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Indonesia to Kenai: 17-year-old exchange student embraces the dog-mushing life

KASILOF — "It is against my religion for dog saliva to come in contact with my skin. They told me to tell you right away," were the first words Ramadhiani Afina Zamara, a 17-year-old Indonesian girl, who was to become our daughter for the year, said while sliding into the backseat of our car when we picked her up at the airport.

In shock and speechless, I looked to my now-scowling wife sitting in the passenger seat. Her eyes were as big as goose eggs, lips twisting in a reverse pucker. I could feel an angry heat silently radiating from her.

In order to become host parents for a year through the American Field Service (AFS), we had filled out enough paperwork to make renowned author George R.R. Martin envious of the stack sizes, and much of these administrative formalities required detailed descriptions and even photographs of our life as mushers, living in Alaska with 40 dogs.

"Who is they?" I asked Afina, as she liked to go by for short. But the question I was really thinking was, "Why did you agree to come?"

It first appeared as "Kasilof, AK" and I thought it was Arkansas. But then I opened the file and realized AK stands for Alaska. I got nervous because of the temperature (my host family's picture was of them with their dogs in the winter with snow everywhere). But the thing that took me by surprise the most was the fact that they have 40 dogs. 40! My program prepped me for two dogs, three dogs, but 40? What on earth do you do with 40 dogs? Where do you even put 40 dogs? A lot of things swirled in my mind. I just couldn't imagine avoiding saliva around 40 dogs. I was afraid to be slobbered all over. But there was something that drew me into this state and this family. It's an entirely different culture and I wanted to learn the appeal, what makes this family live in AK and own a bunch of dogs, when there's someplace warmer and you can have no dogs to take care of.

– Afina Zamara journal

We quickly realized what had happened. There are more kids wanting to come to the U.S. on cultural exchanges than there are host families willing to take them on, particularly when it comes to Afina's segment of the AFS program. Her huge shift of environment came by way of the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study (YES) program, which sprang from the ashes of the Sept. 11, 2001, tragedy.

Wearing knit gloves helps prevent Afina from coming in contact with dog saliva – a taboo of her Islamic religion – as sometimes happens when giving the dogs a drink during fall training runs. (Joseph Robertia)

Strengthening ties with Muslim countries

Congress deemed it vital to strengthen ties with countries containing significant Muslim populations via student exchanges. Young foreign nationals could come to the U.S., live with a host family and attend a local high school — all in an effort to teach these students about America while simultaneously educating Americans about the youngster's home country, culture and religion. Sadly, under President Donald Trump, the future of this program is uncertain, particularly for students from six predominantly Muslim countries on his ban list — Syria, Iran, Yemen, Libya, Somalia and Sudan.

Indonesia is the world's fourth most populous country with 260 million people — and more Muslims than any nation.

Even before Trump was sworn in, though, it seemed program organizers didn't want to risk losing a potentially interested family, so they instructed Afina to bring up the saliva issue after arriving here.

As it turned out, since our dogs are more family members than pets, they are pretty good around people, so with a few encouraging commands of "down" and "take it easy" our pack quickly accepted its newest member.

When I first got home I was glad no dogs jumped on me, because I wasn't ready. The dogs were all in the kennels and I think easing into it was a big part of how I got so used to the dogs. My host family introduced me to them slowly.  I wore (thick-knit) gloves when I first pet the dogs so that gave me a sense of security. Being in the Robertia house for the first time was the closest I have been with a dog. I have never been in such close proximity with a carnivore before. I wasn't scared to the point of fearing my safety, but I was definitely cautious.

– Afina Zamara journal

Not only had Afina never owned a dog, she'd never known anyone — ever — who owned one; hers is not a "doggy" culture. She had only known one person who owned a cat and a handful of others with pet birds. Nonetheless, Afina swiftly acclimated to a life filled with canines. Shed fur soon coated every article of her clothing, and she lost the occasional unattended meal left a little too close to the edge of the counter. And the knit gloves she wore to keep saliva off her hands became a norm whether Afina was inside or out, and if she ever forgot to put them on, she simply slid her hands deep into the sleeves of her sweatshirt.

She took it all in stride, and it was fun to watch her learn how each member of our canine clan has its own personality, and that getting to know them individually makes each animal more endearing.

Some of this came from simple comparisons with humans she knew. Our dog Goliath — a shaggy male with eyes like chocolate who is gentle and sensitive — reminded Afina of her dad. Buckwheat — a fuzzy, cream-colored boy who relishes sleeping in late more than any dog in the kennel — reminded Afina of herself on non-school days.

It took Afina by surprise that even dogs dream, something she realized after seeing Nuk — a retired, tan, houndy-looking female — began kicking and whimpering in her sleep one evening.

