California Livin’

Rumiya Ismatova is smiling.
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© Richard Gillard/Acorn Newspapers
Rumiya Ismatova, 18, will soon return to her home in Tajikistan, a small country in Central Asia. The teen spent the year as a foreign exchange student at Adolfo Camarillo High School. © Richard Gillard/Acorn Newspapers
Many high school students are looking forward to summer, but 18-year-old Rumiya Ismatova has bittersweet feelings about the end of the school year at Adolfo Camarillo High School.

Rumiya is from Khorog, a small city in the southwest region of Tajikistan, a Central Asian country which borders Afghanistan and China. She was one of 46 students from the country to be selected to study abroad with the American Field Service, a U.S. governmentsponsored program.

Rumiya’s first language is Tajik, and she learned Russian and English in school. She could understand nearly everything her friends and classmates were saying when she arrived in August, she said, but it was sometimes difficult to respond quickly in English.

“Right now I’m just talking, and I don’t need to translate any more in my mind,” she said.

Rumiya said she is leaving the United States a very different person than when she first arrived, more independent and more defined as an individual.

“I grew up in a culture that we had to be nice to adults and agree with their opinions. . . .” she said. “Here I learned that I don’t have to agree with everything and it’s not necessary to be nice all the time. Sometimes adults can be wrong.”

Her year at ACHS was an eye-opening experience of how a school can operate. She said students in Tajikistan must be stoic in class and are not allowed to talk to classmates. They must enroll in the same classes and don’t have an opportunity to choose any electives.

“If you’re free, you can learn more rather than to sit strict,” she said.

When she returns to Tajikistan, Rumiya will have one year left of high school because her year abroad doesn’t count toward her school credits. After she graduates, she plans to attend an American university in her country. She’d wanted to be an economist but now wants to pursue a career in international relations or work for a nonprofit.

Of the American customs she experienced, the most influential is volunteering, she said. Rumiya spent a lot of time volunteering with her host families’ churches and the charity Many Meals, which feeds families and people in need.

Some citizens in Tajikistan volunteer on an individual basis, Rumiya said, but there are few service groups for the community to participate in together.

The only groups available are large organizations such as Red Cross or UNICEF. She hopes to bring the spirit of volunteering to Tajikistan by founding an outreach group at her high school to clean the school and read to kindergartners.

She also hopes to change her country’s cultural mentality toward people who are disabled.

“People hide the handicapped in their house because they think it’s not normal, but that’s wrong, and (the disabled) have a right to live,” she said. “We need to make sure they’re with us and not separated.”

Unlike people with disabilities, she said, women in Tajikistan are treated well but don’t have the freedom afforded to American women.

Although Tajikistan is a secular state, it’s predominately Muslim, and religion dictates the rules women must follow, she said. For example, Rumiya is a Shi’a Muslim and can more or less wear whatever she chooses. But Shiite Muslim women often wear burkas that only expose their nose and eyes.

However, regardless of religion, women don’t drive in her country.

Tajikistan’s topography and landlocked location present many challenges for its nearly 8 million residents, she said. About 93 percent of the country is mountainous, and there’s often no electricity during the snowy winter months.

“Life is not as good there as it is here; it’s pretty hard.” she said.

Rumiya’s favorite memory of her year here is the prom.

“I used to read American books about how hard it was to find a dress, and I was like, ‘Come on, you just go get a dress at the store,’” she said. “But then the process to find a dress really does take forever, but it was just awesome. Everyone is dressed up formally in the limo and dancing and having fun.”

Rumiya will also miss pizza and California’s sunny weather.

In her last two weeks of living in Camarillo, Rumiya wants to spend as much time as possible with her host family and high school friends.

“I just want to thank my host families, the AFS coordinators and all the teachers at Cam High,” she said. “This has been the best year of my life.”

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