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Area hosts create global ties for Vicksburg

A Global Ties gathering on Feb. 26. Photo by Leeanne Seaver.

By Leeanne Seaver

For 50 years, Global Ties Kalamazoo – formerly Colleagues International – has hosted dignitaries from all over the world to experience America and attend specific programs sponsored by the U.S. State Department.

Vicksburg’s local host community includes Deborah Harsha, Kathy Forsythe, and me.

What I really love about Global Ties Kalamazoo, GTK, is the opportunity to participate in “Citizen Diplomacy.” When GTK visitors come to my home, sometimes for dinner, other times to stay for a week or more, we get to know each other—and we stay connected afterwards. I’ve made friends from Moldova, Germany, Jerusalem, Kuwait, Tajikistan, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Lebanon, and so many more countries.

On February 26, 2023, a Sunday afternoon right in my living room, Stas from Ukraine told me how hard it was to get here. I could only imagine, and I was afraid for him to go back to his war-torn country. I was also reflecting on the Russians I’ve gotten to know and still cannot imagine any of them as the people we see portrayed in the news now.

Ironically, in March 2020, Maria from Russia sat in this same room and told me all about starting her laundry franchise back home. The Russian group had to cut their visit short because the U.S. was closing its borders due to the pandemic. I had about one hour before I had to take her to the airport, so we went straight to Vicksburg High School. It was near the end of class and the choir students in Dusty Morris’s class were just waiting for the bell. When I explained that I hoped Maria could see something special about our school, Dusty asked the kids if they’d be willing to perform. Without hesitation, they all put away their phones, stood up, and sang Ave Maria a cappella. Our Russian guest just stood there in awe… tears flowing down her cheeks.

During the pandemic, the focus shifted to virtual connections. Deborah and I “hosted” a multinational group on Zoom. You’d be surprised how you can bond with folks anywhere in the world by asking them how they make potatoes! We all went around sharing how we prepare them, and it always ends up being a story about family. Then, since we had cameras on, we spontaneously gave a tour of our refrigerators!

Imagine my surprise this month, when in-person hosting a group of 13 educators from all over the globe on February 26, that one of them had been on that 2021 Zoom call! Milka, who manages the rare books collection at the Pan Tadeusz Museum in Poland, came up and introduced herself in person… we laughed and hugged like we were old friends. The menu was a challenge as there were numerous dietary considerations for people who eat according to the rules of their religion, i.e., “haram.” Bill Oswalt donated some delicious venison he had processed with jalapeno and spices. Turns out there are no rules against venison, so our guests ate every morsel!

Drs. David and Paula Schriemer and Kathy Forsythe also attended this event. “Interacting with global citizens restores my belief in humanity. No matter where we live, we share so many common hopes and dreams,” said Kathy Forsythe. “It is also interesting that so many of the educational initiatives the educators explained during our conversations are like programs and challenges we have here. I tend to think these things are unique to our school systems, but I am reminded that this is universal.”

After a pandemic hiatus, GTK is back in business in person. GTK Director Jodi Hope Michaels said, “The kind of learning and understanding we can do when we are together, especially informally, just can’t be duplicated in the ether.” Citizen Diplomacy Day is celebrated annually in February, honoring the power of person-to-person exchanges. “We’re so thankful for all the members of our community who so warmly welcome international visitors into their homes and workplaces, and most importantly, into their hearts,” Michaels wrote.

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