News / USA

America's Behind-the-Scenes Ambassadors Cultivate Foreign Friendships

Group called THIS helps the families of diplomats make sometimes difficult transition to life in the US

Anyalem Barayes prepares to conduct a traditional Eritrean coffee service.
Anyalem Barayes prepares to conduct a traditional Eritrean coffee service.

The dozens of guests gathered in Marian Kumar’s generously-sized kitchen strain to see the woman in traditional dress sitting on a low stool. A tray with handleless ceramic coffee cups and a portable, single-burner charcoal stove are in front of her. The simple set-up is at odds with the elegant surroundings – gleaming granite countertops and high-end appliances.

Anyalem Barayes is conducting a traditional Eritrean coffee service. She begins by burning incense to ward off evil spirits. Then she roasts coffee beans in a small pan on the charcoal stove.

When that is done, Barayes pushes to her feet and walks around the room with the beans so her audience can inhale their rich scent. Afterwards, she grinds them and proceeds to make the coffee everyone is waiting to taste.

Barayes’ niece, Abeba Telahun, stands nearby, explaining each step to the rapt audience.

“It’s always a pride when you share your culture,” Telahun says afterwards. “It’s always nice when you are sharing your culture and people are aware of it. It’s a great pleasure to share it with the group.”

The group sharing this experience is called THIS for Diplomats - once known as The Hospitality and Information Service. The nonprofit volunteer organization helps families of foreign diplomats adapt to life in the United States.

Today’s gathering includes women from across the globe, including Iraq, Pakistan and Kurdistan. Their convivial chatter fills the air as they sample the wide variety of food laid out in the dining room. Watching them, it’s difficult to believe their presence in this Oakton, Virginia home outside of Washington, D.C., can be traced back to a single tragic event which occurred a half century ago.

Sense of isolation

A little more than 50 years ago, a young African woman with two small children jumped to her death from her high-rise New York apartment. The wife of a UN diplomat who was unfamiliar with modern urban life, she’d become increasingly isolated while her husband worked long hours.

The tragedy prompted the UN to reach out to new diplomats and their families by establishing The New York City Commission for the United Nations and the Consular Corps. Then-U.S. Secretary of State Dean Rusk asked that a similar effort be made to help foreign diplomats in the nation’s capital. The result was The Hospitality and Information Service for Diplomatic Residents and Their Families (THIS).

As the group celebrates its 50th anniversary, THIS’ current president Joan Keston says many of the needs of diplomatic families remain the same.

“They’re very lonely,” explains Keston. “What we give them is one-on-one human contact, someone they can talk to, someone they can relate to. It gives them a sense of community. We have meetings in people’s homes so they can see an American home.”

That casual sense of hospitality makes an impression on Azy Abdullah, a young mother from Brunei who brought her four-year-old son to the coffee gathering. It surprises her that Americans invite guests into their kitchens – something that never happens in Brunei.

“Americans are really open and open-minded as well,” she says. Abdullah, a professional working woman in her own country, is a stay-at-home mother while living in the United States.

THIS outreach

THIS offers a variety of services to women like Abdullah, including coffees such as this one and conversation groups which allow the visitors to practice their English. THIS volunteers also provide rides for women who don’t have any other way of getting to the events.

Additionally, diplomatic families receive help for everyday needs, like where to find a doctor or what cuts of meat are available at American grocery stores. Excursions to historic U.S. sites or other places of interest are also organized.

Nagaza Shadevr of Uzbekistan has been in the U.S. for one year and looks forward to THIS gatherings.

“I want to learn the language and speak in English. The coffees are helping me to speak in English,” says Shadevr in halting English. “They are learning our culture and we are learning their culture and it is so interesting.”

Citizen diplomacy

That shared understanding is a significant part of THIS' mission, which strives to promote international goodwill.

“People relate to each other on a one-to-one basis and it destroys any myth of the ugly American,” says THIS president Keston. “Americans are very warm-hearted and caring and the diplomats see that.”

Tasawar Rangha, whose husband is a trade minister at the Pakistani embassy in Washington, also appreciates the opportunity to shatter negative stereotypes about her country.

“It’s a good thing to do it because we get to integrate with these people. They know more about us and we know more about them,” says Rangha. “I think they have a better picture of us."

Carolyn Peacher, chairperson of the THIS Arlington International Coffee group, says the interactions lead to significant personal revelations. “I think we understand that we are not as far apart as our governments. Primarily we’re there to find out what we have in common, not how we’re different.”

By practicing this citizen diplomacy, THIS members strive to embody the group’s guiding principle - that average Americans, in their natural state, are the best ambassadors a country can have.

