When you are nearly 7,000 kilometres from home, it can be difficult to travel home for the holiday season.
People long to see their family and friends and enjoy all the festivities that go along with those gatherings.
And for some — like Somadina Muojeke, a second-year engineering student from Nigeria who attends Memorial University — making it home can’t happen.
This is where a special group of citizens of St. John’s and the surrounding area come in.
Families across the region have volunteered for nearly two decades through Memorial University’s Internationalization Office to be part of its Holiday Hosting program.
The Internationalization Office pairs students with host families, and the students go to the homes to take part in the festivities each separate family hosts. This usually is for Christmas dinner or brunch and all other activities the family has on tap.
This is the second year Muojeke has participated in the program and cites his first experience as a good one. He said getting into the program was a great decision. He received an email from the university letting him know about Holiday Hosting.
“I read the email and it made sense, so I signed up,’’ he said.
“Taking part this year was easy as well. My schedule wouldn’t allow me to go home this year, so I said why not.’’
The area of southern Nigeria where he is from is predominantly Christian, so there are many Christmas celebrations and traditions he and his family would celebrate.
“There is lots of excitement around Christmas. Many people in my community travel back home for the holiday. They have all gone to the cities and to get back home, travel is crazy. The traffic is tough.”
Because a lot of people have to move away, it is like a reunion for him, he said. Those people he went to school with all make it home and they do their best to celebrate when they reunite.
“There is always plenty to eat. Traditionally, chicken is the main course,’’ he said, noting others prefer beef or goat meat, but his family likes chicken, which is usually served with rice dishes.
“The celebration is very exciting for everyone. On the eve of Christmas or New Year’s we generally go to church. That vigil takes longer than normal. Everyone comes to pray and give thanks to God for everything and pray for good fortune.’’
He said all facets of society participate and no matter who you are — a businessman, prostitute, doctor — or from what level of society you come from, they are all in church on these nights.
In 2017, Muojeke was paired with a family that included a man and his wife and three children.
The way the evening played out stood out to Muojeke, as the man did the bulk of the work in the kitchen preparing the meal, while his wife looked after organizing things. This was different for him, as the women in his culture are the ones who do the bulk of the cooking and kitchen work.
He said they had several meals, played some games and spent time talking about history and culture in both Nigeria and Newfoundland.
He said the program gave him a chance to see what a typical Canadian family is like, which helped to dispel some of the stereotypes of how culture in North America is portrayed in his country.
“My family is not status quo with all traditions in Nigeria. Seeing how the man helped was not strange to me. My father really helps out. Especially if my mother was sick, he jumps in and does the cooking and cleaning and looks after what has to be done,’’ he said.
For many years during the holidays, numerous local families invited international students — those who can’t make it home for the holidays — into their homes for Christmas Day dinner.
This event creates the opportunity for all to learn new things from each other and celebrate the holidays in a diverse cultural family environment.
“We recommend hosting a minimum of two students for the comfort level of everyone involved,” says Katie Flynn, Holiday Hosting co-ordinator in the Internationalization Office at Memorial University.
“If you are interested in hosting, or have any questions about what we do and why, they can contact me, Katie at firstname.lastname@example.org by Dec. 13,” she added.
In addition, faculty, staff or other students who would like to learn more about the program can call the International Student Advising Office at 709-864-2330 or email to email@example.com.
There were approximately 15 families who participated in the Holiday Hosting program last year, about half of the nearly 30 that have taken part in previous years.
Flynn hopes the family number gets back to that level or even greater, as there are more than 100 students signed up for the program.
“There are lots of families out there who love to be part of this, but we certainly could use more so many other international students get to be part of this experience,’’ Flynn said.
“The hosts learn a lot about the places the students come from and the students get to learn a lot about the customs and traditions of people here in Newfoundland and Labrador.’’