Some of our favorite moments from the 2017-2018 YFU USA program year.Read More
Filtering by Tag: exchange
For those families who have considered an exchange opportunity, do it! You will quickly realize the world is smaller than you think and that we are more similar than different from one another. Hosting a student is an opportunity you won’t regret with life-long memories made for everyone involved.Read More
The YFU experience is an open invitation to you. The opportunities are there. It is up to you to make the most of it.Read More
Today is International Day of Families, and we wanted to share how one YFU Host Family has expanded because they opened their hearts and their home to an international student. If you'd like to share your story and traditions while discovering a new culture right in your own home, sign up to host with YFU today!
Guest post from YFU Host Mom, Karen Auxter.
Family means embracing others who share no blood, but who entrusted their child into your care.
It means broadening your horizons, learning about differences and realizing being different isn't a bad thing.
Family is finding out how much you are alike, even though you live on different continents and might only be able to communicate through smiles and hugs.
Family isn't always about sharing ancestors....sometimes it's just about sharing Love.
When Sebastian's family was getting ready to fly here for graduation, his mom said, "I can't wait to get to meet you!" That really threw me, because I felt like we were old friends from our communication through Facebook and talking some during Sebastian's calls home!
Interview by YFU Alumnus and Campus Ambassador Ronak Gandhi with YFU Field Director, Host Mother & Area Representative Kylie Neidich
Why do you believe that study abroad programs are not only beneficial, but also crucial for the youth of tomorrow?
I believe that our youth are often unaware of the cultural differences, how different every country is, and I think that studying abroad can help them further in life. It also looks great on college applications and applications for jobs because of that experience.
What was your motivation for volunteering and hosting with YFU?
I wanted my own children to learn about other cultures, while also getting to share our own. We love being able to share the kitchen with our students, as they teach us dishes from their own country. Believe it or not, I am the pickiest eater, but I have changed my eating habits due to my exchange students. When we moved to Texas we were the only family who hosted and I hated that our student couldn’t interact with others, so that got me more involved with volunteering. I’ve helped in planning events and in the growth and expansion of my field!
We have tasted food from other countries that we would have never been able to otherwise try, and my kids have been introduced to several languages including Thai, French, Swiss, and German! We gain so much through hosting. It truly is life changing.
Can you share some of the best memories and unexpected surprises from your hosting experiences?
The best memories would be watching them grow into sports that they may never have played before (esp.
Archived letter from YFU Founder & Nobel Peace Prize Nominee, Dr. Rachel Andresen
Youth For Understanding is a dream come true. It is as strong as steel, as delicate as the moonbeam, as fragile as a butterfly wing, and as illusive as a will-of-the-wisp.
It’s built on faith, on hope for the future and love as deep as abiding as life itself.
To be part of it brings out the best in all of us. Each of us who has shared the magic of its being has contributed something bigger than we are.
We have learned to love and be loved, to trust and be trusted, to open our homes and our hearts to all people, everywhere.
Youth For Understanding has been like my own baby. I came to an early realization that here was a
Why me? I will never know. I do know that I was given strength, courage and leadership to create and develop Youth For Understanding. I did not do it alone. There are people by the thousand who have given of themselves to make this dream come true. It became their dream, too.
I want to say “thank you” to students, to host families, to our school principals, superintendents, school counselors and teachers, to community leaders, to churches for their
My own private purpose has been to get the job done and to see that everyone involved grew in the process. Thank you again.
I love you.
Guest post from YFU Alumna and Campus Ambassador, Hollie Nusbaum
This summer, I had three birthdays.
When I realized that I would turn 17 during my six week exchange to Japan, I was thrilled. Having a summer birthday, I was used
My first birthday was at home in the United States. The day before I left, I threw a small going-away party with some of my friends, expecting just a few sad goodbyes. To my shock, they turned it into a fake birthday party, surprising me with gifts and singing me a happy birthday. Even before I left, exchange was showing me just how much my friends at home mattered.
My second birthday was at my host school in Japan. My actual birthday fell during the
My third birthday was with my host family. I woke up homesick, not having realized how hard it would be to be away from my family on a day that I usually spent with them. I went downstairs and was immediately greeted by party poppers (scaring the life out of me)! My host dad and sister greeted me with early morning smiles and gifts. We drove to my host grandparents’ home in Kyoto and spent the day feasting at a nearby restaurant. When my host dad brought out a cake with a blazing candle and I heard the birthday song for the third time, I felt truly loved. Birthdays in Japan are usually not as celebrated as they are in the states, so it was touching that so many people had gone out of their way for me.
Birthdays are a way to show who is important in your life. Having so many birthdays this year, even if some of them weren’t the ‘real thing’, showed me how people are making my life better every day. Turning 17 in Japan was one of the best experiences of my life.
Visit yfuusa.org/study to learn more about studying abroad for the summer, semester or even an entire year!
The Noble-Olsen family welcomed Maan from Saudi Arabia during the 2015-2016 school year to develop what they agreed would be “a lifelong friend in a different place.” Patricia his host mother, explained to us how their multi-generational household was perfect for a transitioning Maan, who was accustomed to living and interacting with his extended family in Saudi Arabia. For the family, this also meant multiple generations’ worth of learning and understanding of the Islamic religion and of Saudi culture.
The holy month of Ramadan, which occurred during Maan’s stay with the Noble-Olsens, naturally came with obstacles that required cooperation and an open-mind from Maan and his new family. Included in these were Minnesota’s long days, during which he had to fast, leading to an eating schedule that was inconsistent with the typical family mealtimes, and in respect to Maan’s religion, the elimination of pork and alcohol from their diet.
Patricia, who has a background in religious studies, thoroughly enjoyed the process of her learning from Maan about Saudi culture and religion, but specified how the extent of learning reached beyond just her and Maan.
“He very much enjoyed talking about religion,” she said. “He presented to his class about Saudi Arabia, and loved to learn about the religion of others.”
In the household, it was clear that Maan’s energy was special, as Patricia recalls finding him in conversation with her 4-year-old granddaughter.
“My granddaughter adored Maan,” said Patricia when asked of her favorite moment of his stay. “I remember the two of them sitting with each other at the dining room table talking. She reached up to grab his arm and said, ‘I love you,’ to which he said, ‘I love you too.’”
On the night of his departure, Patricia recalled her family’s final dinner for Maan as a heart-breaking experience. As he was leaving very early the next morning, each family member took turns saying goodbye before going to sleep for the night – but Maan had something else planned.
“I woke up the next morning to find a post-it note on the door to our bedroom saying, ‘Love you, Thank you!’ only to realize that there were countless notes around the house expressing Maan’s love and gratitude for individual members of the family. He left 96 notes around the house, and I was still finding them two weeks later,” Patricia reminisced.
The Noble-Olsen family found in Maan a perfect example of how an intercultural exchange program can convey such understanding and compassion in a family while showing a young scholar a world so different from their own.
Did you know that each year, YFU welcomes scholarship winners from several US Government sponsored programs? Learn more about hosting a YES Scholarship student like Maan and meet our incoming class of students today!
Guest post from YFU Alum Meg White Campbell
The idea to participate in an exchange probably began when my family agreed to host a student from France one summer when I was in elementary school. I couldn’t speak French, and Sanou couldn’t speak English, but we managed to communicate through acting and shared hobbies - It turns out French kids love ice cream, too. Then my sophomore year of high school, my mom came across and an advertisement in a brochure – these were pre-internet days – and she passed it along to me. Before long, and courtesy of a YFU and All Nippon Airways scholarship, I was off on an adventure to Japan.
I absolutely loved Tokyo. My 5’10” felt like 7’10”, but thankfully my gargantuan proportions didn’t prevent my host family from being gracious and hospitable. We laughed a lot together (or perhaps they were laughing at me and I simply joined in). In Tokyo, I saw the coolest things! I remember a man rollerblade-skiing down a busy street, a group of people dressed as Star Wars storm troopers in the shopping district, and an apple (the fruit, not the technology) on sale for the equivalent of $25. I participated in a tea ceremony, met a
To say the stay in Tokyo was eye-opening for me is an understatement. It broadened my horizons and changed my trajectory both personally and professionally. Since that first foray overseas, I have lived in eight countries and participated in three other exchange programs. As a result of my current Foreign Service posting, my children, whom I call “multicultural minions”, attend a bilingual school in Berlin, where they are reaping the benefits of easily moving between cultures and languages.
As anyone reading this well knows, exchange helps us see ourselves from the outside. This knowledge is an exceptionally powerful skillset in the world of diplomacy, where sometimes in our effort to do the right thing at the right time, we inadvertently act too quickly or fumble our messages. Sometimes even when we – and our policies – are well-intentioned, they are not always received the way we had hoped they would be. Through exchange we learn to ask better questions, to listen, and that it is ok to trust people who prefer Sarutahiko to Starbucks.
Exchanges have taught me grit and moxie. I survived high school in Bavaria amidst fast friends and a flurry of flashcards. It was trying, but there was a lasting sense of accomplishment once I had made it to the other side. This persistence means that, even today, when I make mistakes, I dust myself off, chart a new course, and…make all new mistakes. I have
Learning foreign languages through exchange has opened my eyes to a new universe of people and possibilities. As my language proficiency increased, I also honed my empathy. I now know firsthand how taxing it is to work an entire day in a foreign language. Nothing is more humbling than spending three hours writing a short blurb in German to then attend a conference, where international colleagues give compelling speeches effortlessly in English.
Learning another language is a gift we can give each other, but there are other ways to promote intercultural dialogue. We can host international students, donate to YFU, or simply shout from the rooftops how much we love exchange. I have maintained contact with several host family members and friends met during my time abroad. My Japanese host sister stayed with my family in the U.S., and one host family sends my children Christmas gifts signed “your ¾ family”. Thanks to Dr. Rachel Andresen and her continuing legacy through YFU, these lifelong connections have enriched my life and have helped me learn, grow, and succeed.
If exchange is for you, find a way to make it happen. There will always be people who don’t understand how you could leave and miss Homecoming or basketball season. You have to weigh that for yourself, but you should also consider what you will miss if you don’t go. There’s a whole world out there waiting for you to explore. Ganbatte, and Viel Spaß!
Meg White Campbell, a Foreign Service Officer at the U.S.
Department of State, is currently working as an exchange diplomat (Transatlantic Diplomatic Fellow) at the Federal Foreign Office in Berlin, Germany.
Guest post from YFU President & CEO Michael E. Hill
Great literature has many references to “the ghosts of our past;” so, too, do great organizations. This is the week we celebrate our founding visionary, Dr. Rachel Andresen, and while all “Founder’s Weeks” provide a time to honor a very special woman and to reflect on her vast contributions to Youth For Understanding, this year’s Founder’s Week is particularly special as it marks the beginning of our 65th anniversary year.
When Rachel was called upon to form and support YFU shortly after World War II, there was no recipe for how an exchange program should operate. The founding premise was both much simpler and yet significantly complex: how could we bring young people
As we embark on our 65th year, in some ways, we find ourselves asking this question anew. While it is absolutely the case that our core programs in in-person intercultural exchange remain as powerful as ever, we do know that advances in technology have certainly provided greater access to the world – or at least the perception that this is so. And the evils that Rachel was trying to combat are far different than the ills of today’s world.
Andresen was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973 for her work in uniting young people and communities. According the Alfred Nobel’s will, which established the recognition, “the Peace Prize shall be awarded to the person who in the preceding year "shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.”
One of the central challenges
Those who lost their lives in the recent bombings in Brussels are victims of those that
When Andresen began YFU six decades ago, the world was a simpler place. Students travelled on boats across the ocean to live with host families. There were few rules of engagement then. There were no governmental offices that monitored regulations. Students wrote letters home to update their parents
In today’s hyper-connected world, students have access to volumes of information and can almost in real time gain insights into events and activities that are shaping global cultures. But technology does not provide a filter for bias and misinformation. Only through deep engagement – people to people – can disparate cultures understand one another.
I believe that the most important way we can honor
If we believe that the world’s future depends on interconnected citizens with an ability to see the benefits of different cultures, then we must find ways to allow the next generation to interact with those who may appear as “the other.” We must create vehicles for young people to dialogue and to take those skills into their adult lives when they become heads of state, heads of corporations, head of families or simply
A hyper connected world provides several potential solutions:
1) YFU has just embarked on its first “Virtual Exchange” program, harnessing the power of social media and technology to provide an asynchronous dialogue among young people of different cultures. Meeting youth where they most are living, YFU’s program is looking at curating conversations through social media and online platforms, but the pathway of that conversation is being most managed by young people themselves. What are they interested in talking about and how do use that imagination and interest to reduce barriers and increase understanding? Can we break through the packed educational agendas in schools to be a partner in delivering curricular needs through youth dialogue? If so, could this be one avenue for young people to realize they are more alike than different. YFU is starting a pilot program with the poorest school in New York City. The principal there, who also happens to be a YFU Trustee, posited that impoverished children in New York are a different form of “refugee.” We will attempt to link them up with young people in the Middle East and Northern African region, who is experiencing great upheaval and refugee migration of a different kind to explore similarities in hopes that the adult versions of these young people might contribute to a safer planet.
2) Corporations and individuals must step forward to provide resources to allow increased participation in traditional exchanges. Not only will it create the workforce most needed in an increasing global society, the return on investment is far greater than the cost of training adults in intercultural competencies later on.
3) Governments must promote a platform of intercultural engagement in societies and schools, encouraging an examination of other cultures to provide greater global security.
4) And nonprofit organizations that care about intercultural engagement must find new ways to link young people in dynamic dialogue and work in partnership with others to reduce the barrier to entry.
Rachel answered the call after World War II. In one of her speeches, she recalls being in Amsterdam when the lights were turned on again. She notes, “The work of YFU is ensure that the lights never go out again.” That must be a shared mission if the next generation has a shot at fulfilling that promise. During this Founder’s Week, let’s celebrate Rachel by finding new and increased ways to celebrate her dream.
Guest post from YFU Atlas Corps Fellow, Deepa Khatri
My Homecoming Abroad
This is going to be my first Holi here in the United States, I have been celebrating Holi for past 2 year’s back home in India. I’m
Context & Origin
In India, we have thousands of gods and stories associated with them, from which we derive some of our values, culture, beliefs and way of life. India is known as a country of festivals – in fact, we pretty much have them weekly – where we come together to live in the moment, celebrating various occasions to spread joy and happiness amongst our communities. For those, who may not be as familiar with my country and this ‘festival of color’ and why it’s celebrated, I’d like share some the Hindu mythology behind its origin.
The story behind Holi is a story of a prince and how his devotion depicted the victory of good or evil. Prahlad was the prince of Multan and his father Hiranyakashipu had been gifted with a blessing that made him virtually indestructible. He grew arrogant, thought he was God, and demanded that everyone should only worship him. Whereas, his own son, Prahlad was devoted to Lord Vishnu (one of the 3 main gods in Hindu Mythology who created the universe). This infuriated Hiranyakashipu and he subjected his own son to cruel punishments; none of which affected the boy or his resolve to do what he thought was right. Finally, Holika - Prahlada's evil aunt - tricked him into sitting on a
The date for celebrating Holi, changes each year because rather than being tied to a specific calendar date, it is celebrated at the approach of the vernal equinox, on the Phalguna Purnima (full moon). The festival signifies the victory of good over evil, the arrival of spring and
The celebration starts on the night before Holi with a ‘Holika bonfire’ where people gather together to sing, dance and party. The bonfire is a reminder of the symbolic victory of good over evil, of Prahlada over Hiranyakashipu, and of the fire that burned Holika. The next day when the fire cooled down, people apply ash to their foreheads, a practice still observed by some. Eventually, colored powder came to be used to represent this ash and celebrate Holi. The next morning is a free-for-all carnival of colors where participants play, chase and color each other with dry powder and colored water – some participants even carry water guns and colored water-filled balloons for their water fight. It’s a super fun festival for people of all ages, which is one of the primary reasons for its increasing popularity.
Power of Festivity in the Modern World
In today’s fast paced world, cultural traditions often become overlooked. I personally believe that these festivals and their festivities play an integral role in reminding us of the importance of coming together, celebrating our differences and similarities, and helping us to live every moment to the fullest. Irrespective of where they come from or which ethnicity one belongs to, Holi brings people together to share and celebrate a culture, a tradition, a history, a community.
By immersing oneself in another culture, you can begin to truly understand differences, a unique way of life, and to learn from one another. What you find is that it all boils down to one simple thing which is we all are humans and we share the same human emotions. There is no difference that puts one race above or below another; the mere difference is, how you treat your fellow human beings.
YFU and Cultural Exchange
This year I’ve had the opportunity to work at YFU and contribute to the vision of increasing intercultural understanding, mutual respect and social responsibility through educational exchanges for youth, families and communities. And what could be better than inviting everyone to experience Holi, the festival of color, love and joy this year with me. I encourage you to immerse yourself in my culture for a better understanding of the differences and similarities of the human race, to gain mutual trust & respect and to stand for one race called the human race and for its development.
Bura Na Mano, Holi Hai! ("Don't Mind, It's Holi!")
As we celebrate International Education Week, YFU is excited to announce the launch of our new Campus Ambassador Program (CAP). Following a competitive application process, five YFU young alumni were selected from across the country to serve as our inaugural class of Campus Ambassadors. As a continuation of their exchange experience, they will mentor prospective study abroad and international students, and share YFU exchange opportunities within their schools and communities across the country. Stay tuned throughout the week as we introduce these student leaders.
Went on exchange to: Sweden
My name is Misha, I am currently finishing up my last year of high school in Arlington, VA. I spent my sophomore year abroad in Gothenburg, Sweden, where I found a second family and another home. My exchange year has been the most significant thing I've done in my life thus far, and I have been happy to get the chance to continue my connection with YFU through volunteer work since my return to the States. It's exciting to get the opportunity to focus all efforts
My host parents brought up my going to college, and asked how I planned to pay off student loans. I said that among other things, I would consider military service. The conversation continued, but I soon noticed my host mother hiding her tears. My host father’s eyes welled up as well, and he said that while enlisting would help cover the cost of education and serve my country, they couldn’t stand for me to be in danger... I then realized that I was not a guest in their house. I was their son.
A simple word that any YFU student knows is anything but simple. We’ve been back for two weeks from Cuba, and just this past week, we held our “re-entry orientation” with the program participants.
Part of the reason for that tough transition was in the duality of Cuba itself, which in some ways can best be illustrated by our visits with two key figures: a private dinner with Ambassador Jeffrey DeLaurentis, the Chargé
Both leaders were hopeful for the future of Cuba and predicted very different pathways for the nation. As I mentioned in a previous blog post, Ambassador DeLaurentis was very pragmatic about what he saw after the normalization of relations between the US and Cuba. He summed it up by saying (and I’m only slightly paraphrasing), “What will happen next depends on the Cubans.”
I met Mariela Castro at a private luncheon for our delegation on Day 7 of our trip. We had thought that she might stop by during our meeting with CENESEX days prior, but we were told that in addition to her role as Director of CENESEX, she also was a member of the Cuban Parliament, which was convened that week. As she walked into our dining space, she said she had recently had significant back problems, showing us a small brace and noted that this was the first day she was really allowed to be out and about. Cuban politics are still an artform in managing perception and power.
Castro shared with us a nearly 40-minute treatise on realizing LGTB civil rights in her country. It was easy to see how people could be charmed by her and her family. Her speech was warm, hopeful and extremely practical. While she cited that the only way to create new civil rights in a society is by changing attitudes from the ground up (versus the government down), she did note that in some of her efforts, when a group disagreed, “sanctions” were necessary. I found her to be a compelling leader, even if I didn’t agree with her government’s stance on achieving the means to the end.
Truth be told, we were “stage managed” through much of our public appearances in Cuba. It was seldom lost on our group that the public presentations were intended to give us exactly the view the government wanted on US-Cuban relations, but the complexity of another Cuba shows up in talking to the people.
Young people, in particular, are frustrated with the pace of change. Those we had a chance to talk to believe two things quite powerfully: 1) that the embargo never hurt the Castros at all, despite that being its intent. As they note, the ruling class continues to lead very comfortable, lavish lives, have never been without food and don’t experience the housing shortage, and 2) the Castros and the current leaders will only allow things to normalize and free-up if it also can happen with them still being firmly in control.
Mariela herself hinted at this when we asked if she thought Wal-Mart or Starbucks would be welcomed on the island as restrictions ease. “Cuba will decide what comes to Cuba. We aren’t going to welcome Wal-Marts just because they want to come if it’s not best for the ideals of the Revolution.” (again, only a very slight paraphrase). I was struck by the way she evoked Fidel Castro’s name as if a Biblical figure: “As Fidel said in 1974…” The Revolution was very much alive for many.
There was much to wonder about for the future of the country. The infrastructure is way behind, as is the economy overall. We were stuck in the Havana airport for an extra four hours, we later found out, because communication between the island and the United States was down: the passenger manifest had no way to be cleared by Homeland Security to allow us to depart. So much work was needed. As Ambassador DeLaurentis noted: it was up to the Cuban government whether normalization of relations would do much to fix that.
One of the Cubans we met put it more starkly: “The sad thing is that too many Cubans believe the normalization of relations is going to fix all the ills of the current Cuba. That’s not going to happen if the government feels it will lose control in the process.”
Part of any exchange experience is asking participants to see a culture not through one’s own eyes but also through the eyes of the people you are visiting. At YFU, we conduct a workshop called “Colored Glasses,” which refers to the well-known analogy of the sunglasses, which represents the cultural filters through which we observe and interpret reality. Re-entry has been so hard for our group because our visit challenged us to find our own truth about Cuba, and in many ways, a new or revised truth about our own country in the process.
Two leaders: a US diplomat and the daughter of a founder of the Revolution. Both have great hopes for Cuba, and yet both see different roads to the same destination. For our group, we fell in the love with the people and the culture. As the US and Cuba open up to one another again, I can only hope we attempt to see the future through the “colored glasses” of the other. If we do that, perhaps both the US and Cuban peoples have reason for esperanza.
Michael Hill, President & CEO of YFU USA, just returned from Cuba, one week before the normalization of diplomatic relations. Here he shares a day by day recounting of not only YFU’s first-ever exchange to this unique island nation, but also first-ever adult exchange program.
Day 7 –Friday, July 17
A week goes by too fast. We had one last full day to take in more of Cuba’s history, and this day would plunge us into some of the complexity of the island’s struggle with religion.
We started the day at the church of Nuestra Senora de Regla, one of Cuba’s most frequented pilgrimage churches, which houses the statue of the Virgin of Regla, who is black and cradles a white infant in her arms. She is the patron and protector of sailors and considered the equivalent of Yemaya, the goddess of the sea in the Yoruba religion. When we arrived, there was a Catholic mass happening inside the church. Since Raul Castro’s presidency, relations with the Catholic Church have thawed a bit. President Castro, himself, recently told Pope Francis, who is visiting the nation in September, that he might consider a personal return to the Catholic Church. It only underscored the tension that Cuba is experiencing as the Revolution morphs with time.
