Murad Khalliev was quiet, intense, even a little unnerving when he arrived at Skip and Dick Kuck’s home from Turkmenistan in August 1995.
The Kucks hardly noticed. They knew from 14 years of experience that foreign exchange students need time to adjust. Besides, the Kucks sensed something about 17-year-old Murad they liked - determination or direction.
“Some young people just stand out. You know they will do great things if given the opportunity,” Skip says now, blessing dark-haired Murad with a maternal smile. “We saw some real qualities in Murad, and he had no one to help him.”
Without the Kucks, Murad would be home, studying journalism in a country struggling to understand itself after the breakup of the Soviet Union.
He left for the sake of Turkmenistan, a desert country wedged between Afghanistan, Iran, Uzbekistan and the Caspian Sea.
“I wanted to learn about democracy to eventually help out my own country,” he says. “We have some international companies now. I want to work for an American company as a liaison between it and my country.”
With 1,600 other students from former communist countries, Murad booked passage to the United States through the Freedom Support Act.
The competitive program, supported by tax dollars, offers teenagers with a command of English a school year to study the American way of life.
The Kucks found host families for the five kids sent to North Idaho and opened their home to Murad.
American life startled him.
“People here can criticize the government, talk trash about the president,” he says.
His own tight-lipped speech was a mix of character and programming.
It took him three months to relax his guard.
Journalism intrigued him. Coeur d’Alene High’s program convinced him to pursue it. But he realized that freedom of the press doesn’t exist in Turkmenistan yet.
Murad wanted the skills from an American college education to take back to his country.
His wish wasn’t unique.
The Kucks had heard it from many students. In 1982, they couldn’t resist helping a German boy pursue his associate degree in journalism.
“He had a spark, great potential,” Skip says. The German student was a nonresident, but North Idaho College allowed him to pay the much lower resident tuition because he stayed on the dean’s list.
“It’s been very satisfying watching him succeed,” Dick says.
Murad had a similar spark, but his situation was complicated.
The Freedom Support Act required him to return home at the end of the school year.
His parents’ moderate income in Turkmenistan was far below poverty level in the United States. They couldn’t afford his airfare to the Kucks’ or college tuition.
NIC no longer offered tuition breaks or scholarships to foreign students who weren’t athletes. Murad was a champion gymnast in Turkmenistan, but NIC has no competitive gymnastics.
Foreign students also aren’t eligible for tax-supported financial aid or student loans and may hold jobs only at the college they attend.
The Kucks knew Murad had no chance without their help. His father plowed through the Turkmen paperwork needed to release Murad to study abroad. Murad willingly agreed to return after college and stay for two years.
The Kucks searched for scholarships with no luck.
Their faith in him cost them $1,600 for his airfare and $1,800 for each semester’s tuition. To make matters worse, Nils Rosdahl, NIC’s journalism instructor, worried that Murad had chosen the wrong career. Freedom of the press baffled Murad until last spring.
“It was as if a light finally came on in his head,” Nils says. “He wrote two stories that were just terrific and has kept it up.”
Money remains a problem in Murad’s sophomore year. He was hired to work on NIC’s beach, then lost the job before he started to an American student. He washes dishes now.
Dick studies the Internet daily for scholarships that will help Murad with university tuition. Few opportunities have surfaced. University tuition is more than the Kucks can handle after educating their own three children.
Skip frets over the hurdles Murad faces.
“It would help the U.S. to have links in other countries,” she says. “We need a special category for students from former Soviet countries who need a U.S. education.”
Characteristically, Murad says little.
“I want a four-year degree,” he says. “But if the financial situation won’t allow it, I will go home.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo