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Friendship knows no borders

MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. (AFNS) --  Four-year-old Sarah reached out to grasp her friend Fatou's hand as she has every day since Fatou first arrived at the Maxwell Air Force Base child development center in August 2013. 

On this day, Sarah led Fatou to the dance floor, placing her in a specific position like a delicate wall fixture. With Fatou in place, Sarah grabbed the plastic microphone and pressed the play button as she began to sing "Dora, Dora, Dora the Explorer."

Fatou launched her arms into motion, slicing the air as she moved side-to-side. Sarah belted the lyrics, giving them a few changes, "Fatou, you can do it. You can do anything," she sang as Fatou's arms waved on. 

Fatou danced around, singing along with the music as though English wasn't a new language, and as though the girl from Senegal wasn't just submerged into a completely different culture less than a year ago.

When Fatou's family first arrived here from Senegal to accompany her father Maj. Papa Dieumb Gueye as he went through the Air University's Air Command and Staff College, she didn't know how to ride a tricycle or where to wash her hands. Now, thanks to Sarah, she does.

"I've never seen two kids just connect like Sarah and Fatou," said Dafphne Collins, the girls' CDC teacher.

The CDC, which acts as a daycare for military members at Maxwell AFB, is no stranger to foreign children as many officers from different countries attend the various AU colleges. It's no surprise when the children don't know some things specific to American culture, such as language and customs, Collins said.

With the struggles of attending a new school as a foreign student in mind, Collins looked to veteran CDC attendee Sarah and spoke to Sarah's mother, Master Sgt. Alisha Caton, telling her about the new shy girl from Africa and asking if Sarah could look out for her.

Collins felt Sarah would be a good friend for Fatou because she has attended the CDC since the age of six weeks, giving her a sort of tenure. Sarah is all about fairness among peers. When other children don't share the plastic microphone or building blocks, she is quick to tell them they need to share. She is also the first to relinquish play time with any of the said toys as soon as someone asks for a turn. 

Before Caton even got the chance to ask her daughter about the buddy system, she started hearing a new name at the house. 

"For a while all she talked about was Fatou," Caton said. "I was talking to the teachers and they said her and Sarah are best friends. Sarah takes her everywhere holding hands, and (she) just took her under her wing. I was really proud of her for that."

The teachers said when it comes to Fatou, Sarah makes sure she is treated equally and understands the CDC play rules, often saying, "It's Fatou's turn," or "Fatou, you have to share."

"If somebody's mean to Fatou, Sarah does not like it. She goes to bat for Fatou," Collins said. 

Caton, who is an Air National Guardsman with the 187th Fighter Wing, said she wasn't just proud of the two girls, but thankful they both got exposure to completely different cultures. 

"I have been so grateful for this opportunity, which you don't often get in a small town," she said.

Fatou's father also added his appreciation and emphasized the importance of the friendship for not only the girls, but his family and career. 

"Going to school is easier when you don't have to worry if your family is going through difficult times," Gueye said. 

With about four hours of homework each night, if someone in his family like Fatou was struggling as she had when she first arrived, keeping up with the AU course work would have been difficult, said Gueye. He and his wife, Barane, are both very thankful for not only Sarah's hospitality, but the care from others like Collins who make Maxwell AFB feel like home. 

"Everyone here has been great, and I'm especially grateful for the friendship between Sarah and Fatou," he said, adding that her teachers also take really great care of Fatou and her brother Papa.

Gueye also said he appreciates all the other programs Maxwell AFB provides for international officers' families to be able to join and feel welcomed. 

"This is my first time on duty with my family, so this is really nice for me," he said. "Even in Senegal I'm only home for two weeks at most, so it's been very nice to have them join me as I study here."

Maxwell AFB may not be Fatou's actual hometown, but it is where her best friend Sarah made her feel a part of a family, and she plans to keep in touch after they part ways in June. 

"We made Fatou a going away gift with a few things to remind her of her time here with Sarah, along with tools to keep in touch with us as they go back," Caton said. 

When Fatou was asked if she is going to miss Sarah, she looked down without saying a word as she bobbed her head up and down. 

"I'm going to miss Fatou," Sarah said. 

Her mom added that they are definitely keeping in touch to maintain their friendship.
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