Following our church visit, we traveled a short block to the Municipal Museum of Regla. Each township has a municipal museum that chronicles the history of the town, its people and important moments. We learned of a raid on the town during the festival honoring the Virgin of Regla, where four young men were killed. The cousin of one of our guides was one of the four, which brought the story closer to home.
While there, we experienced the ritual dance of Santeria, the religion brought to Cuba by African slaves. Despite misconceptions that Santeria was blended with Catholicism, many practice the religions in parallel. The ritual dance was high spirited and ended with our delegation dancing along with the ceremonial dancers.
One cannot fully participate in Youth For Understanding without a love and appreciation for young people. That afternoon, following a spectacular lunch at a historic club, we were treated to a dance performance by the Bebe Compania Project at the Bertolt Brecht Theater. Children ranging in age from five to their teens put on a great performance for us, after which GMCW performed for them. Little did we know, all of us would end up on stage learning traditional Cuban dances by the end of the day. The children were patient teachers!
The Chorus would officially end its performance tour at Casa de las Americas, the most prestigious cultural venue in Cuba. We were met there by international media, including a crew from NBC, who had followed us through much of Cuba for a later documentary on the trip. I was so proud of these guys who had performed more than 20 times that week. Their songs of freedom and equality would no doubt have an impact on all those who heard them for some time to come. They were incredible musical ambassadors for our nation and for LGBT people.
As we departed the theater, Alex Lopez, our Travel Director and trip mastermind, had arranged for us to ride to our farewell dinner in a parade of vintage cars. Cruising through the streets of Havana, with the wind in our faces, was a perfect finale to a remarkable week. As we looked out onto the street, we raced by so many places and faces we had seen that week. The site of 20 or so convertibles with “crazy Americans” screaming in them caused quite a stir on our route. What a blast!
A farewell toast on the roof of Ambos Mundos Hotel, Hemingway’s first home in Havana and one of his favorite places to grab a drink, Alex was pushing us to leave for dinner. We should have known that his earnestness meant another surprise was in store. He decided a simple walk would not do, and arranged for stilt walking performers to lead us through the streets. It didn’t take long before we had created a “Carnival-like” parade, picking up people as we went to dinner at Café Del Oriente Restaurant, overlooking the Plaza de San Francisco, the site of our first day in Old Havana. Things had come full circle.
We spent our last dinner in Cuba paying tribute to our amazing guides. I was most moved to hear our YFU volunteer, Rick Withem, describe his experiences traveling with the Gay Men’s Chorus and how he now better understood the exchange students he had hosted for many years, as he felt as if he had just finished an exchange year in a week.
This last photo shows the staff crew from both organizations that helped pull off this remarkable journey, and they deserve to be listed and celebrated (from left to right):
- Dr. Paul Heins, GMCW’s Assistant Music Director
- Chase Maggiano, GMCW’s Executive Director
- Dr. Thea Kano, GMCW’s Artistic Director
- Next to me, Gina Palmisano, Recruiting Manager for YFU’s Study Abroad Program
- Alex Lopez, YFU’s Director of Travel, who unlocked his country of birth to his adopted US home
- Scott Messing, YFU’s Vice President of Administration and the Exchange Experience
- and Kirk Sobell, GMCW’s Director of Patron Services
These men and women worked tirelessly to make this historic journey possible. I have this photo framed on my desk as a reminder of what’s possible when people dream with one another, because, for many of this, the trip still feels like a dream.
I will write one last blog about our departure day and share some very special news of another visitor in Cuba, but as I close this Friday night in my mind, I cannot help but think of our friend Hemingway. It’s obvious to me why he fell in love with both countries.
The Day’s Takeaways:
- Cuba seems to be in a perpetual state of “tug-of-war” with itself. On this day, I was reminded that the role of religion is just one of many unsettled questions for the nation and its people, but like most things in Cuba, the Cuban people find a way to navigate around the politics of any situation.
- Dancing with people erases so much distance and division that politics can create. Whether with our Santeria dancers or the young people at the Bertolt Brecht Theater, laughing while we tried to match steps had us almost forget 50 years of division.
- I am so lucky to work with incredible volunteers – thank you, Rick! – and a team of professionals – see that great looking group in the photo!
Michael Hill, President & CEO of YFU USA, just returned from Cuba, one week before the normalization of diplomatic relations. Here he shares a day by day recounting of not only YFU’s first-ever exchange to this unique island nation, but also first-ever adult exchange program.
Day 6 – Thursday, July 16
No word could greater symbolize our voyage to Cuba during this historic time than the Spanish word for “hope.” That emotion would come crashing down on us like a ton of brinks on Day 6, as we visited Convento de Nuestra Senora de Belen, an 18th century convent in the middle of Old Havana, which now houses a senior center with a health clinic and pharmacy, physical therapy for the elderly, services for youth with disabilities, an eye care center, a location for meals for those in need, support for single mothers, occupational training and an onsite daycare for workers.
We were told that GMCW would sing for a group of senior citizens but that they had also prepared musical and dance numbers for us. As we walked into the central courtyard, more than 200 senior performers met us – they were in full costume and cheering loudly as we arrived.
I was invited to greet the group as YFU’s President and said that our journey so far had me drawing one simple conclusion: two peoples with so much to give to one another should no longer be kept apart. The audience erupted into applause, and I filled up with tears. To see hundreds of faces that had remembered life before our two countries stopped diplomatic relations was a stirring thought. What had these men and women seen over 50 years, and what esperanza did they have for this new future?
The Cuban performers were entrancing, throwing their entire hearts into a series of welcome performances. As GMCW concluded its set, many of the Cuban seniors joined them on stage, and then the entire audience broke out into a song for us again.
