm to themselves.'"
posted by ericb at 10:18 AM on February 29, 2008


"Sometimes those personality types attempt to fully immerse themselves in the culture. They want to experience things so much that they do harm to themselves."
That could have been another possibility-- the fasting rules are very difficult, and you can regard it as a challenge to follow them. When you're young (as I was when I first started adhering to them), you tend to attempt to go way overboard in order to show that you can strictly follow the rules. Then you grow up and stop being so annoying about every last restriction.
posted by deanc at 10:29 AM on February 29, 2008


Too much information is missing from these stories to get a strong enough sense of what really happened. According to the graphic in ABC News video, he went from 155 lbs in August '07 to 97 lbs in January '08, a period of 6 months at most. For higher quality and more robust snark, be sure to actually read the article and make note of whatever facts are given before heading for the comments.

The opportunity for the boy's family to pursue criminal prosecution seems unlikely. In the American legal system, the only other recourse is a civil suit to hold someone accountable for their misdeeds and encourage them to be more responsible in the future. It is better to give the benefit of the doubt to the family than to automatically assume they are just fishing for a big jackpot. This is not to suggest that there is not a huge overabundance of frivolous lawsuits here.
posted by Daddy-O at 10:30 AM on February 29, 2008


McCullum's father has speculated that the boy took to fasting because he was manipulated by the family and had developed Stockholm syndrome, a disorder in which people under duress sympathize with their captors, the AP reported.

Okay, until this point I was on the fence and just puzzled. But now? The kid's family are insane.
posted by outlier at 10:39 AM on February 29, 2008


People who are suggesting that he didn't like the food are probably barking up the wrong tree; I've lived in other cultures/poor countries and it generally goes like this:

I was an International Development worker, and most people eat less when they are dealing with unfamiliar food and lose weight while in country. The thing is, your body is going to reach a certain point where you are going to be hungry enough to eat damn near anything. I can recall times when I tore through huge bowls of plain, unadorned, white rice. - your body will eventually chuck its taste preference for survival.

I would expect some weight losss; not this much and like some others upthread he would have access to enough food stalls/markets to satisfy any hunger for very little money... There is something wong with this story.
posted by Deep Dish at 10:40 AM on February 29, 2008 [1 favorite]


he went from 155 lbs in August '07 to 97 lbs in January '08
After the end of August, there's no fast until the end up November, which is the 40-day pre-Christmas fast before Old-Calendar Christmas on January 7th, except for Wednesdays and Fridays.

So, what you have is: September, October, and most of November, there's little fasting. By the end of November, there's a fast that lasts until January. Assuming one loses about 10-15 pounds when you first come to a new country and are just adjusting to the food, can you really lose 40 pounds just over the month of December? Because that's the only period of time when there was a significant fasting period.

Whatever was going on, this was only tangentially related to the advent fast.
posted by deanc at 10:55 AM on February 29, 2008


I was an AFS student (from the US) to Austria in 1982-83. I lived with a family that owned a pastry (Konditorei) and bread (Baeckerei) bakery and two cafes (bakery and one cafe in the house), and I managed to lose 40-50 pounds in the 10 months I lived there (from a somewhat overweight 205 lbs to a very fit 160 lbs).

Torture? Starvation? No, I simply went from my sedentary, junk-food-filled American lifestyle to an active Austrian lifestyle.

At home, I drove EVERYWHERE, and consumed an entire box of Fig Newtons when I got home from school. In Austria, I walked and rode the bus everywhere, and had three meals a day plus maybe one piece of cake or other pastry. I can only imagine what it would have been like if the family had served vegan, not fat-filled meat-heavy Austrian, food.

I loves me some Wienerschnitzel!
posted by tippiedog at 11:16 AM on February 29, 2008


tapeworm.
posted by gallois at 11:29 AM on February 29, 2008


"Sometimes those personality types attempt to fully immerse themselves in the culture."

I doubt that this was the case here. Seems like he didn't even bother to learn the language.

Also what's with the Ipod in those pictures? Is he wearing one of those earphones up his nose?
posted by sour cream at 12:22 PM on February 29, 2008


It's amazing to me how many people are happy to believe whatever version of a story allows for the most snark. Host family too miserly to feed exchange student, who's too idealistic/dumb/whatever to move? Boring. Kid starves self so American family can rip off poor Egyptian family and trash their religion? Now you're talking!

If someone here thinks he starved himself hoping to make money off of a lawsuit, I missed it. It's perfectly possible to think that his story doesn't add up without thinking he did it to make money somehow. One thing I do know--at least part of the reporting is sloppy. I don't see how the religion of the host family has anything to do with it. The fasting angle is a red herring.

I don't think the Egyptian family's story makes sense either, if the translation is accurate. We might never know what really happened. But still--did the kid really have no money whatsoever to buy his own food? When he lost the first 25 pounds, he didn't ask his parents to send him some cash for snacks? What's he thinking?
posted by Pater Aletheias at 12:32 PM on February 29, 2008


I was an AFS student (from the US) to Austria in 1982-83. I lived with a family that owned a pastry (Konditorei) and bread (Baeckerei) bakery and two cafes (bakery and one cafe in the house), and I managed to lose 40-50 pounds in the 10 months I lived there (from a somewhat overweight 205 lbs to a very fit 160 lbs).

Yeah. There is weight loss involved when you are eating new food and shifting lifestyles... your weight loss is essentially a pound-a-week - a healthy pace; doable without muscle loss, this kid lost weight a lot more quickly and weighed less to begin with...

I don't think your story debunks the possiblity of wrongdoing here....
posted by Deep Dish at 12:53 PM on February 29, 2008


Also what's with the Ipod in those pictures? Is he wearing one of those earphones up his nose?

That's a feeding tube.
posted by houseofdanie at 12:57 PM on February 29, 2008


I'm voting for "something doesn't add up." Let's look at the kid's basic choices: he stays with the host family and starves; he goes to another host family in a bad part of town, which is a pretty sucky choice; or he goes home, which means that his plans for the rest of the year are shot and maybe he gets teased for not toughing it out, but at least he's not starving. What to do?

My guess is that it's either some eating disorder that's triggered by the trauma of being homesick--I've always understood them to be the result of massive self-control issues--or there's some reason that he was willing to starve rather than go home early.
posted by Halloween Jack at 1:34 PM on February 29, 2008


I don't think your story debunks the possibility of wrongdoing here....

Sorry, I should have made that clear. I wasn't trying to debunk this story, just giving a data point.
posted by tippiedog at 1:35 PM on February 29, 2008


I had a similar situation. On my UWP tour we went across 18 cities (spending about a week in all but one city), one of them being Koln, Germany. I was hosted with a group of Catholic priests. I fell down the stairs my first night there, and the really nice priest who got me to hospital and checked that I'd be ok (I sprained my ankle and went on crutches) had to leave the next day for a conference, so he put another priest in charge of me for the rest of the week. He was terrible! He accused me of lying, wouldn't let my sister through the phone, and was just an arse.

I don't eat pork, but the priests ate a lot of it. The only other option was cheese and bread (as well as roast beef, which often went very quickly). While the rest of my crew had their activities, I was stuck at home, and had cheese & bread pretty much 3 meals a day. Luckily I regained enough strength halfway through the week to join the rest of my crew and get proper food. I did plead for a family change, but by that point it was too late. One morning I woke up too late for breakfast and ended up feasting on some chocolate one of my crewmates bought for me.

The last day, I packed cheese and bread again for our "pack lunch" and I could only eat half of it. I was sick of cheese & bread. We stopped at an old castle and I had the most delicious tomato soup ever.

