Twenty years ago, as Melissa Holmes was praying for her new baby sibling to be a sister, halfway around the world Jannat Kairatbekova was about to be born into a family in a small village in Kazakhstan.
Holmes later realized the impact her new family would have on her life and the relationship she would have with the young girl she now calls "sister."
While serving with the Peace Corps several years ago, Holmes developed a relationship with the Kairatbekovas, a family with whom she stayed during her time in Kazakhstan as a Peace Corps volunteer.
The Holmes family are, from left, mom Bonnie, daughter Melissa, “daughter” Jannat Kairatbekova and dad Dave.
Photo special to Tribune Chronicle
Earlier this month, through the international program Work & Travel USA, her younger "sister'' Jannat, now 19, was able to make a similar connection with Holmes' family in Howland.
"It's become a very special relationship," said Holmes, 26, a graduate student at Milano The New School for Management and Urban Policy in New York. "My mom had my baby brother, Kyle, and I love him. But I always wanted that little sister. Now I have her. I also have another family, and so does she."
Although half a world apart the two families now share two daughters.
Holmes and Kairatbekova connected in 2006 when Holmes left her home in Howland that summer for Kazakhstan, just weeks after completing her bachelor's degree in journalism at Ohio University. She said she had decided that in order to "save the world," she would have to experience it. So, she joined the Peace Corps.
Holmes arrived in Kazakhstan with the assignment of becoming a teacher. For the first three months, she lived with the Rustambekov family in Zhanshar, Kazakhstan. While there she had language and culture training for eight hours a day, and it was there that she was introduced to the Kazakh national dish, beshbarmak, a mutton dish with noodles, traditionally eaten with your fingers.
Translated, "beshbarmak" means "five finger" food, she explained. Until then she had been a vegetarian, she said.
Also during this time she began to learn the Kazakh language.
Later, she stayed with the Kairatbekova family in Terenozek, a small village in the Kyzylorda Oblast in Kazakhstan, where she and the family's youngest child, Jannat, bonded.
The connection has continued. Earlier this month Jannat Kairatbekova, with the assistance of another program, Work & Travel USA, arrived in the United States. She plans to remain here, working a local job, through summer. It's common practice in her country for college students to travel to the United States through that program as part of an opportunity to experience living and working here, she said.
"It's different here," she said. "I like it. The food is different. But I like it. I'm very excited to be here."
Less than a month into her first visit to the United States, Kairatbekova has sampled many American favorites including her first pizza. She, with Holmes' mother, Bonnie Holmes, have been busy doing what many American youth have also been busy doing - job hunting.
"That's taken up a lot of our time," Bonnie Holmes said. "But I think we have something lined up now. Every day for the past few weeks that's what we've been doing, looking for a job for her because that's part of the program that brought her here. But we plan to have some fun, too."
Kairatbekova credits Holmes with her English-speaking skills. During her stay in Kazakhstan, Holmes taught English and her "younger sister" was one of her students.
Holmes said Kairat Kairatbekova, her new father, was the second mayor of the city. He introduced her to all of the city officials and police chief. She said he was always excited to learn about American culture and to teach her about his.
Her new family was well off, and although they had no running water, they had a DVD player, among other amenities, Holmes said. Her Kazakhstan mother, Gulzhamal, taught her how to cook from scratch and keep an efficient household.
"All of my years of shirking chores in youth were compensated for as I hand-washed clothes and cleaned endless dishes," Holmes said.
"It broke my heart to leave ... thinking I might never see (Jannat) again."
However, because of her education and upbringing, Kairatbekova was able to come to America and stay with Holmes' family.
"(Melissa) is like a sister to me," she said. "I'm very glad to be here, to be with her family."
She said although she gets homesick she wouldn't trade the opportunity she had to visit her American family for anything, just as Holmes said she's grateful to also have a second family.
"We're all family now," Bonnie Holmes said. "Melissa will always have a second home with her Kazakhstan family and Jannat will also have a place with us."