Foreign College Students Complain of Exchange Program Conditions on Gulf Coast

Java Umarov didn't get the American experience he was looking for when he doled out nearly $3,000 as part of a work-exchange program for foreign college students.

The native of Uzbekistan says he might have reconsidered his travel plans if he had known he would be sent to the site of the worst natural disaster in U.S. history, where workers are still clearing debris 10 months after Hurricane Katrina.

"I can't say it's beautiful here," said Umarov, 20, who earns $8 an hour taking orders, cooking burgers and cleaning at McDonald's.

Umarov and thousands of others were promised a summer job and an opportunity to tour the United States. But participants say the reality is far different from the description on the State Department's Web site, which says the exchange is meant to "increase mutual understanding" between the United States and other countries.

The State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, which facilitates the exchange program, says there were only four major complaints last year.

Interest in the program has grown rapidly. In 2004, about 88,000 students participated, many of them from Eastern Europe, Asia and South America. That number climbed to 105,000 last year.

For students, the journey usually begins with a recruiter on a foreign college campus. The program promises students jobs to make up for their fees and travel expenses. Ideally, they would earn enough money in three months to spend the final month on their visa traveling within the United States.

Umarov and his roommates initially were told they were going to Mobile, Ala., but they were not alarmed when they learned they would be headed instead to nearby Mississippi. International news reports had focused mostly on Katrina's impact on New Orleans, and Umarov did not know Gulfport had also been in the storm's path.

He arrived in early June and was housed with seven other students in a two-bedroom apartment. They pay a combined rent of $2,000 a month.

Previous tenants reported paying $550 a month before Big D Enterprises, the owner of 15 McDonald's restaurants, bought the complex to house its foreign work force. All the other tenants either left when the rent increased or were evicted.

Bill Descher, whose family owns Big D Enterprises, said few people are willing to work on the Mississippi coast despite an unemployment rate of 13 percent.

"What can you do to help?" he said. "One way was to work with companies to bring in foreign workers. The idea was to keep the restaurants open to the public."

Descher said the students in Mississippi were provided to his company by Southern Hospitality Management in Atlanta. He said he pays a fee to Southern Hospitality to furnish the apartments.

Paul Cohen, chief financial officer of Southern Hospitality, said his company has arranged for 300 to 400 foreign students to work this year in Mississippi and in the Louisiana cities of Hammond, Alexandria and Slidell.

"There's so much employment in that area that you couldn't fill it if you had an army of folks," Cohen said. "The challenge is adequate housing."

Timur Khamidov, a 20-year-old student at the University of World Economy and Diplomacy in Uzbekistan, complained soon after he arrived in June that the students' apartment had no telephone, little furniture and no television. The two-story, 10-unit complex is along a debris-strewn street several blocks from the beach.

"We don't like the apartment because when we filled in the housing (contract), it said two or three per room, but we have four in a room," Umarov said.

The students said they have now been provided with a television, but no cable, and a telephone they say is not working. While the furnishings they were promised have not arrived, the students said they are most upset about the crowded conditions.

Craig Brewer, an employee of Babylon, N.Y.-based IntoEdventures, which sponsored the students' travel, declined to discuss the students' concerns, such as whether their contracts were being violated by the number of people sharing a room. He also did not respond to a request to give The Associated Press a copy of the students' contracts.

Descher said the contracts the students signed with IntoEdventures are being honored and a new, four-unit apartment building is in the works to ease the crowded conditions.

"We strive to provide a safe and positive work environment for all our employees and have taken immediate action to investigate these claims and gather the facts," Descher said.

But for the nearly 100 students in Gulfport now, any relief probably will come too late. They will be headed home in about two months.

"I felt like this would be a great experience, but it's not what I expected," Khamidov said.