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Thursday, February 28, 2008 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Emaciated student: My hosts starved me

The Associated Press

Coptic fasting

Coptic Christians have an extraordinary number of fasting seasons. Here are some details:

Days: More than 210 days of fasting in a year, corresponding to church holidays.

Diet: No animal products, such as meat, poultry, fish, milk, eggs, butter.

Time: No food or drink between sunrise and sunset.

Exceptions: Priests will relax the rules for individuals who are ill, weak or pregnant.

Source: Encyclopedia Coptica

HALLOWELL, Maine — Jonathan McCullum was in perfect health at 155 pounds when he left last summer to spend the school year as an exchange student in Egypt.

But when he returned home to Maine about four months later, the 5-foot-9 teenager weighed 97 pounds and was so weak that he struggled to carry his baggage or climb a flight of stairs. Doctors said he was at risk for a heart attack.

McCullum said he was denied sufficient food while staying with a family of Coptic Christians, who fast for more than 200 days a year, a regimen unmatched by other Christians.

But he does not view the experience as a culture clash. Rather, he said, it reflected mean and stingy treatment by his host family, whose broken English made it difficult to communicate.

"The weight loss concerned me, but I wanted to stick out the whole year," he said at his family's home outside Augusta.

Friends and teachers at his English-speaking school in Egypt urged him to change host families, but he stayed put after being told that another available home was in a dangerous neighborhood of Alexandria.

After returning to the United States in January, he was hospitalized for nearly two weeks. The 17-year-old has regained about 20 pounds, but his parents said he's not the same boy he was when he left under the auspices of AFS Intercultural Programs.

"He was outgoing, a straight-A student, very athletic. Now, he's less spontaneous and more subdued," said his mother, Elizabeth McCullum, who was shocked when she met her son at the airport Jan. 9.

Jonathan McCullum's parents said the exchange program should have warned them that students placed with Coptic families would be subject to dietary restrictions.

Marlene Baker, communications director at AFS headquarters in New York, declined to discuss McCullum's experience. She referred calls to the program's lawyer in Portland, Patricia Peard, who said she could not comment on McCullum's case because of the potential for a lawsuit.

McCullum said his host family gave him meager amounts of food, and his condition worsened during the last seven weeks, when the family observed a fast limiting the amount of animal protein he was given.

The host family was a couple with two younger boys and a daughter who was in the United States on an AFS exchange. McCullum said the parents gave him the smallest food portions, hid treats in their bedroom and complained that the cost of his upkeep was more than they spent for their daughter when she was home.

The host father, Shaker Hanna, rejected McCullum's story as "a lie," suggesting he made it up because his parents were hoping to recover some of the money they paid for his stay.

"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," Hanna said. He added that the boy was active, constantly exercising and playing sports.

Hanna, an engineer, said his family went out of its way to prepare special foods, including fish and chicken, for McCullum during the fast periods.

McCullum disputed that. The family served meat early in his stay, he said, but that ended during the fast period.

He said he never got breakfast and his first food of the day usually was a small piece of bread with cucumbers and cheese that he would take to school for lunch. There was a late-afternoon dinner consisting of beans, vegetables and sometimes fish, and a snack of bread later in the evening.

McCullum sometimes bought food, but at one point was reduced to stealing it from a supermarket. He was caught, but the store accepted the small amount of money he had and let him go, McCullum said.

Still, McCullum did not complain to his parents.

McCullum's parents first sensed something was amiss shortly before Christmas, when they got e-mails from their son and one of his teachers about seeking a new host family. They also saw a picture of him on Facebook indicating he had lost a lot of weight.

In early January, the teacher sent another e-mail saying McCullum was "in bad shape" and "really, really NEEDS to go home."

The McCullums said AFS provided false assurances that he had seen a doctor and was in excellent health.

AFS, a nonprofit formerly known as American Field Service, is one of the largest and oldest organizers of student exchanges. Since its founding as an ambulance corps during World War I, the agency has arranged exchanges for 325,000 U.S. and foreign students from more than 50 countries.

The McCullums said AFS discourages parents from telephoning or e-mailing their children abroad, believing the distraction would run counter to the program's goal of immersing them in local culture.

"They told us to have as little contact as possible, and we bought into it," Elizabeth McCullum said. She said she had confidence in AFS, regarding it as "the gold standard" of exchange programs, but now is aware that things can go terribly wrong.

The Committee for Safety of Foreign Exchange Students, a nonprofit advocacy group, said the exchange programs are rampant with instances of abuse and neglect.

"This is not an isolated incident. I'm aghast, but I'm not shocked," the committee's director, Danielle Grijalva of Oceanside, Calif., said after hearing McCullum's story.

The McCullums are considering a lawsuit. David McCullum expressed concern about the long-term physical and psychological effects on his son. "Someone needs to be held accountable, and I would like someone to say, 'I'm sorry.' "

Jonathan McCullum is recovering and recently went snowboarding with friends. He plans to return to school in the fall, rejoin the soccer team and he hopes to study to be a doctor.

Despite the ordeal, he has not soured on foreign travel: He wants to visit Zimbabwe this summer as part of a volunteer program.

Associated Press writer Maggie Michael contributed to this report from Cairo, Egypt.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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