March 1, 2008

Exchange student starved while in Egypt

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.
Article(click for picture and more of the story)

But when he returned home to Maine just four months later, the 5-foot-9 teenager weighed a mere 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 says 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 in an interview at his family's home outside Augusta.......After returning to the U.S., he was hospitalized for nearly two weeks. The 17-year-old has regained about 20 pounds, but his parents say he's not the same boy he was when he left under the auspices of AFS Intercultural Programs......Jonathan McCullum's parents said the exchange program should have warned them that students placed with Coptic families would be subject to dietary restrictions.......McCullum said his host family gave him only 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 U.S. 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 that he made it up because his parents were hoping to recover some of the money they paid for his stay as compensation.

"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 disputes 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.

Still, McCullum did not complain to his parents. His father suspects he may have fallen victim to Stockholm syndrome, in which people start to feel a sense of loyalty to those who victimize them.

So what do you think about this? I feel for the kid,really, it must have been some ordeal, but I don't understand why he didn't ask his parents for money? The host father sounds like a could he eat for 1 1/2 hours food to feed 6 people and look like that?(seriously check out the slideshow) Unless he's bulimic but that's a long shot. I'm perplexed as to what the deal is here, but he really should have said something, changed hosts, or went home...not "stuck it out". What's your take?


  1. Assalamu alaikum mona,

    I read this yesterday..I dont understand why he would live like this,why not switch for a different family? why go through starvation? I dont understand this kid....

  2. The whole thing is a little odd... I wonder what the whole story is. There must be something in-betweenthe two versions that is the actual truth.

  3. LittleMiss, I wonder, it's all very strange.
    Umlayla, odd indeed! I wish I knew what it was! Why do I care so much?

  4. Obviously if the family could afford for their daughter to leave Egypt for the U.S they might have money, unless they were financed through the Coptic church, which is highly.

    I believe the boy felt it was a cultural to eat what he ate. He probably didn't want to mess up his chances of staying in Egypt the time he was granted. He also might have not noticed (as we all know how teenage boys are).

    As an Egyptian, I can smell the lies from the hosting family. I think they were a bunch of cheapskates and were horrible people.

  5. Organic, I agree, how could they be so cruel?

  6. Anonymous5:08 PM

    Asswalamualaikum,I do not think some children are mature enough to be in a situation like this.Even at his age.All i can say as sad as it is i am happy the host family was not muslim!! Salam,Umasiya

  7. Salam,Umasiya, Can't say that thought didn't cross my mind!

  8. Sounds very fishy. And why did the hosting program accept families who have such strict dietary restrictions? Did they not ask, thankful for any sucker to help out? I was an exchange student in France at 16 and believe me if I didn't like the food, I would buy something when I went out to school, etc. There is no way I would starve myself. I also lived in Egypt for two years in college. There is plenty of cheap food available: khoshary, felafel, bread pies, etc. I find it hard to believe he could have starved himself with all the options there. Very suspicious story. I will post it to my ladies in Jordan and see what they think.

  9. Nicole, Yea, I mean I hate to say it but it doesn't add up...I don't know, Who knows what really is the story.

  10. I just heard about that this morning on GMA, but they didn't say anything about where he stayed. I was going to research it until, lo and behold, I found it on your blog. Thanks!

    Wow, in Egypt. Thats absurd. I think they did starve him, but I definately don't know why he didn't complain. I would not have stayed quiet. I mean, I am not a huge fan of egyptian food, but I found that most Egyptian households when I went for dinner, I was almost force-fed. One matron- sweet sweet women who I adored- actually got up and started feeding me by her own hands I wasn't eating enough in her mind.

    There's something weird there, I wonder if there wasn't come psychological abuse that went along with it. Some "this is how life is in Egypt, this is how we live, so suck it up and be a man and act like an egyptian you soft pansy american".

    For a young boy that could be a powerful psychological lead.

    Next time he should stay with muslims though, he'll come back weighing 50 lbs over.

    And I'm with umAsiyah on that, I heaved a huge sigh of relief when I read "coptic christians" rather than the "muslim" I expected when I saw it was egypt.

    And, can I just say, Alhumdulillah he's alright.

    Very, very odd.

    Thank you for posting this.

  11. Molly:

    Quick note on your comment. I don't think it's an issue of being Coptic or Muslim. In Egypt, we are one. Coptics and Muslims have the same traditions and are equally generous. I've met stingy Muslims. As a matter of fact, there is a huge movement in Egypt right now to try to unite Muslims and Coptics even more because there is a lot of prejudice going around.

  12. Molly, we get GMA the day after, I'll have to try to see that tom. morning...
    I too was hand fed my an auntie in Egypt!

    Organic,I think it was just a general sigh of relieve as we have enough bad press as it is. My kids go to a Coptic school and they're all friends alhamdulillah, but there are a few times where there have been clashes.

  13. Very strange situation. I agree that many children are just not mature enough to deal with the cultural challenges one faces living in other countries. I suspect that the hosting program did not do it's job properly by selecting this family as hosts either. The boy should however have complained and been rehoused. If he thought that this was the Egyptian way and he just had to 'suck it up' then he should not have been involved in the program.The boy should have had more self-respect and the family should have behaved better too.

    My brother went on an exchange to France at 14 where he was pelted with bread at mealtimes by the father of his host family because he had a German surname. This kind of treatment should be reported immediately and young people need to be encouraged to do so. No one has the right to treat another human being with such disrespect!

  14. ExpatKat, Your brother's experience is just a discrace, as was this case. Why do people like that become host families? Thanks for visiting & commenting.:)

  15. Janene5:35 AM

    I was wondering the same as well, why did he not go to the police station, find a payphone, tell someone? And also, he was still posting images on facebook while his body was deteriorating! (The whole world was at his disposable!)

    Still, he was in a vulnerable, dependent situation in a completely foreign culture.

    Reminds me of the young teen girl kidnapped by some nut in the united states; months later she was found walking around the streets with her kidnapper.

    Also heiress Patty Hearst, who at 19 was kidnapped by a terrorist group (SLA(. Two months later she was was a willing accomplice and wielded an assault rifle while robbing a bank (along with her comrades).

    I really think the boy, Jonathan, just had an overwhelming sense of powerlessness ( how often have we heard of children who did not rush to tell others of abuse; or women who do not leave their husbands despite years of horrific abuse?)

  16. janene5:36 AM

    grr, not disposable, but disposal

    (you can stop giggling now!)

  17. Janene, do you mean Elisabeth Smart? While his apparent inability to tell people he was suffering boggles the mind, I feel bad for him, really.

  18. janene11:12 PM

    yes, Elisabeth Smart.

  19. Didn't he take enough money to eat? Couldn't he have made a little money to buy food? There's no way you can really keep a 19 year old boy in a house locked up without food.. i just dont get it.

  20. Jaz, nice to see someone reading the archives! Mysterious story all around.


Thanks for commenting!