When we were watching a movie on the couch, Nuk slept and started having what looked like a seizure. It turned out Nuk had a nightmare. Little things like that, they always remind me that when it comes to what matters, we all fear, love, get excited, jump around, and have nightmares.

Afina Zamara, journal

Cautious approach to mushing

Much like the way we introduced her to the dogs, we cautiously eased Afina into mushing, first letting her watch from the sidelines and go for a ride in the sled, then helping hold out the line while we hooked up, then helping hook up dogs herself. And, finally, after enough time had passed, we let her drive her own team.

I'm a culture junkie, and that first day of mushing felt like the very thing I came here for. We mushed around a pretty lake, saw hoarfrosts, and right when the sun was ready to settle down, the sky got this beautiful pink hue. But when I finally got to drive the sled it was probably the most thrilling experience of my life. I was kind of scared of messing up and falling, or letting the sled go and the dogs will go away forever. Every move I made was calculated. It was definitely surreal.

– Afina Zamara journal

No one wants 40 barking dogs for their neighbors, so we live away from society and the conveniences that come with it. Instead, life largely takes place outdoors and in a remote setting, where we butcher big game in the front yard, and stack whole-bodied salmon like frozen bricks in a chest freezer.

Coming from a thriving metropolis with nearly as many people within its city limits as there are in all of Alaska, this was a culture shock to the young Indonesian.

My home city Balikpapan was heavily populated. There were just people everywhere. When I saw the population count of Kasilof, I had mixed feelings. There wasn't even a high school. So I searched my host family's address on Google Earth, and I couldn't see anything but trees. I thought there was a mistake, because why would anyone live in the middle of the forest? Where are your neighbors, and where do you go if you're hungry all of a sudden?

— Afina Zamara journal

Afina hauls a wheelbarrow of moose meat to the freezers last fall. Quartering and butchering large animals like moose is all part of her Alaska experience. (Joseph Robertia)

Living in locales where you can't have food conveniently delivered with a simple phone call was an evening problem. During the day, she also had to contend with how to fit in at a small-town high school, where many of the kids had grown up together since kindergarten and were not of the Islamic faith. Afina worshiped at home since there are no mosques in Kasilof — or anywhere else on the Kenai Peninsula — and the school provided her a place to practice her religion privately. Adding to the task of trying to fit in with a peer group so different in many ways, she also arrived during a contentious presidential election cycle.

 It is definitely interesting being a Muslim in a red state so close to the election. The first day of school I was in the bus, being excited. When I looked outside the window I saw a truck with a confederate flag waving on top, and I suddenly felt nervous.

But for the most part, people at school embrace me for who I am. Of course, I am often bombarded with a lot of questions, but I love answering every single one of them, and giving presentations about how it's truly like being a Muslim. Because it's not the questions that hurt, it's the accusations.

A lot of my friends who were born and raised in Alaska have never seen a Muslim before. Their only exposure to Islam as a religion is through the news. Throughout my time here watching TV, even I am horrified by Islam from the TV. I feel confused and betrayed, because the Islam they display on TV isn't the Islam I love and grew up with."

— Afina Zamara journal

'Not a vacation'

This hits at the heart of why she, my wife and I decided to take part in this cultural exchange. We wanted to do more than help out a young person from the far side of the planet; we wanted to build a bridge connecting Afina to us, and everyone she meets during her 12-month stay here. Afina felt similarly and still hopes to do more relationship building during the rest of her time in Alaska, as well as once she returns home.

I definitely will recommend this to my friends so they can see what I saw. An exchange program is not a vacation. It's not all sunshine and butterflies. It's not as easy breezy as our Instagram feed made it out to be. It is scary to travel across the world with no one to hang on to but yourself. It's challenging and sometimes stressful, but those things make you grow. You wouldn't be wiser just sitting at home hanging out with the same crowd, at the same place, talking about the same things.

I think my experience of being on the other side of the world drastically changed the way I see the world. I discovered that we are a lot more similar than we think we are. Whenever I have meaningful conversations with family or friends, we connect and share thoughts. Within that, we develop tolerance. And we need more of that these days.

At first I thought the slogan "Bringing peace to the world, one person at a time" was kind of stretching it, but after experiencing it for myself, I think student exchange programs are changing the world, and in a larger scale than we are willing to admit."

— Afina Zamara journal

Afina drives a dog team along a frozen lake shore on a frosty winter day. Her host-mom, and Iditarod/Yukon Quest veteran, Colleen Robertia, rides in the sledbag, both for weight and to offer guidance to the still-learning dog driver. (Joseph Robertia)

Joseph Robertia is a freelance writer living in Kasilof, where he and his wife operate Rogues Gallery Kennel. Robertia's first book, "Life with Forty Dogs," published by Alaska Northwest Publishing, was just released.

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