For 90 years, the Cleveland Council on World Affairs has inspired engagement in international affairs through education, citizen diplomacy and public dialogue. Through one program, in particular, the International Visitors Leadership Program (IVLP), the Council hosts hundreds of current and emerging leaders from around the world every year.
While the exchange helps these emerging leaders learn about and directly experience American government, business, non-profit groups and culture, the benefits we gain from such programs in America are equally profound.
“Through these exchanges, we have the opportunity to shape their view of America and they shape our view of the world, especially remote countries as far flung as Belarus, Iran and India,” says Katie Ferman, the Council’s Program Officer.
Visitors come through State Department-funded exchange programs, which are designed and implemented by World Learning, a nonprofit that oversees exchanges around the world. The organization taps its network of local partners, like the Council, to find host families in the U.S. (more than 2,000 visitors a year) and carry out programs.
“Our visitors help us break down intolerance and dispel myths, and we do the same for them,” says Katie. “Connecting directly with people from around the world has an intangible but important impact.”
Exchange programs also help boost the local economy, Katie says. “In 2016, the IVLP alone generated $400,000 in revenue to the Cleveland area for hotels, transportation, meals and cultural events. That may not seem like a lot, but every little bit helps, and it triggers further visits and business relationships.”
Perhaps the greatest impact on host communities is highly personal, as noted by the many volunteer hosts who provide housing, meals and companionship to international visitors.
Rick and Elena Ray are cases in point. The Rays live with their two teenage sons in Broadview Heights, a Cleveland suburb. They not only host visitors for up to three weeks at a time, but they also throw parties and arrange excursions to art museums, plays and even high school football games to “show them our Midwestern culture,” says Rick.
The power of simple conversations
What’s most rewarding are the conversations. “We talk and engage over meals. They’re so eager to learn about us, not just from TV shows they see, and we learn so much about their lives, their countries, customs and political environment — information and insights we would never get otherwise.”
The discussions and friendships that develop are especially profound for Rick and Elena’s sons. “They’ve had the chance to have a different view of the world than what they’re used to,” says Elena, who was born in Russia. “But at the same time, they see how similar we all are — with the same goals and desires for their careers and their families. The experiences have opened their minds.”
When the Rays host parties for other hosts and visitors, they often invite their neighbors, too. “We’re fortunate to have a large home, so we may have 60 or 70 people over for a cookout. Everyone is relaxed and mingling, even though our guests may not speak English all that well,” Rick says with a chuckle. “Our neighbors love it and often ask, ‘When’s the next one.’”
“Many of our neighbors have rarely met people from other countries, let alone places like Belarus,” says Elena. “They find out that they’re not crazy aliens, just people, like them.”
“If travel were free, we’d all do more of it,” Rick adds. “But if we can’t travel, these exchanges are inspiring and fun at the same time — and they help make the world a better place. We’ve developed lifelong friends.”
A multiplier effect
For Jennifer Brush, who actually lived around the world as a State Department official, hosting international exchange visitors began when she was growing up with her parents. Now she’s providing the experience for her 14-year old son, who has seen visitors cook meals and help with chores around the house — “great role models,” Jennifer says.
In addition to organizing excursions to the local police station, chamber of commerce and board of education, Jennifer took one young man, Yevgeny, to her church. “The congregation was intrigued and asked a lot of questions,” she says. “People are impressed that I do this, but if you’re willing to get out of your comfort zone, you can have fascinating new experiences.”
Just as we have misconceptions about other countries, visitors often see only propaganda about America when they’re home. “Showing people how friendly and kind we can be to one another has a multiplier effect. We have a lot to share about our values and our democracy that they then bring back to their families and friends in their home countries. It’s important, especially during these tense times.”
A clash of civilizations?
When the Lewins family, who live in the Lakewood community, hosted two Iraqi students recently, they immediately saw the opportunity to break down barriers.
It turns out one of the students was a Sunni, the other a Shiite. “They had a great experience getting to know each other, which isn’t so possible in Iraq,” explains Lisa Lewins, who’s a professor at Lakewood Community College. “And of course, we have our own misconceptions about people from the Middle East.”
Soon, the two guests were playing soccer with the three Lewins children and making falafel in the kitchen for the family. “They taught us so much. Now, when we read about the Middle East, we have a much broader perspective than what we get from the media,” Lisa says. “These experiences have also made me a better teacher. I’m more knowledgeable but I’m also more flexible when dealing with people.”
Experiencing American culture through new eyes can also be a lot of fun. One time Lisa took a group of Mexican and Iraqi students to their church’s bible school. “On the way, we were playing Justin Bieber songs, and everyone, including our guests, started singing along. They knew the songs! Then after the class, we all went out for ice cream. We had such a great time.”
Another time, at her father’s birthday party, guests sang Belarus songs and danced, which was a big hit for the partygoers. One of the visitors, a handy marketing professional, even fixed the Lewins’ dishwasher and refrigerator light during his visit. “I wanted to keep him here permanently!” Lisa says.
Lisa realized how special — and funny — these experiences can be when it occurred to her that their Iraqi visitors, who are Muslim, were staying with an American Protestant family and being taken around Cleveland by a 70-year old Russian driver who is Jewish.
“That kind of says it all. Now we’re looking forward to tomorrow when seven guests from India are coming over for dinner.”