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It's not uncommon for a mother to pass hair color or facial features down to her daughter. But passing down a bond between two girls living in different parts of the world is a rare thing.

Thirty years ago, Maryville resident Christie Highlander was living in Michigan when her family hosted Swedish exchange student Lotta Ekberg for a year. Today, their daughters — Gabrielle Highlander and Rebecca Ekberg — have reached across continents to became just as close as their moms.

What's even more uncanny is that there is the same age difference in the two friendships. When Ekberg visited Highlander's family in 1982, she was 16 and Highlander was 10; today Rebecca Ekberg is 18 and Gabrielle Highlander is 12.

And Highlander said that's not the only similarity.

"I think she wants to be just like her," Christie Highlander said of Gabrielle's relationship with Rebecca. "When (Rebecca) came here last summer, I took a picture of them together and you can tell that my daughter was trying to dress just like her. That's exactly the way I was when Lotta came. If she wore a red shirt, I wore a red shirt. I wanted to be just like her."

Last week, the senior Ekberg shared her Swedish cooking with the Highlander family while the younger Ekberg shared her cheerleading skills with Gabrielle. Rebecca Ekberg was a competitive cheerleader in her hometown of Gothenburg, Sweden, before graduating from our version of high school. Gabrielle, who is in seventh grade, joined the middle school's cheer team this school year.

"She said the whole reason she joined the cheer team was because of Rebecca," said Highlander, who works at Southwestern Illinois College. "She loves it, and she's working really hard."

But the two youngsters have still found time to have fun during their two week visit.

"We do everything together," said Rebecca, who is studying in Sweden to become a pastry chef. "We swim and we talk and we go shopping and stuff like that. We do normal stuff like sisters do."

Lotta Ekberg, a personal assistant for special needs adults, said she too considers herself to be a sister to Gabrielle's mom, Christie. She said during her time with Highlander's family, she had to opportunity to visit Disney World, participate in high school sports and even go target shooting (guns are rare in Sweden). But it was the bond to the Hadder family — Highlander's maiden name — that includes Christie and her older brother Johnny that has stuck with Ekberg all these years.

"Maybe because of the age difference, we kind of became not friends but more sisters and brothers," Ekberg said. "We were fighting like sisters and brothers and hugging like sisters and brothers. For me it was like having an extra family. They gave me the feeling that I would always have them, that they were there for me."

Even when Ekberg returned to her home country and both women eventually married and had families, that bond didn't weaken. The two stayed in touch via mail, phone calls and later e-mail and Facebook. When Highlander took her family to visit Ekberg in Sweden two years ago, the two daughters bonded instantly.

And just like Highlander introduced Ekberg to the American way of life all those years ago, the younger Ekberg is teaching Gabrielle things about Sweden.

"I think it's better that she's from Sweden because she can teach me Swedish and stuff," said Gabrielle, who said her favorite color is limegron (lime green). "She is really important and special in my life."

Contact reporter Ramona C. Sanders at 618-344-0264, ext. 136