My other host families were lovely, but some of my crewmates had similar experiences - dodgy host families, bad living situations, couldn't adjust to the food, dietary restrictions being mixed up (it's amazing how few options are left in some places when the meat is gone). Culture clash goes into it too - one of my friends got hosted in a relatively bad part of Japan and she had to get back home alone every night, even though crime and kidnappings were high. She expressed that to her host mum, and while her host mum acknowledged it (she was the one who told my friend about the kidnappings), she didn't do ANYTHING about it. (I think she got moved soon after.) Some host families really are super clueless about safety and well-being. Add that to a bunch of young people who are trying not to be self-centered, who think that's just how the culture works and don't want to offend, who haven't quite worked out the balance between taking care of themselves and adapting to a new culture, and chaos occurs.
posted by divabat at 2:56 PM on February 29, 2008 [2 favorites]


Total BS. The kid's family is probably just trying to get their money back from AFS. But there are other possibilities, mostly connected to McCullum's likely difficulties in Egypt (not with his host family).

Yes, Copts fast about half the year, but it's not like Muslims in Ramadan where you only eat after sunset: they fast from certain things on certain days, kind of like other Christians, only more often.

Another thing worth mentioning is that Egyptian food is fairly awful. American food ain't that great, but there is some variety and if you are able to pay, you can eat reasonably well. Egyptian food, on the other hand, is almost always bad, even if you are rich. Bland, tasteless, boring, unimaginative...if you have more money, you eat less beans and more meat but they don't really know how to cook it. Maybe McCullum just couldn't force himself to eat beans three times a day.

Finally, Egypt is not a place to send teenagers on foreign exchange. It's an extraordinarily oppressive and difficult culture and place for adults. For teenagers it must be a nightmare. Probably drove young McCullum to anorexia nervosa.
posted by jackbrown at 12:01 AM on March 1, 2008


Still, a couple of protein shakes, and some time in the gym, and that dude's going to be *ripped*
posted by DangerIsMyMiddleName at 12:14 AM on March 1, 2008


The guy sounds like a really nice kid who was taken advantage of and abused by his host family. And what.a.pack.of.lies. "We gave him food everyday", "he used to eat for 'an hour or two'" and "his parents are doing this to get some money". Yeah, right--and the possibility that you're deranged idiots is so far out there that it just can't be entertained.

AFS should really be taken to task for this. I mean, mixing with a foreign culture is well and all, but just because you're in another country doesn't mean you're any less safe then you'd be anywhere else. The least they could've done, was to tell the children before they packed them off, that if they came in contact with any type of behaviour that DID NOT make them comfortable, that they were free (even encouraged) to approach the AFS.

I'm sort of divided on the phone idea; needling parents can sometimes cause a lot of disturbance to someone trying to settle in, so their having some space between them is understandable, but to not allow any contact at all is absurd: Maybe once a week would've been ideal, to keep the folks back home abreast of what was going on. Even if the guy wouldn't have been able to tell them what his host family was doing to him, I'm sure his parents would've had an inkling from his phone conversations that he wasn't the same person anymore, and would've probably gotten him out of there sooner.
posted by hadjiboy at 2:31 AM on March 1, 2008


Sorry to hear about your ordeal, divabat. I don't think I'd survive too long on bread and cheese either, and after a couple of days of that--a bowl of fresh Tomato juice would sound like heaven.

You say you don't eat pork... are you muslim? I think I'd read your last name somewhere and it sounded muslim.
posted by hadjiboy at 2:37 AM on March 1, 2008


hadjiboy: I gew up Muslim but the only thing I retain from it is the no-pork thing, simply because it was ingrained in me. There were another 2 crew members (one Muslim one Jewish) who didn't eat pork, and a few vegetarians, and I always felt for them when they ended up with a family whose idea of catering to those limitations is to give them a small helping of salad. (That happened my first night in Japan - they made pork curry, and all I could eat was the lettuce. Somehow they didn't get the memo that I don't eat pork. They learnt quickly though!)
posted by divabat at 1:04 PM on March 1, 2008


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