Foreign exchange students leave a lasting impact at the Tehachapi Salvation Army
Roza (Rose) Ashyrbekova and Yasmeen Tarazi, youth volunteers for The Salvation Army in Tehachapi, California, wanted to give back to the city they’d called home for the 2022–2023 school year. The girls, foreign exchange students from Kyrgyzstan and Jordan, respectively, leave in June, after completing their junior year at Tehachapi High School.
Tehachapi lies in a mountain pass between Bakersfield and Lancaster, California. With a population of just over 13,000, it boasts a small-town feel and has been called an oasis town within the Mojave Desert. There, every weekday, The Salvation Army Tehachapi Service Extension offers a morning food program and an afternoon youth program.
Rose said Tehachapi didn’t seem like a typical California city.
“When I see the mountains, it just feels like home. That was my first thought when I came here,” she said, explaining that Kyrgyzstan is largely mountainous.
For Yasmeen, Tehachapi is the “perfect place” to live—peaceful. “Especially as a young person, because I feel like it’s a very tight-knit community,” she said. “You can have a lot of impact in such a small place. All throughout my life, I’ve lived in the same place, but I never felt so integrated in the community. I like it here because there’s a lot of support.”
Rose and Yasmeen are participants in the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study (YES) program. Now in its 20th year, it provides scholarships for high school students from largely Muslim countries to live and study in the United States for an academic year. The U.S. Congress established the program in October 2002 in response to the events of Sept. 11, 2001.
Foreign exchange students gain more than just language skills. “[They] exhibit higher degrees of awareness, acceptance for cultural diversity and an increase in their cultural capital,” according to Education Corner.
YES participants are required to engage in at least 30 hours of community service, which is what first brought Rose and Yasmeen to The Salvation Army.
“I knew about it as an organization, and I knew about the thrift stores,” Yasmeen said. “I didn’t realize they had centers that really did so much for the community and for individuals as well.”
The girls quickly discovered they had found the right place to fulfill their service requirement. They started volunteering in September 2022.
“The first day…it was nice,” Rose said. “It was a fun place to volunteer because you get to know other people—students in high school and middle school—and at the same time you get to help the community.”
Yasmeen said they got into the routine of coming to the center. “And then we just fell in love with the place and the people,” she said. “We got so used to coming here that the 30 hours were covered in the first month.”
To date, Yasmeen has logged about 150 hours and Rose is at almost 200.
“We’re just giving back to the community,” Yasmeen said.
In March, the girls launched a fundraising project, baking and selling treats from their home countries. The Salvation Army will use the proceeds to provide extended hotel stays and other emergency housing to displaced families in the community.
Center Coordinator Sandy Chavez said the girls raised $1,500 in fewer than 30 days.
“Some people would buy a box of our treats and then donate an additional amount,” Yasmeen said. “I think a lot of people were generous—they saw our passion.”
“It was also a good opportunity to share our culture,” said Rose, noting they also created a GoFundMe platform where people could donate to the cause.
While both girls had previously volunteered in their home countries, they found this experience was different.
“I never felt this amount of desire to give back to the community because when I was back home, I almost took it for granted that I was part of a community,” Yasmeen said. “And then coming here and seeing how welcomed I was, I realized that if there was any way to give back, this would be the best place to do it. And I’m sure I’m going to take this knowledge and appreciation and apply it when I go back.”
As the girls wrap up their year in Tehachapi, they continue to volunteer even as they prepare to depart. They’ve gotten to know the regulars in the youth program.
“[The youth] have made a home for themselves here, and it’s a very safe place,” Yasmeen said. “That’s something that is very valuable. And it’s very hard to find. To go from a youth center to a second home—it’s very special.”
Rose said The Salvation Army shows kindness and generosity to anyone, in any circumstance.
Chavez credited Youth Development Coordinator Kyle Yates with creating an atmosphere that allows kids to feel at home. She said when Rose and Yasmeen started volunteering, she wondered what would happen.
“I wasn’t sure they were going to even stick around,” Chavez said. “But they were so committed. They’re relational…I am honored and blessed to know these two young ladies. And I hope we stay in touch because of the impact that they have had on the center.”
Yates said they’ve been a role model for the younger girls at the center. “They’ve definitely had an impact—they see what Rose and Yasmeen are doing and how they’re serving others while stepping outside their comfort zone by coming to a different country,” he said.
Rose shared they had recently returned from a trip to New York City as representatives in the YES Power Program, which acknowledges leadership skills and includes the program’s top students. “To get into the top 10 percent, students have to be active in volunteering and giving presentations and sharing their culture,” she said.
Yasmeen added that it’s about becoming part of their adopted community. “Already this year, we have grown so much as individuals, and we have learned to become team players,” she said. “I think we owe a lot of our achievements to The Salvation Army, because they taught us so much. They showed us how to work with different types of people.”
Chavez said she is sad to see them go. “They impacted this center and this community. But I know God has an amazing purpose for them.”
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