Reprinted with permission of the News-Register. Find more News-Register stories about Linfield College here.
By Starla Pointer
After nearly 24 hours of flights, landings and layovers, Linfield College freshman Mohamed Toure arrived at Portland International. Unfortunately, his suitcases did not.
The 18-year-old from Mali, a country in West Africa, was met by his new Friendship Family — McMinnville residents who volunteered to befriend one of Linfield’s international students. “We got him an emergency pack of clothes and snacks,” said host mom Carrie Larson.
Grateful, Mohamed changed out of the warm clothes in which he’d arrived that August day, expecting a cool Oregon climate, not a temperature in the 90s.
He accepted a slice of Dory-themed ice cream cake from Eva Larson, Carrie’s daughter, who’d just turned 12 and was talking in a squeaky voice due to the helium in her birthday balloons. And just like that, the relationship was sealed.
“Everything happened really fast,” said Mohamed, who speaks English, French, a little Spanish and two Malian languages, Bambara and Songhai. “I was just really happy and grateful I had a friendship family.”
Dave Larson, Carrie’s husband, said they are grateful, too. “He’s brought a lot of happiness to us” he said.
Three months later, friendship has only grown stronger between the Linfield student and the Larson family, which also includes son Sebas, 15, and younger daughter August Lily, 6.
“I’m the older sibling now,” joked Mohamed, who has an older sister studying at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, B.C.
Like other international students, he lives in a dorm on campus. But he frequently makes the trip from Campbell Hall to the Larson house to visit, play video games or basketball, or pet the family dog. His family has a dog and cat, in addition to pigeons, sheep and turkeys, and he misses the animals.
They’ve been to the coast together, too. “Really beautiful and cold,” said Mohamed, who insisted in going into the water.
He also enjoys sharing meals with the Larsons.
The family invites him to many of their meals and get-togethers with extended family, including Carrie’s parents and siblings, and her siblings’ families. “We hit him with all our traditions,” Carrie said, including family birthday parties and the Larsons’ annual back-to-school breakfast with several other McMinnville families.
“I met a whole bunch of people,” he said. “It was a really fun, family moment, something most people don’t really get when they’re away from home.”
He liked the food, too, especially monkey bread, a sweet treat he’d never tasted. “Delicious,” he said.
The breakfast has been a tradition for years, the Larsons said. Their family counts several teachers, including Dave, who teaches science, technology, engineering and math programs in the McMinnville schools; brother Jared, who teaches science at Mac High; and Jared’s wife, Mindy, who teaches at Linfield.
Those education connections helped bring Mohamed to McMinnville and lead to him being paired with Larsons in the Friendship Family program.
A high school friend of Carrie’s, Kourtney Wessels, and her husband, Lysha Wasser, are currently living in Mali. Kourtney, who once taught at Duniway Middle School, and Leisha, who served as an assistant principal at Mac High, work at the the American International School in Mali’s capital city of Bamako.
Mohamed, who was born in Louisiana while his father was attending Tulane University, has lived in Bamako since the age of 3. He attended American International before coming to Linfield.
Like his dad and his older sister, he was considering continuing his education in another country.
“Mr. Lysha asked me what I would like in a college,” Mohamed recalled. “I told him a smaller college, that was not in a big city.
He suggested I look into Linfield. I applied, and here I am.”
When they learned one of their students was enrolling at Linfield, Lysha and Kourtney contacted their friends the Larsons. They worked out a match through Shannon Dunn, director of Linfield’s Friendship Family program, and it turned out to be a great fit.
Mohamed also is involved on campus — something Linfield encourages for all students.
With thoughts of becoming a medical researcher, he’s taking advanced science classes. When not studying, he plays Ultimate Frisbee with his classmates.
He loves Linfield, he said, and he has plenty of friends on campus. But he also really enjoys attending the Larson kids’ soccer games and other activities.
“I love having the emotional support of a family in a new place,” he said. “It helps me realize that ‘family’ doesn’t necessary mean blood relations.”
Last week, Mohamed experienced his first Thanksgiving holiday — the Larson way, which meant several dinners, a run in the rain and other activities.
Turkey is served at feasts in Mali, such as those associated with the Ramadan and Tabaski holidays, he said. So turkey wasn’t new to him.
But he’d never eaten pumpkin pie, and he loved it.
He ate his first piece of pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving Day, during a dinner prepared by Mindy Larson’s father, Jerry Legard, at one of those big, extended family gatherings.
They’d planned to have turkey sandwiches that night, since another celebration would happen a couple days later. But the cook wanted to try his hand at prime rib, Carrie said.
“He succeeded!” Mohamed said.
Earlier that day, he and his Friendship Family joined other McMinnville residents at a run staged by another local family. The annual event raises money and food for the YCAP food bank.
Running is much better in the rain, he concluded.
On Saturday, he joined the Larsons for a more traditional Thanksgiving meal.
The extended family and friends watched football, went on a treasure hunt and talked, but not about politics. They ate appetizers, including those made by Eva and other youngsters.
Mid-afternoon, they sat at a table that holds more than 20 people and passed the turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and other dishes. And finally it was time for Mohamed’s new favorite dessert, pumpkin pie.