International Exchange Programs Spur Detroit's Revitalization

The city of Detroit is in the process of revitalization, trying to overcome a legacy of economic struggles and urban blight. One small but important way the city is improving is through international exchange programs coordinated by Global Ties Detroit, formerly the International Visitors Council.

Marian Reich, the organization’s Executive Director, says professional exchange programs not only give area students the opportunity to meet and learn about people from countries they don’t know much about, they also build opportunities for local businesses by helping to establish partnerships.

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.

“When visitors see how Detroit is changing—and how different it is from their expectations—they’re inclined to make business connections and even come back as tourists with their friends, which puts money back into the local economy through hotels, dining, theater and, of course, shopping,” Marian says.

The cultural and human connections, however, may be even more important for the city and country.

Citizen Diplomats
“I went to a dinner on a Friday evening with a delegation of English teachers from around the world—Indonesia, Senegal, Mali, Israel, Vietnam, Nepal and Russia,” Marian says. “The hosts, who were Jewish, celebrate Shabbat on Friday evenings by lighting candles and saying prayers—and everyone took part. All the guests began to share stories about their own religious and cultural experiences. The hosts often invite their neighbors,” she adds, “who were thrilled to be included in an event so rich in cultural diversity.”

Because Detroit doesn’t have an international affairs department, organizations like Global Ties Detroit fills the void, enabling people to enjoy the intellectual and emotional riches of connecting with people from around the world.

Jim and Py Wolfe understand. Both retired teachers, the Wolfes are homestay and dinner hospitality hosts who have shared their home, culture, and friendship with hundreds of international delegates over the years. Not only have they remained in touch with exchange participants, but they even visit their new friends in their home countries, including recent alumni of the Community Connections program from Belarus.

“We like to travel and we like to entertain,” says Jim. “It’s a natural for us.” From cooking meals and hanging out at home with their guests to taking them to sporting events, art museums and shopping malls, Jim and Py enjoy every opportunity to learn about people and how alike we all really are.

“We know so little about Muslim countries, for example,” Jim says. “But they’re essentially just like us and want the same things for themselves and their families.” Exchanges are also a lot of fun. “One time, a couple of guests from Ukraine were telling a joke and we were laughing our heads off, but I really had no idea what they were saying. It didn’t really matter,” Jim recalls with a smile.

On a recent Memorial Day cookout, Jim and Py’s guests, from Kyrgyzstan, were enjoying hamburgers and hotdogs with their neighbors. At one point, though, it became apparent that all the men were missing. It turns out they went over to the side lawn, facing Mecca, to pray.

Sharing religious traditions, food, recipes, songs and dances are all part of the mix. One visitor from Ukraine even took out a tool bag from the garage to fix the broken table in the Wolfe’s kitchen, simply to be helpful.

“Just being together is so enlightening,” Jim says. “And we get so close that when our guests leave, we’re all crying. Now, in addition to receiving birthday and anniversary greetings from around the world, we’re able to stay in touch through Skype, so we can keep up with our friendships.”

Considering themselves “citizen diplomats” the Wolfes are committed to doing their part to change perceptions, which are often based on what people see on TV. “When you get right down to it, conversing with someone over a nice dinner demonstrates our common humanity. It’s that simple, and it’s important, especially now.”

Faris Alami, who is the founder of International Strategic Management in Detroit, which helps entrepreneurs with training, mentorships and grants, knows how important personal connections and international understanding are to his business and home life.

Investing in Each Other
Faris, who is a Palestinian Muslim, and his American wife Lara see international exchanges as the best way to build bridges, not only for themselves but for their three children, who range in age from six to eleven. Lara even insisted on remodeling their home to make sure it could accommodate visitors, who’ve come from places as far away as Mongolia, South America and Africa.

“We’ll find our kids playing pool, air hockey, chess and even the piano with our guests,” Faris says. “They are learning at a young age how to interact with people from different countries, just doing what they normally do and having fun doing it.

“You’d have to fly around the world to be able to bond with so many different people,” Faris says. “But here we’re blessed to meet so many wonderful people and enjoy our time together, which includes our neighbors and friends, who are fascinated by the experience and love to join in.”

Ultimately, Faris believes, such interactions can create a better world and impact public policy. “The more we interact, the more we change perceptions and attitudes, sometimes here more than anywhere else. It’s a better investment than fighting each other.”

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