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Embassy Adoption Program Offers Unique Cultural Exchange

Schools in Washington, D.C., have an advantage over schools in other U.S. cities. They are surrounded by embassies of every country in the world. The Embassy Adoption Program makes the most of that opportunity, with a unique cultural exchange.

Sixth graders Nicholas and Kennisha are studying Japanese culture and language at Birney Elementary School. "Actually, before studying it, I thought it was weird. But now, as I get used to it, I started respecting it. I've tasted their food. I like it. I think one day I want to experience how it is to be there," Nicholas says. "I thought that Chinese and Japanese languages were going to be the same, but I found out that it is different," his classmate Kennisha adds.

Their teacher, Steve Burton, hears that a lot. "The children just amaze me at how open they are to learn about other cultures, other countries," he says. "Names of countries they hear, but they never get the opportunity to understand what that country is about, or the language, or the culture."

He says the 11- and 12-year olds in his class get the opportunity to explore other cultures with all their senses: they use maps and books, but they also taste food, listen to songs, learn dances and handicrafts and play games.

Each year, he focuses on a different country, and the embassy of that country, he says, takes an active role in the lessons. "Last year, we worked with the Embassy of Tunisia," he says. "They showed such interest in the children working with their embassy and learning their culture. They come to our buildings. They teach the children whatever they want to know about their country. They answer questions. And the children enjoy it."

Mr. Burton's 6th grade class is part of the Embassy Adoption Program, a unique cultural enrichment partnership that began in 1974.

"I have seen it evolve to involve more embassies. We now have 50 embassies with 50 schools throughout the city," Program coordinator Njambi says. The ambassadors and their staff enjoy the exchange as much as the kids, spending time in the classrooms, organizing special programs, and bringing students to the embassies. These field trips let students experience first hand how other people celebrate their traditions. "Of course, Saudi Arabia's participation is huge," she says. "They'll even do a fashion show for the children. They come out during Ramadan and we'll have tea and dates. Then, we were invited to a Scandinavian Christmas in December. So, we're always enjoying learning and developing these very personal, close relationships with the embassies."

Before becoming the program coordinator, Njambi was a 6th grade teacher… and involved in the program for 25 years. One of her students in 1991 was Yolanda Bailey, who remembers the Embassy Adoption Program vividly. "Our embassy was Senegal. For the whole year, we took dance classes," she says. "We learned to speak Wolof, learned a little bit of French. We actually got to travel over to Senegal."

Bailey says taking part in the program taught her to open her mind to new places, new people and new experiences. "It added to every element of my life beyond being a student, but also to being a person," she says. "Growing up in D.C., particularly in the inner city, it's hard to imagine there are other places outside of D.C. So, it taught me not to be afraid to travel." Bailey says when she got older, and it was time to away to college, she was afraid to go to North Carolina. But she talked with Njambi, who had become her mentor. "One important thing she told me," Bailey recalls, "'Honey, you went to Africa when you were 12. You can go four hours down the road.'"

Participating in the program also had a life-changing effect on Bailey's classmate, John Johnson. He was also on the trip to Senegal, and says it opened new horizons for him, and changed the way he sees himself and others.

"It was like the ultimate history lesson," he says. "Because in classes, they tell you about slavery, and the trans-Atlantic slave trade. But to actually see where your ancestors came from, what they went through. It's inspiring. And it gives you a different perspective on life. It's like in the world you are accustomed to, you always know that 2 plus 2 equals 4, but when you are exposed to different things, you realize so does 3+1. So does 5-1. It all equals 4. It allows you to answer those questions in our world."

More than 35,000 students have had the chance to get a new perspective over the past three decades. Program Coordinator Njambi says the Embassy Adoption Program has become more relevant today, as cultures clash and mutual understanding and respect for other people sometimes seem in short supply. She'd like to see every embassy in Washington join the program, and open this window on the world even wider.