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

    Video Obama Remembers Fallen Troops for Memorial Day

    President urges Americans this holiday weekend to 'take a moment and offer a silent word of prayer or public word of thanks' to country's veterans

    Upsurge of Migratory Traffic Across Sahara From West to North Africa

    A report by the International Organization for Migration finds more than 60,000 migrants have transited through the Agadez region of Niger between February and April

    UN Blocks Access to Journalist Advocacy Group

    United Nations has rejected bid from nonprofit journalist advocacy group that wanted 'consultative status,' ranking that would have given them greater access to UN meetings

    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.
    Chinese-Americans Heart Trump, Bucking National Trendi
    X
    May 27, 2016 5:57 AM
    A new study conducted by three Asian-American organizations shows there are three times as many Democrats as there are Republicans among Asian-American voters, and they favor Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump. But one group, called Chinese-Americans For Trump, is going against the tide and strongly supports the business tycoon. VOA’s Elizabeth Lee caught up with them at a Trump rally and reports from Anaheim, California.
    Video

    Video Chinese-Americans Heart Trump, Bucking National Trend

    A new study conducted by three Asian-American organizations shows there are three times as many Democrats as there are Republicans among Asian-American voters, and they favor Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump. But one group, called Chinese-Americans For Trump, is going against the tide and strongly supports the business tycoon. VOA’s Elizabeth Lee caught up with them at a Trump rally and reports from Anaheim, California.
    Video

    Video Reactions to Trump's Success Polarized Abroad

    What seemed impossible less than a year ago is now almost a certainty. New York real estate mogul Donald Trump has won the number of delegates needed to secure the Republican presidential nomination. The prospect has sparked as much controversy abroad as it has in the United States. Zlatica Hoke has more.
    Video

    Video Drawings by Children in Hiroshima Show Hope and Peace

    On Friday, President Barack Obama will visit Hiroshima, Japan, the first American president to do so while in office. In August 1945, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the city to force Japan's surrender in World War II. Although their city lay in ruins, some Hiroshima schoolchildren drew pictures of hope and peace. The former students and their drawings are now part of a documentary called “Pictures from a Hiroshima Schoolyard.” VOA's Deborah Block has the story.
    Video

    Video Vietnamese Rapper Performs for Obama

    A prominent young Vietnamese artist told President Obama said she faced roadblocks as a woman rapper, and asked the president about government support for the arts. He asked her to rap, and he even offered to provide a base beat for her. Watch what happened.
    Video

    Video Roots Run Deep for Tunisia's Dwindling Jewish Community

    This week, hundreds of Jewish pilgrims are defying terrorist threats to celebrate an ancient religious festival on the Tunisian island of Djerba. The festivities cast a spotlight on North Africa's once-vibrant Jewish population that has all but died out in recent decades. Despite rising threats of militant Islam and the country's battered economy, one of the Arab world's last Jewish communities is staying put and nurturing a new generation. VOA’s Lisa Bryant reports.
    Video

    Video Meet Your New Co-Worker: The Robot

    Increasing numbers of robots are joining the workforce, as companies scale back and more processes become automated. The latest robots are flexible and collaborative, built to work alongside humans as opposed to replacing them. VOA’s Tina Trinh looks at the next generation of automated employees helping out their human colleagues.
    Video

    Video Wheelchair Technology in Tune With Times

    Technologies for the disabled, including wheelchair technology, are advancing just as quickly as everything else in the digital age. Two new advances in wheelchairs offer improved control and a more comfortable fit. VOA's George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Baby Boxes Offer Safe Haven for Unwanted Children

    No one knows exactly how many babies are abandoned worldwide each year. The statistic is a difficult one to determine because it is illegal in most places. Therefore unwanted babies are often hidden and left to die. But as Erika Celeste reports from Woodburn, Indiana, a new program hopes to make surrendering infants safer for everyone.
    Video

    Video California Celebration Showcases Local Wines, Balloons

    Communities in the U.S. often hold festivals to show what makes them special. In California, for example, farmers near Fresno celebrate their figs and those around Gilmore showcase their garlic. Mike O'Sullivan reports that the wine-producing region of Temecula offers local vintages in an annual festival where rides on hot-air balloons add to the excitement.
    Video

    Video US Elementary School Offers Living Science Lessons

    Zero is not a good score on a test at school. But Discovery Elementary is proud of its “net zero” rating. Net zero describes a building in which the amount of energy provided by on-site renewable sources equals the amount of energy the building uses. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, the innovative features in the building turn the school into a teaching tool, where kids can't help but learn about science and sustainability. Faith Lapidus narrates.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora