A Prime Minister at Dinner

November 18, 2014

by Allen Freedman

The Prime MinisterBefore I get to talking about the prime minister, I want to give a little background on how I became a GCIV member.

It all started with me participating in GCIV ‘s humanitarian trip to Cuba in 2005. This was an eye opener for me. It was the first time I actually talked to “the real people” and understood their conditions, restrictions and life style.

A long time before this trip, I had commuted from Miami to Havana to enjoy the night life and casinos every weekend for three years. I even had my own apartment there up until 1959 when Castro’s men told me to leave and never come back. I thought I knew Cubans then, but as it turned out, I didn’t. I never met the the real people until my trip with GCIV.

So, fast forward to the current millennium. The seventh time I hosted a GCIV dinner in my home was February 13, 2007 and the GCIV dinner guest was Mr. Guilherme Posser da Costa, the former Prime Minister of Sao Tome & Principe. The last time he had visited the United States was as Prime Minister to attend the World Bank Meeting in 1999.

During the drive from his hotel to my home, he said he couldn’t get over that there were no fences around the homes. He was amazed! He wondered what we did for security to protect ourselves during the day and night. Comments like these gave me a great insight into how he lives in his country.

For dinner we served our normal fare of chicken, mixed vegetables, rice, bread, salad and chocolate ice cream. When I travel I really don’t like to eat casseroles. You have no idea what is in them so I make sure that each of my dinner guests can tell what is in each dish I serve. I also invited a few American guests to come to the dinner so we could have a good, rounded conversation and Mr. da Costa could meet other Americans.

Mr. da Costa spoke Portuguese (native language)and French, but was embarrassed by his English, so he was accompanied by a translator. One of the things he said which I especially want to point out for anyone who is interested in hosting dinners with GCIV is that he was so very happy to be in a regular, American home with regular American food. He said he looked forward all day to coming to dinner and to get to talk with the “real people.”

He was in Washington, DC the week before and his dinner host there had a formal dinner party for him. He didn’t tell his host, but he was somewhat disappointed. The affair was nice, but it didn’t afford a look at regular Americans at a simple meal.

Even though this dinner was several years ago, I’ll never forget the time we spent together and the charismatic personality of Mr. da Costa. The evening was incredible because he was a real person, talking to real Americans in a real home while enjoying a real meal. We laughed, told stories and found we had much more in common than any of us would have ever guessed.

This is the magic of GCIV’s home hospitality program. The friendships and understanding that come out of citizen diplomacy are something I don’t think can happen any other way. Who would have guessed that I’d ever become friends with a Prime Minister? Or that he would go home with fond memories of America because of a dinner at my house.

Thank you GCIV for allowing me to have such a wonderful experience!

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A Typical Day with an Iraqi Scientist

October 9, 2014

by Xaleon Shields

I first became involved with the Georgia Council for International Visitors when I was 13 years old as a co-host with my mentor Vicki Van Der Hoek. It was very exciting. We hosted three journalists from Comoros, Burundi, and the Central African Republic. Afterward, it was brought to my attention that I was now GCIV’s youngest official host.

In the five years since then, I’ve hosted people (in addition to the above) from Greece, Turkey, Romania, Germany, Costa Rica, and Belgium whose professions included judges, students and Fulbright Scholars. I’ve also attended International Dining Experiences and many other GCIV functions.

Hilal and XaleonAt the August 2013 GCIV International Dining Experience, I sat across from Shell Stuart, GCIV Executive Director, and next to Hilal S. Wahab, a scientist from Iraq. After speaking with Hilal for a while we discovered that he wanted to visit Stone Mountain before he went back to Iraq. I volunteered on the spot to give him a tour of the Atlanta area, including Stone Mountain. We planned the day for the next week.

We met Hilal at the East Point MARTA train station on September 15th. When he exited the train station we barely noticed him because his casual American attire blended in with everyone else. From there, we headed on to Oakland Cemetery where we gave him a tour and provided some insight into how its permanent residents tell the history of Atlanta.

The Martin Luther King, Jr. Center is near Oakland Cemetery, so we took him there next. As Hilal became familiar with the history of Martin Luther King, Jr., he asked us why the United States didn’t stop segregation in the South much earlier. I explained that once the marches were televised across America things started to change.

I surprised him by taking him to the Sun Dial Restaurant at the Westin Peachtree Hotel, which is on the 72nd floor, rotates 360 degrees and takes an hour to give a complete panorama view of Atlanta. It was here he explained Einstein’s theory of relativity by using the movement of the floor contrasted with the stable posts of the building.

After lunch, we headed to Stone Mountain Park where we took the Skyride to the summit and then hiked back down the mountain. This is when I learned about Hilal’s early and athletic childhood. I asked him why he did not leave Iraq because of the danger they were in. He explained it was because of many reasons; financial, family, students and so on. He also told me even though he was a college professor, he would be shot if he wore a suit and carried a briefcase to the college campus. Leon, Hilall, VickiThe only way he could safely make it to work was to dress like an average citizen and carry his books in a paper sack.

At the end of our day, we took Hilal back to his apartment. He had been a visiting professor at Georgia Tech for the past three months. He was granted a research fellowship by the American Civilian Research and Development Foundation (CRDF). When he exited the car, he thanked me, explaining that this was the best time he had during his stay in Atlanta.

GCIV has helped me meet people, talk to people and understand people from all over the world. I feel these experiences have helped me develop as a still young, but knowledgeable and well rounded individual.

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Just the Facts: Pakistan

September 29, 2014

pakistanby Shell Stuart

We are getting ready to host a delegation from Pakistan, so my staff and I are in the research mode, learning as much as we can prior to their arrival.

As always, fun facts come to light. I thought I’d share some of what we are learning.

Did you know that:

  • Pakistan elected the first woman prime minister of a Muslim country.1 Benazir Bhutto served as prime minister from 1988 to 1990 and again from 1993 to 1996. She was followed by Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri who was elected in 2001, former Turkish Prime Minister Tansu Ciller who served from 1993 to 1995 and Bangladeshi Prime Ministers Begum Khaleda Zia (elected in 1991) and Sheikh Hasina Wajed (elected in 1996).2
  • The most popular sports in Pakistan are Cricket, Soccer and Field Hockey.3
  • The national flower is the Jasmine.3
  • Pakistan is a young country, created when British India was partitioned along religious lines in 1947.4
  • Pakistan is also has a very old culture and was home to the Indus Valley civilization circa 2500 to 1700 BC.4
  • The United States recognized Pakistan as a nation in 1947 and had Pakistan as an ally throughout the Cold War. Pakistan is designated as a Major non-NATO ally of the United States.5
  • The country is the size of Texas and encompasses mountains and seashore. Culinary offerings are diverse and show a great variety of influences:6
    • Machli and other seafood in the Sindh province.
    • In Baluchistan, the Sajji method of roasting whole lambs in a deep pit is popular.
    • Punjab is known for Roti (bread) and sophisticated cooking preparations.
    • The most famous Pathan dish is oven-baked breads with cubes of meat.
  • There is a rich tradition of poetry which includes famous poets Dr. Allama Iqbal (national poet), Meer Taqi Meer, Mirza Ghalib, Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Ahmad Faraz, Habib Jalib, Jazib Qureshi, and Ahmad Nadeem Qasimi.7

When our visitors arrive, what we’ve read will pale in comparison to what they will be able to tell us about their lives, their country’s history and what role they have in bettering their fellow citizens’ lives.

Citizen Diplomacy is an incredible opportunity to have the world come to you and give you the experience of seeing other parts of the world through the eyes of those who live there.

If you haven’t done so already, please consider subscribing to the GCIV email newsletter or liking us on Facebook. We provide great opportunities to meet emerging world leaders during their stay in Georgia.

Surfing the web for some background information is fun. Talking to leaders from other countries is incredible.

-Shellie Stuart

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Globally Engaged…in Albania

September 23, 2014

by Vicki Van Der Hoek

I have absolutely taken GCIV’s mission to heart: “Our vision is that every Georgia citizen has the opportunity to become more globally engaged.” I became more globally engaged than I expected starting with the very first dinner I ever hosted.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThat first GCIV dinner, in February, 2006, was with three visitors from Albania, especially memorable was Arian Boci who is the Director of an NGO called STOP AIDS. When Arian returned to Albania he told his family and his co-workers about the hospitality he received in Atlanta, especially the home dinner and how his host had to rent a car to pick him up. He e-mailed me and said that they had decided to make me an official Honorary Chairwoman for STOP AIDS and requested that I come to Albania to accept the honor.

Let me see…travel to Albania, be with people who live there, be part of their day to day lives, accept their hospitality…

No problem!

Next, I had to look on the map to find the location of Albania (above Greece). Then, I contacted my boyfriend Allen Freedman, who is also a GCIV member, to let him know we were going to Albania.

vanOur trip started October 25, 2006. In order to get to the Mother Theresa Airport in Albania, we first flew into Athens, Greece. Then, we took a commuter airline which I found out based its departure time on current weather conditions. When the pilot decided the weather looked good, we boarded. This is how you fly to Albania.

