Breaking bread, breaking down barriers: International Center pairs local hosts, visiting delegates to promote cultural understanding

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International Center pairs local hosts, visiting delegates to promote cultural understanding

When a group of Iraqi editors and writers visited Indianapolis last summer as part of the U.S. State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program, they learned about American journalism and Hoosier hospitality.

Florence May, a member of the International Center of Indianapolis’ board and president of Simply Hospitality-an Indianapolis-based special-event planning company-hosted the group for dinner in her home.

May grew up in a military family and has lived throughout the world. During the first Gulf War in the early 1990s, she served as an air logistics and parachute operations officer in the U.S. Army in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

Having the opportunity to host this group of Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds together in her home and hear their perspectives on the profound changes in their country was an amazing opportunity, she said.

The International Visitor Leadership Program identifies up-and-coming leaders from countries throughout the world, bringing nearly 5,000 of them each year to the United States to meet with their professional counterparts and interact with average Americans.

From the thousands of individuals who have participated in the program since its inception more than 50 years ago, more than 200 current and former chiefs of state, 1,500 cabinet-level ministers and other distinguished leaders from the public and private sectors have emerged.

Kristin Garvey, associate director of the International Center of Indianapolis, has overseen the program here for the nine years that the center has been involved. She has worked at the center for 18 years, ever since graduating from Butler University with a degree in international studies and French.

Garvey had planned for a career in foreign service but said her job at the International Center is “actually better because I can do some of the work a foreign-service person would do while promoting my hometown.”

Last year the city received 128 foreign visitors from about 25 countries as part of the InterNational Visitor Leadership Program-about 60-percent more than in 2005, Garvey said. Funding is provided through a grant from the National Council for International Visitors, a network of government agencies and community-based organizations that administer the leadership program.

It’s an opportunity for the visitors to meet with their counterparts, network, make friends and talk about common issues. The International Center handles the of the visitors to and from meetings and identifies families to host the guests in their homes for dinner.

“I get them from meeting to meeting and make sure they have the most enjoyable time they can,” Garvey said. “Because they go to three or four different cities, they are comparing us.”

Indianapolis is a favored destination for groups wanting to study municipal government because it’s one of the largest state capitals in the country, she said. “Typically if you go to another state, the capital isn’t the largest economic center. They can come here and explore both state and local government easily.”

With the city’s central location, it’s a short drive to smaller communities where the visitors can make comparisons.

Many delegates also come to study religious diversity. With the Islamic Society of North America in Plainfield, the Hindu Temple of Central Indiana on the city’s east side, numerous synagogues, and a host of other religious groups, the city allows visitors to “learn how to talk across faiths,” Garvey said.

While many of the visitors travel from countries where stricter norms apply to women, Garvey says that guests are made aware that they must adhere to our cultural norms. She hasn’t experienced gender problems.

“Part of their experience is getting a wide range of views and experiences,” she said. “It gives them an opportunity to meet with people they might not expect to find in the same industry in their home country.”

Diplomacy at the dinner table

Last year more than 300 locals hosted visitors in their homes or transported them to meetings. Garvey said she’s heard from some who express an interest but say they have “modest homes.” That’s irrelevant, she said.

“What these visitors are looking for is an American experience in a home. What is an American experience? There are many different versions.”

The hosts love interacting with people from other cultures, Garvey said, because it’s a way to expose them and their children to other cultures.

May agreed. In addition to hosting the Iraqi journalists, she has also provided housing for a visiting Russian attorney who was working with women who were sold into prostitution in the former Eastern-bloc countries. The attorney, who was here to study American law, taught May’s daughters Russian.

Often individuals who come here from regions where ethnic and political strife divide them are brought together to share food and friendship.

Garvey recalled a group of Israeli and Palestinian mayors who visited Indianapolis last year to study municipal government. One of the Palestinian mayors has a relative here who owns Khoury’s, a Middle Eastern restaurant in Broad Ripple. At first the owner planned to invite only his relative to the restaurant but instead decided to close down the business for the evening and serve dinner to the entire delegation.

Garvey has hosted a number of visitors, including a group of mayors from the West African nation of Mali who visited during Thanksgiving week last year and wanted to experience a typical American Thanksgiving dinner. By the time all of Garvey’s and her husband’s siblings, spouses, children and friends were assembled, the group had swelled to nearly 60.

“We ended up holding the dinner at St. Thomas Aquinas Church,” Garvey said. “They experienced my very large family, which they said was just like their families.”

May was brought to tears when she recalled a special gift that the editor of Baghdad’s newspaper brought with him. “He pulled out a video camera and said, ‘I’d like to bring you greetings from my family.” On the video was his daughter, who is the same age as May’s youngest.

“He videotaped my daughters saying hello to his daughter,” she said. “It was a little thing but it made for such a profound evening.”

Impact on the future

May said one-on-one interaction can break down stereotypes that Americans and foreign visitors hold. She asked the Iraqis if they were surprised by anything they learned about Americans.

“They talked about their preconceived notions-what they see of America on television,” May said. “Our media doesn’t do us any great service because if you think about what you see on CNN, you see the spectacular crime of the day. You see everything that is wrong.”

One visitor said he was “astounded” by the hospitality and generosity of the American people.

“It’s sad that they have to come here and meet one-on-one to get a sense of what America’s really about,” May said.

With so many of the international visitors going on to leadership roles in their countries, both May and Garvey recognize the importance of creating positive impressions.

“So many of our world leaders come here to be educated, and if we don’t reach out to them there could be bad outcomes,” May said.

Pascal Dupeyrat, a past participant in the International Visitor Leadership Program, spoke of the importance of programs like this in a Feb. 17 speech to fellow alumni in Washington, D.C.

He is the general secretary of the Cercle Jefferson (The Jefferson Circle), a Parisbased group founded in 2001 that promotes strong links between France and the United States. Dupeyrat sees the role of Le Cercle Jefferson and the International Visitor Leadership Program as even more important following strained relationships between the two countries after 9/11.

“What is at stake with all these exchange programs is a battle against intolerance, a battle for brotherhood among people, a battle for mutual understanding, and where citizen diplomacy appears. It’s a powerful force in a turbulent world,” he said.

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