You May Like

On Everest, Helicopters Rescue Stranded Climbers

Choppers transport some of more than 100 mountaineers trapped after deadly quake, avalanches More

Video Ten Years After Riots, France Searches for Answers to Neglected Suburbs

In 2005, a Paris suburb exploded into violence after two teenagers were electrocuted as they hid from police; since then, somethings have changed, others not More

US, Japan Announce Historic Revision of Defense Cooperation Guidelines

Nations say new guidelines will be 'cornerstone for peace and security' in Asia-Pacific region while also serving as 'platform for a more stable international security environment' More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
‘Angel of the Migrants’ Helps Desperate Syrians Arriving in Europei
X
Henry Ridgwell
April 26, 2015 10:36 PM
Waves of migrants are continuing to arrive on the shores of southern Italy from North Africa. After their dangerous journey across the Mediterranean, they face an unknown future in Europe. In the Sicilian city of Catania there is an activist dedicated to helping the refugees on their journey.
Video

Video ‘Angel of the Migrants’ Helps Desperate Syrians Arriving in Europe

Waves of migrants are continuing to arrive on the shores of southern Italy from North Africa. After their dangerous journey across the Mediterranean, they face an unknown future in Europe. In the Sicilian city of Catania there is an activist dedicated to helping the refugees on their journey.
Video

Video Ten Years After Riots, France Searches for Answers to Neglected Suburbs

January’s terrorist attacks and fears of more to come are casting a spotlight on France’s neglected suburbs. Home to many immigrants, and sometimes hubs of crime, they were rocked by rioting a decade ago. Lisa Bryant visited the Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois, where the 2005 violence first broke out, and has this report about what has changed and what has not.
Video

Video Gay Marriage Goes Before US Supreme Court

This week, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments on whether gay people have a constitutional right to marriage. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports, the case could lead to the nationwide legalization of same-sex marriage, or a continuation of the status quo in which individual states decide whether to recognize gay unions.
Video

Video Study: Insecticide Damaging Wild Bee Populations

A popular but controversial type of insecticide is damaging important wild bee populations, according to a new study. VOA’s Steve Baragona has more.
Video

Video Data Servers Could Heat Private Homes

As every computer owner knows, when their machines run a complex program they get pretty hot. In fact, cooling the processors can be expensive, especially when you're dealing with huge banks of computer servers. But what if that energy could heat private homes? VOA’s George Putic reports that a Dutch energy firm aims to do just that.
Video

Video Cinema That Crosses Borders Showcased at Tribeca Film Festival

Among the nearly 100 feature length films being shown at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival in New York City are more than 20 documentaries and features with international appeal, from a film about a Congolese businessman in China, to documentaries shot in Pakistan and diaspora communities in the U.S., to a poetic look at disaffected South African youth. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more.
Video

Video UN Confronts Threat of Young Radicals

The radicalization and recruitment of young people into Islamist extremist groups has become a growing challenge for governments worldwide. On Thursday, the U.N. Security Council heard from experts on the issue, which has become a potent threat to international peace and security. VOA’s Margaret Besheer reports.
Video

Video Growing Numbers of Turks Discover Armenian Ancestry

In a climate of improved tolerance, growing numbers of people in Turkey are discovering their grandmothers were Armenian. Hundreds of thousands of Armenians escaped the mass deportations and slaughter of the early 1900's by forced conversion to Islam. Or, Armenian children were taken in by Turkish families and assimilated. Now their stories are increasingly being heard. Dorian Jones reports from Istanbul that the revelations are viewed as an important step.
Video

Video Migrants Trek Through Western Balkans to Reach EU

Migrants from Africa and other places are finding different routes into the European Union in search of a better life. The Associated Press followed one clandestine group to document their trek through the western Balkans to Hungary. Zlatica Hoke reports that the migrants started using that route about four years ago. Since then, it has become the second-most popular path into Western Europe, after the option of sailing from North Africa to Italy.
Video

Video US Businesses See Cuba as New Frontier

The Obama administration's opening toward Cuba is giving U.S. companies hope they'll be able to do business in Cuba despite the continuation of the U.S. economic embargo against the communist nation. Some American companies have been able to export some products to Cuba, but the recent lifting of Cuba's terrorism designation could relax other restrictions. As VOA's Daniela Schrier reports, corporate heavy hitters are lining up to head across the Florida Straits - though experts urge caution.
Video

Video Kenya Launches Police Recruitment Drive After Terror Attacks

Kenya launched a major police recruitment drive this week as part of a large-scale effort to boost security following a recent spate of terror attacks. VOA’s Gabe Joselow reports that allegations of corruption in the process are raising old concerns about the integrity of Kenya’s security forces.
Video

Video Japan, China in Race for Asia High-Speed Rail Projects

A lucrative competition is underway in Asia for billions of dollars in high-speed rail projects. Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Malaysia Thailand and Vietnam are among the countries planning to move onto the fast track. They are negotiating with Japan and the upstart Chinese who are locked in a duel to revolutionize transportation across Asia. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman in Bangkok has details.
Video

Video Scientists: Mosquitoes Attracted By Our Genes

Some people always seem to get bitten by mosquitoes more than others. Now, scientists have proved that is really the case - and they say it’s all because of genes. It’s hoped the research might lead to new preventative treatments for diseases like malaria, as Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Bible Museum Coming to Washington DC

Washington is the center of American political power and also home to some of the nation’s most visited museums. A new one that will showcase the Bible has skeptics questioning the motives of its conservative Christian funders. VOA religion correspondent Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Afghan First Lady Pledges No Roll Back on Women's Rights

Afghan First Lady Rula Ghani, named one of Time's 100 Most Influential, says women should take part in talks with Taliban. VOA's Rokhsar Azamee has more from Kabul.

VOA Blogs