Arian picked us up at the airport and took us to his home for dinner (we stayed at a hotel as there was no room at his place). He lived in an apartment with his parents, wife and child. His father, Memo Boci, is also a STOP AIDS Director and was the former Director of the National Institute of Health during communist rule.

addictsThe next few days we went with Arian in his STOP AIDS van on his daily activities. I remember the very first stop like it was yesterday. We went to a deserted lot filled with abandoned cars where we exchanged needles and gave out coffee, donuts and conversation to the homosexual, male prostitute addicts who lived in the rotted cars. Within a year, every addict I had personally met was dead. Click on the photos to see the captions on their fate. (As a history note: Albania was a closed country until communism ended in 1997. 12_yr_oldWhen the communist government collapsed, all the factories closed, many adults turned to alcohol and their abandoned children became addicts living in the streets. Another side note: It is illegal to be homosexual in Albania and jail time is usually 10 years.)

Another stop was to a grammar school in the Roma area of Tirana where we had a pleasant conversation with the school principal. This school has mainly Roma (gypsy) students and is extremely poor. Students have no supplies and come to school hungry. I told the principal that that is also the case in many areas of the United States. We weren’t so different after all.vicki_roma

The Tirana police department had a meeting of their top police officers with Arian as one of the guest speakers. Before this meeting, he told me that he already had an agreement with the police so that they would NOT follow him in his STOP AIDS van and thereby arrest addicts and homosexuals every time he made a stop. I didn’t understand a word of Arian’s presentation but I watched all the slides and pretended like I did. I’m really glad I was paying attention because Arian looked at me and motioned for me to come up and also give a speech. vicki_speech_policeAs background I want you to know that I am a real estate investor and rarely have an opportunity to talk to more than 4 people at a time. However, the speech apparently went well as I learned later that the Tirana Police Department posted it on their website.

On the last day of our stay in Tirana there was a party for me and I was officially made the Honorary Chairwoman of STOP AIDS Albania. I did have a short speech prepared for this event.

What an honor this was for me and what an adventure that first dinner turned out to be. I owe it all to GCIV! Even now, years later, I think of this time with fond memories, a feeling of accomplishment and appreciation. Thank you from the bottom of my heart, GCIV, for without you none of this could have been made possible!

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The Time of My Life

August 12, 2014

by: Vicki Van Der Hoek

At last count, through the Georgia Council for International Visitors (GCIV), I’ve hosted twenty-four times. That includes hosting/co-hosting twenty-two dinners for emerging world leaders and participating in two Open World programs with dignitaries staying in my home1985 colombia_finca. I’ve also participated in one official GCIV outbound cultural exchange to Cuba.

I grew up in Pico Rivera, a suburb of Los Angeles, in modest means and my family definitely didn’t know any world leaders. But my life was to change. . . In 1985 my former high school girlfriend, who had married into one of the wealthiest families in Colombia, asked me to come visit her. I thought this would be a girlfriend week but it turned out to be a turning point in my life with many life lessons.

It wasn’t her fancy apartment in downtown Bogota that surprised me, it was that she bought and wrapped a gift for me and put fresh flowers in my room. When we went to dinner at her in-laws was when I found out her father-in-law was the former Ambassador to the United States! Her husband took off of work for the entire week I was there and they personally showed me around most of the country pointing out the differences between the Colombian culture and mine. I had the time of my life and learned that THIS is how you host a guest in your home.

Cubano FriendNow we will fast forward to 2005, when I was introduced to GCIV. My boyfriend and GCIV member, Allen Freedman, and I went on GCIV’s humanitarian exchange to Cuba. I realized then and there that the experiences in life that are the most rewarding and meaningful are cultural, personal and emotional. I was hooked on GCIV!

My first time dinner hosting with GCIV was February 13, 2006. I remembered my wonderful experiences in Colombia and wanted to give this group of 3 Albanians the time of their life.

I bought and wrapped Atlanta souvenirs, put fresh flowers in my house, put the dinner on, and went to pick them up in my rented car as they couldn’t fit into my Ford Ranger. At the Regency Suites Hotel, they came down very late and really did not want to go with me because they wanted to shop.

When we finally got into the car, I turned on the windshield wipers instead of turning on the lights and they jumped out and said they didn’t want to go with someone who didn’t know how to drive!
After I explained I had to rent a car just so I could take them to my house for dinner their attitude totally changed. They could not believe that someone would do that for them. After dinner I took them to Walmart for 3+ hours of shopping. When I brought them back to their hotel at 1:30AM, they said they had each had the time of their life and said they didn’t know that Americans were so nice.

Little did they know, that I also had the time of my life along with a memory to cherish forever.

– Vicki

(Note: Including GCIV and other organizations, Vicki has hosted a total of 74 days with people from 61 countries and has been on eight outbound cultural exchanges.)

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