To hear hundreds of voices sing to us with tears running down their faces struck the most powerful chord of the week. One woman came up to me after the exchange, screaming “El Presidente! El Presidente!,” with tears rolling down her cheeks. Through an interpreter, she shared with me, “We’ve been waiting for you for 50 years!” – the time period of the embargo.
The senior citizens shared so many stories with us that day: stories of pain and loss, of children that had left for the United States, of relatives who still hoped to reunite, of a deep hope that perhaps a new day had dawned. It was the perfect scene to summarize so much of what we had seen. Esperanza indeed.
Later that day, we had a chance to walk around the city without guides. It was somewhat surreal to see a replica of our own Capitol Building, built originally as the site of the Cuban Parliament by Batista. Even more ironic, it is going through a similar renovation to its dome as is our own Capitol in Washington, DC. Starting this year, it will again be used as the seat of Parliament in Cuba, the first time since Castro’s Revolution in 1959.
After our walk, we would visit the Museo de Bellas Artes, dedicated exclusively to Cuban artists from the mid-16th century through the modern day. I have always believed that the arts capture moments in history better than any other medium. To see the story of the Cuban people play out on canvas and in sculpture was among the best history lessons one could get in an hour.
Cuba is a nation shrouded in history. Ever since Spanish occupation, there has been a special nightly celebration from the 18th century San Carlos de La Cabana fortress, a tradition evoking the announcement of the closing of the gates of the city and of the channel at the entrance to the city’s bay. What a stunning view of Havana and another window into her soul.
We ended the evening at a quaint jazz café, taking in even more music. The city and the country breathes its music.
As the day concluded, I found myself wondering about all the people of this island nation had seen and the genuine hope they’d expressed for the future. So many have asked what I think will happen once diplomatic relations are normalized. I’ll share those thoughts in my last blog post about Cuba. I ended this day just praying that the hope that we had seen on the faces of the senior citizens would be realized. They had indeed waited for 50 years. Could our two nations deliver on the promise? As President Clinton once famously said, “I still believe in a place called Hope.”
The Day’s Takeaways:
- It is indeed possible to have a flash mob/dance party with 200 senior citizens!
- Our seniors often possess the greatest wisdom. Through their eyes, I understood the true meaning of hope.
- Art tells a story that other media cannot. What would the canvases of the Cuban artists of tomorrow say about this time?
- All of us on the trip wanted desperately to believe in the promise of esperanza. Could our governments fulfill the wish?
Michael Hill, President & CEO of YFU USA, just returned from Cuba, one week before the normalization of diplomatic relations. Here he shares a day by day recounting of not only YFU’s first-ever exchange to this unique island nation, but also first-ever adult exchange program. Day 5 – Wednesday, July 15
There are vivid reminders of the once closer ties between Cuba and the United States. Certainly some of that comes through the stories of those who remember the interaction pre-embargo, but as with so much of this trip, art, served as a great reminder of the ties that bind.
Ernest Hemingway fell in love with Cuba and lived much of the last part of his life there. It’s where he wrote “Old Man and the Sea,” as well as a “A Farewell to Arms.” We started day 5 with a visit to Hemingway’s home in Cuba. Located about 12 kilometers outside of Old Havana, Hemingway initially did not want to live in the home. His wife, however, worked to set up a paradise in Cuba before convincing him to make the move. It was exciting to see the house where this iconic US author had completed some of his best work.
For any one that loves the written word, to see where Hemingway wrote was a true thrill. Ironically, although his wife had a separate tower building/office built for him where he could see all of Havana, he liked to write standing up in a guest bedroom. On the site was Hemingway’s beloved boat “Pilar,” which in his time was docked at the nearby town of Cojimar, the inspiration for the “Old Man and the Sea.” In addition to the estate, which his wife donated completely furnished minus a few paintings to be a museum, we got a chance to see where his beloved pets were buried on the grounds. All of this helped to shape our impressions of the man who found a way to love both Cuba and the United States, regardless of policy differences. His example may serve us all well, at least that part of his example.
After visiting the museum, we rode to have lunch at Bodega de las Brisas “Paladar” in Cojimar, a restaurant near the water that inspired his masterpiece. Local artist studios now take the place of other trade in this historic fishing village. It was exciting to see artists still trying to capture the beauty of the place as Hemingway had done decades before.
Later that afternoon, we returned to ICAP to have a discussion with leaders of CENESEX (the National Center for Sexual Education), the Cuban governmental agency that oversees the education and research of topics of human sexuality in Cuba. We received a presentation on LGBT rights in Cuba and were afforded a chance to ask some fairly pointed questions about the struggle that gay people experience in Cuba.
After the presentation, it was exciting for GMCW to sing with Mano a Mano, Cuba's first openly gay chorus. Mano a Mano was assembled differently than GMCW, which is a community, all volunteer chorus. Mano a Mano is supported by a grant from the government and its members are paid. It will be interesting to see if the model can sustain itself, but the performers themselves were fantastic. The US and Cuba choruses even performed together, as international media covered the whole event. I was excited to have our YFU volunteer, Rick Withem, chronicle this trip through his amazing photography. Not only was Rick an amazing documentarian for us, he brought his considerable skills as a YFU educator/host dad to bear in helping us navigate culture shock issues. Rick picked up some 20 new friends this trip! (He’s the one with the gray beard in these photos).
Later that night, our hotel, Quinta Avenida Hotel, sponsored a concert for GMCW, setting up a stage in the lobby. We were so moved by the combination of rainbow and Cuban flags in the hotel. The men of GMCW were again in wonderful voice, and we were pleasantly surprised and touched to see some of the performers from our first day in the lobby to root us on. They asked musical as well as diplomatic questions; our efforts to break down barriers through music were starting to have an impact.
The exercise in going to Cuba was as much about people to people interaction as anything else. We were starting to see an impact despite the layers of political and social issues. I am so often struck by the simple power that YFU holds: bring people together and let the inherent desire for peace play out. While it’s often not that simple, sometimes the ingredients are right to have a transformative impact. I hope that this is what is happening through our visit to Cuba.
