Editor’s note: This is the first part of a two-part story. An interview with three Ellinwood High School exchange students earlier this week resulted in some insights about the United States presidential election, the global refugee crisis, and the differences between the education system here and in their home countries. All three of the young women were well spoken, open minded and welcomed the chance to share.
ELLINWOOD — This year, Ellinwood High School is fortunate to have five foreign exchange students, two boys and three girls, enrolled in grades 10 through 12. As with any good exchange, there is a sharing of cultures and ideas.
This year, visiting students had the opportunity to witness the run-up to the American presidential election, in addition to the differences in the way the American educational system works.
Earlier this week, we visited with Eline Hansen (senior from Norway), Kimberly Ruhbach (junior from Germany), and Karoline Madsen ( sophomore from Denmark). All three arrived in the states around the beginning of the school year, and over the year, each shared with us, they have made friends, grown attached to their host families, and some of their perceptions about the U.S. have changed. Ellinwood has become a second home to them, and as they return home, they will have a new understanding of this place, and a deeper understanding when they hear reports about the happening in this country.
The United States presidential election is big news all around the world, and Norway, Denmark and Germany are no exception. Each of the girls said they were surprised that President Donald J. Trump was elected, as throughout Europe it was a given that Hillary Clinton would be the overwhelming winner.
For Karoline, the campaigns leading up to the election had the feeling of a reality television show. In Denmark, she said, the way each candidate behaved in different instances would have likely resulted in neither one being elected to parliament.
“The candidates would never make fun of one another like it was with Hillary and Trump,” she said.
While they were universally frustrated that few people are willing to discuss politics here, they have still learned a lot from simply being here. All three agree that by living here and witnessing the election process first-hand in the United States, they have a better understanding of the issues now, including viewpoints that were not necessarily reported in their home countries.
Eline was surprised at how biased news reports were depending on the party affiliation of the channel.
“In Norway, we only have one channel, and it doesn’t take the side of any party. It just states the facts of what the different people are for. Here, if you only listen to one channel, and it’s for the Democrats, you’re bound to become a Democrat because it reports all positive things about Democrats, and if it’s for the Republicans, you’re bound to become a Republican.”
Kimberly was surprised that the president wasn’t determined by the popular vote.
“Even after studying about the electoral college in our English class, I’m still not convinced it was a better method of determining the winner,” she said.
It became clear that one difference between political campaigns here and abroad is the amount of political advertising that occurs. In Norway, Eline said there is virtually no political advertising on television. One television station reports the news with an unbiased account of what the candidates stand for.
In Denmark, Caroline said, there is some political advertising.
“But it’s not like here, where it’s almost excessive,” she said. “Here, you have it shoved down your throats. In Denmark, I feel it is more balanced. It’s in the news, but it just stays in the news reports. Its kept out of the normal, everyday programs.”
Kimberly said Germany is much the same. For advertising, there are political posters, with a picture of the candidate, their party, and maybe a slogan.
“It’s all just politics, and it’s not personal,” she said.
Immigration and refugees
Perhaps this results in less extremism between parties than in the United States. And at first, the girls agree, but for one issue that over the past couple of year’s has begun to wear on the people of all European Union countries. What to do about immigrants and refugees. The global refugee crisis has had an affect on how borders are negotiated in all three of their countries, and has resulted in varying amounts of extremism.
Eline shares the most neutral opinion. In Norway, she said, many share the understanding that refugees are fleeing from war, and they feel a duty to help. But there has been some illegal migration from people who are not fleeing, but simply want a better life, and her country has been criticized for wanting to keep those persons out. Particularly on the Norway - Russia border. However, their northern location and the fact that people coming from Europe must sail to her country on a ferry makes it easier to monitor borders, and the entry is a more controlled experience. Also, as Karoline points out, Norway is not a member of the European Union, so it does not handle the situation the same way.
Since 2015, amongst EU countries, there has been a quota for how many immigrants and refugees each country must accept.
“It’s far easier for refugees to wander across borders and enter Germany or Denmark,” she said. She remembers in 2014 and 2015, there were refugees walking along the highways between Germany and Denmark, going on trains without tickets, riding to Sweden. In fact, one day in the fall of 2015, it was reported the highways had to be closed to automobile traffic because of the number of refugees walking along the highway. Finally, Sweden began requiring passports from anyone entering the country, even from EU citizens.
Germany, by far, received the highest number of refugees and immigrants of all three of the girls’ home countries. Part of that is due to the open-door policy that Chancellor Angela Merkel instituted. It has led to a lot of division of opinion on the subject there, Kimberly said.
“I think our Chancellor did it wrong, and I don’t think she’s going to get voted in again,” she said. Prior to that policy, immigrants and refugees were required to submit identification papers before they are admitted into the country.
“She was just opening the borders, refugees welcome. Many illegal people came that weren’t even in danger. Many claimed to be from the same town, born on Jan. 1 of the same year. There were many people who did need help, but many who did not and just used the chance to come, and it was overwhelming.”
Kimberly shared that the grocery stores were overrun, with people just taking things and not paying for them, and finally shop owners had to close their doors. They could not depend on the police to even help because they were so overwhelmed themselves.
“They closed supermarkets even in my town, and I began to realize there were more foreign looking people in my town.”
It didn’t make her feel uncomfortable to have them there, but it did lead to disagreements, with some people urging more help for refugees, and others wishing to protect their German culture and put the immigrants out. There was more racism, she said, and demonstrations against them and then demonstrations against the demonstrators, and then the formation of the extremist party got a lot of attention, and they won 23 percent at one election.
“It was pretty bad, but it has since calmed down now.”
Many in America will remember reports of a terrorist attack on a Christmas market in Germany in December. For Kimberly, it was close to home. Two days earlier, her grandparents had visited the market. She was compelled to reach out and make sure they were okay.
After she heard about it, she texted them, “I just heard about it. You’re not there today, right? You’re okay?”
Keeping in touch
Thanks to the internet and smartphones, the girls are able to keep in regular contact with their families and friends. And this way, that feeling of homesickness that so many older former exchange students my recall is not as overwhelming.
Both Eline and Karoline report staying very connected and aware of current events. Kimberly, on the other hand, chooses not to watch the news and depends on her host family to let her know what is happening in the world. When she visits with her family back home, they rarely talk about what is happening there, and instead want to hear from her what she is up to. Often, her grandparents ask what her impressions are of Trump, and what the news reports here are.
(In part two, Eline, Karoline and Kimberly share about how their educational experience here compares to their home schools, and what the future holds for them when school ends later this spring.)