'Pakistani Mama' has taken more than 200 students under her wing

News-DemocratApril 27, 2014 

Doris Gvillo was known as "Pakistani Mama" in the early '70s because she hosted all the Pakistani students in the International Hospitality Program at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.

She has taken more than 200 students under her wing since then, not only from Pakistan, but also Germany, Iran, Kenya, Holland, Nepal, India and China.

The students never lived on the farm with Doris and her husband, the late Bill Gvillo. But the couple invited them over for dinner, celebrated birthdays, gave rides to the airport and helped them learn the ropes of living in America.

"Some of them you get very close to, and some of them you know while they're here, and then they kind of disappear," said Doris, 84, of Edwardsville. "Some you go to their weddings, and some you go to their funerals."

After more than 40 years in the program, Doris still hosts international students. Several stopped by for brownies and fruit salad on a recent Friday night.

Pakistani Rehan Ali, 26, is earning a master's degree in mechanical engineering at SIUE. He lives in Edwardsville with Haris Affaq, 26, and Syed Abbashaider, 28, also from Pakistan. Doris hosts all three.

"We are away from home, and she just provides a family environment," Rehan said. "When I moved here, she helped us settle into an apartment. She gave us the furniture, and we'd go out for dinner or lunch. Other than that, we're busy studying, so we can have a relaxing time with her."

Quran for reference

It helps that Doris is familiar with their culture and religion. She keeps a Quran handy for reference. Many Muslims follow strict dietary guidelines and social practices.

Doris has gotten used to arranged marriages, fasting during Ramadan and Pakistani dinners with men on one side of the room and women on the other.

Ron Schaefer, director of SIUE's International Program, is impressed by her ability to bond with students from such different backgrounds.

"She lives in the Christian tradition, and she's never tried to hide any of that," Ron said, pointing to her faith-based newspaper columns. "But she's never proselytized either."

The Gvillos found themselves in uncharted territory after the terrorist attack on Sept. 11, 2001. Many Americans were lashing out at Muslims and people from the Middle East.

The couple had invited a large number of Pakistani students to their 50th anniversary party, which went ahead as planned.

"About three-fourths of them called and said, 'Are you sure you want us to come? What will your friends think?'" Doris recalled. "And my husband said, 'They'll just think you're part of our family.'"

American grandmother

Today, Doris also hosts three female students. Nasim Farahmand, 26, came from Iran to earn a master's in chemistry. She thinks of Doris as her American grandmother.

The women meet for breakfast on Saturday mornings. Doris shows Nasim photos of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren and helps her make decisions about her future.

"I really enjoy talking to her," Nasim said. "She talks about the past, her husband and her children, and she has some knowledge of Iran, its history and its politics."

Doris still keeps in touch with many international students from the past, such as Mubeen Rahman, 34, of Maryville. He graduated from SIUE in 2005 with a master's in electrical engineering.

Mubeen is married now and working in St. Louis. He and his wife, Sara Kidwai, have a 6-year-old daughter, Soha. They had only one car when Sara was pregnant, so Doris took her to the doctor.

"She's always been there for us," said Sara, 27. "I remember when we bought a dining table at Walmart, and we couldn't figure out how to get it home. So we called her, and she found a person who could help us."

For years, the Gvillo garage looked like a thrift shop. Friends would drop off unwanted furniture, appliances and dishes for international students.

Expanding horizons

Doris has hosted two generations of students from some Pakistani families, as well as other relatives. That includes Rehan's two older brothers and Haris' uncle.

"When my uncle was leaving me here, he said, '(Mrs. Gvillo) will take care of you," said Haris, who moved to the United States in August.

It didn't take long for Haris to figure out what his uncle meant. Last month, Doris summoned him to her house to pick up a pineapple upside-down cake for his birthday. The roommates devoured it in one night.

Doris also sends cards to international students on holidays and gives gifts for graduations, usually jewelry for females and pen sets for males.

"When our daughter was born, she came over with a card, and it said, 'Love, Grandma Gvillo,'" Sara said. "She also brought clothes and a toy. It was so nice of her. I still have that card and the Elmo toy. (Soha) still plays with it."

Doris feels her hospitality is mutually beneficial. It has expanded horizons for her family, including her two daughters, four grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

Her home is filled with gifts from all over the world, gestures of appreciation from international students. Some show up with flowers. Others call from out of state.

"They enjoy doing just ordinary things with her," Schaefer said. "It might be ordering a pizza or bringing over a dish from their country, or they'll pop in on a Sunday afternoon and play cards. They all have an affection for her, and a respect."

You can become a host

International students from 45 countries attend Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.

This semester, about 30 host families are serving 80 students as part of SIUE's International Hospitality Program.

More host families are needed to meet rising demands. To get more information, email John Kautzer at kaut@ameritech.net or call 618-980-4415.

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