The Day’s Takeaways:
- The US and Cuba share a seminal artist in Ernest Hemingway. What can artists see that we can learn from in approaching diplomacy? How do they see beauty where we see only conflict, and what can we learn from their approach?
- People to people exchanges have a chance to supersede politics. Our artist friends from day one wanted to support their new friends. Could we find a way to do that once we normalized relations?
Michael Hill, President & CEO of YFU USA, just returned from Cuba, one week before the normalization of diplomatic relations. Here he shares a day by day recounting of not only YFU’s first-ever exchange to this unique island nation, but also first-ever adult exchange program. Day 4 – Tuesday, July 14
By Tuesday we had had some intense experiences and were grateful for a day that was mostly educational. At this point, the Chorus had sung so many formal and informal concerts; they were ready to let their voices rest.
We left our hotel at 8:30 am to travel to Las Terrazas, a rural experience of a sustainable development project in a mountain area located within the Sierra del Rosario biosphere reserve in a newly named province of Artemisa (created when they split the greater Havana area into a new set of provinces).
The area’s history is fascinating. Once serving as a coffee plantation, it was decimated after the fall of the Soviet Union took out much-needed resources. The Las Terrazas Community Project was developed to restore the area while providing jobs, and creating a new industry of “eco-tourism” for that part of Cuba.
UNESCO named it a world heritage site in 1985 in acknowledgement of the success of the effort.
We started our day with a presentation on the reserve and its importance as an economic driver for the region. What an exquisite and lush landscape, and what a contrast to Havana!
After a brief bus trip through the reserve, we were fortunate enough to be able to take a brief swim in a sulfur water area. Crossing the footbridge, we got a chance to see why this was a popular eco-tourist hot spot. From a hotel nestled into the trees to smaller and more primitive huts, visitors to the area could swim, zip line or go hiking. Farm animals were raised in nearby houses to provide food for residents and tourists alike. It was stunning!
It turns out that the Gay Men’s Chorus wouldn’t get a complete break, as they gave a mini-concert from a tree-tophutto those swimming with us.
After lunch, we visited an area near the old coffee plantation and took in a studio of a local landscape artist. All in all, it was a nice diversion to what had been some deep thinking about Cuba-US relations the days before.
Later that night we would go to a local club and restaurant for dinner (and, of course, some more singing!). As we settled into the evening meal, the club’s local performer came out. This would become a moment when this being a YFU-sponsored trip would come in handy. As the performer entered the dining area, you can see the shock of many of our delegation. While the performer, herself, was black, her exaggerated makeup made her look as if she had come out in “black face.”
We had several African American delegates on our trip, and it created an atmosphere of some confusion. Some in our delegation left the restaurant for the hotel. The next day we were able to discuss with our Cuban guides the history of this type of performance in their country and to learn about some very different connotations. This gave us a chance to talk about YFU’s training called “Colored Glasses,” where we talk to exchange students about seeing a culture not through our own lens but of that of the host country being visited. I was proud of the dialogue and reminded that exchange is challenging even when the two nations don’t have as difficult a past as Cuba and the US. This would not be the first or the last of the culture shock on our trip!
The Day’s Takeaways:
- Nature is never so far gone that something beautiful cannot emerge from the ashes.
- Interpreting culture is never easy. We bring so much of our own history and experiences into our travels. It’s not easy but so vital to try to see a people through their own lens as much as we do through that of our own. This is why YFU exists!
Michael Hill, President & CEO of YFU USA, just returned from Cuba, one week before the normalization of diplomatic relations. Here he shares a day by day recounting of not only YFU’s first-ever exchange to this unique island nation, but also first-ever adult exchange program. Day 3 – Monday, July 13
Reading about the Cuban Revolution helped me understand some of the positive things this movement brought to the Cuban people. For instance, the nation’s near 98 percent literacy rate combined with their near universal access to health care are laudable attributes for any society. Day 3 of our journey also brought reminders of just how “controlled” Cuba’s system can be.
We started the day with a mandatory visit to the Cuban Institute of Friendship with the People (ICAP). The session, which focused on Cuban/US relations, is a required component of all trips to Cuba by citizens from the US. I had met Kenia Serrano Puig, ICAP’s President, briefly the day before, but didn’t have a strong sense, at that point, of the organization’s mission. Its expressed purpose is to reach out to the international community and form ties of friendship between Cuba and citizens of other countries who are either sympathetic to, or open minded about, Cuba’s post-revolutionary ambitions. We now would have an attendant from ICAP attend most of our concerts and presentations throughout the rest of the week.
The Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, DC would have two performances today: one at the National Library of Cuba, a significant cultural facility for the nation situated very near Revolution Square. The performance itself was held in a lovely intimate theater. Many members of Cuba’s LGBT community came out for the performance, and while the Chorus was “in great voice,” as it was throughout the trip, the real power of this session happened in the question and answer period following the performance. One gentleman jumped up and excitedly said he never thought he’d see the day a gay chorus was performing in the National Library. Another gentleman asked our delegation how it had formed a safe gay community in the United States and what the path might look like to “feeling heard” by one’s government and people. It was a powerful reminder that the yearning for human rights is inherent in people.
After a brief bus ride, we made our way to Casade la Cultura – or the House of Culture – in Arroyo Naranjo. Sections of each city have Houses of Culture to organize activities for neighborhoods or broader regions. These government-sponsored arts centers organize classes in dance, music, theater, etc. We were met there by several international camera crews. At this point, word of our visit was starting to generate some greater media attention. The House of Culture itself has a courtyard, classroom space and large, sky-blue central gathering/performance space. The electricity was out during much of our visit, which meant the major source or circulated air – fans on the wall – were out of commission. All of the artists – GMCW and the young people who performed for us – were in great spirits as we shared performances as a sign of greeting for one another.
Our attendant from ICAP led the audience in a song of greeting for us. This would be the first of many such stage-managed moments he would lead, and while our delegation was aware of how differently this was handled in Cuba versus the US, we never doubted the sincerity of warmth of the everyday Cubans called upon to express these moments of welcome.
Later that evening we would attend a block party organized by a local CDR, or Committee for the Defense of the Revolution. Originally established by Fidel Castro to provide block-by-block monitoring of counter-Revolutionary activities, we were told the modern-day CDR has morphed into units to help organize community festivals, voluntary community projects and organize community attendance at mass rallies. That night, I had a chance to greet residents of the CDR, and our delegation was received with songs by children and performances by adults, including a gifted flutist who was attending the National University of the Arts in Havana.
We spent a few hours sharing songs and refreshments with the designated CDR, as well as bringing toys and other supplies for the children of the neighborhood. While I think many in our delegation initially struggled with how this neighborhood organization played a role in Cuba, we soon defaulted to a universal truth: governments and people are different. We danced and laughed a great deal that night, and as we boarded our buses for the hotel, thought much less about the differences in our political systems and much more about the commonalities of two peoples seeking peace.
The Day’s Takeaways:
- All people yearn for community, which can take many different forms depending on culture.
- The quest to be valued as a person will always find a voice, even when systems or society is not quite ready to hear it.
- Even if we disagree on how a society is organized, we are wired to want to find a place of unity – even if it’s simply through dancing or sharing a song. Sometimes it just takes us decades to get there.
**Series will continue on Monday, picking-up with Day 4.
Michael Hill, President & CEO of YFU USA, just returned from Cuba, one week before the normalization of diplomatic relations. Here he shares a day by day recounting of not only YFU’s first-ever exchange to this unique island nation, but also first-ever adult exchange program. Day 2 – Sunday, July 12
We tell all YFU students that there is an arch to their exchange experience, with the first days being the “honeymoon” period. You spend so much time planning for and thinking about an exchange experience that you almost can’t believe you’re actually in your destination country. That was certainly my experience on our first full day in Cuba.
We started our very balmy morning with a tour of “Old Havana,” the historic center of the city first built up during the period of colonization from Spain. UNESCO declared this area of town a World Heritage site in 1982, and it was easy to see the reasons. The architectural landscape of Old Havana is a case study in extremes. Recent efforts had some of the historic structures brought back to life while others looked as if one slight touch of a hand could topple them down.
The City Historian’s office has been spearheading a building-by-building renovation of the historic structures. This was also the first moment that the Cuban Revolution and its history struck me. We were told by our incredible guide, Elisio, that a famous visual artist had struck a deal with the early Castro government to spend her own money to renovate a major mansion as long as she could live in it until her death. This was the only deal struck, as we were told, it went against the ideals of the Revolution.
Old Havana, in many ways, encapsulated a history of this nation: from colonization of the Spanish and British to the period when Fulgencio Batista first served as the elected president of Cuba and later held it as a dictator until the Cuban Revolution. You could see the triumphs and the scars etched into the buildings, with each facade telling some part of the story of this remarkable nation.
After lunch, we traveled by bus en route to Casa de La Amistad (House of Friendship), where we would present the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, DC for their first concert. On our way over, we stopped at one of the Cuban Revolution’s most signature monuments in Revolution Square. The equivalent of our Washington Monument, the square is dominated by a tribute to Jose Marti, a poet and journalist who is seen by many as the “Founding Father” of Cuba. Opposite to that monument is Cuba’s Ministry of Defense, which is emblazoned with the image of Camilo Cienfuegos. Although he officially stepped down as Cuban President in 2008, Castro is omnipresent in Cuba. Speeches refer to him as simply “Fidel,” with a messiah-like connotation. Everyday Cubans we got a chance to speak to believe nothing significant will change in Cuba until after his death. It was a stark reminder of the impact – for better or for worse – that one human being can have on a society. I found it chilling.
The story of Case de La Amistad is one of love and scandal. For our delegation that day, it was only the former. There we shared a concert with Mariana de Gonitch Chorus, a group of young Cuban artists who had prepared an entire set for us in English. I had a chance to address the crowd, talking about the importance of this trip at this moment in history. Throughout the trip, we had a profound sense of the importance of being in Cuba in this specific week: one week before the normalization of diplomatic relations. It would play significantly in our experience. The Mariana de Gonitch Chorus immediately blew us away with their talent and warmth, no more so than when they broke into song with our US National Anthem immediately following a performance of their own. Tears rolled down our delegations’ face, as we knew that singing the US anthem would have been unheard of in year’s past. Throughout the next two hours, we shared songs of our respective countries and ended up singing “We Are the World.” One couldn’t help but wonder if the promise of the lyrics would hold true for the relationship between our two nations after so many years of division.
We tell YFU students that they should take advantage of a country’s iconic culture when visiting. Later that night we concluded our day with a performance by the Buena Vista Social Club at El Tablao de Pancho restaurant. Many of the lead singers of the group have been performing with it since before the Cuban Revolution. I couldn’t help but imagine what they had seen over the past 50 years and what they would hope to see as our two nations tried to find a way back together. We were even invited to share the stage with them.
It is said that art, in its many forms, is the quickest way to the truth. I ended Day 2 wondering what further truths I would find by sharing our music, our struggles and our stories.
The Day’s Takeaways:
- Architecture can be one of the most objective storytellers in a country. Battles and triumphs often find a way to etch themselves into buildings in a society.
- One person has the potential – for better or worse – to forever alter the lives of thousands.
- Language barriers are surmountable when we share culture from the heart. It’s amazing what hearing one’s own national anthem sung by another people can do to erase feelings of isolation and division.
- Art and artists are sometimes the best ambassadors. Sharing culture through song, even if you don’t understand the meaning of the lyrics, finds a way to stretch out a hand to another human being.