Over the past few weeks, I've heard such wonderful stories of how Citizen Diplomats are checking-in with friends around the world. Thank you for keeping us all connected and for carrying out our mission in these strange and difficult times.
Today, I'd like you to help me recognize and thank one of our most loyal members for her almost 40 years of volunteering – Hannah Kalkstein. A retired math teacher and Philadelphia native, Hannah lives in Germantown. I hope you enjoy these highlights of our most recent conversation:
Siobhán: Hannah, what was your first hosting experience?
Hannah: Many years ago, I was introduced to the Minister of Education of Zimbabwe. I hosted his visit to The Philadelphia School, where I worked, and several other schools. I enjoy showing our special guests the greatest parts of the City. So, I took him to one of Philadelphia's finest institutions, the Academy of Music! Then, we ended the evening with dinner at Bogart's.
Siobhán: From that first encounter, you've hosted groups for dinner and also opened your home for week-long homestays for our Open World guests. What do you get from these experiences?
Hannah: I get to practice the Russian I learned in high school! I have had many great experiences hosting. It is like vicariously traveling when you can’t travel. It makes the world a warmer place when you know there’s a lovely individual on the other side of the pond.
Siobhán: Right now, we are all practicing safe, physical distancing from each other. Our current physical separation highlights how important friendships are. They're good for your health and a source of great comfort. Whom have you been speaking to?
Hannah: I just spoke with Imam Khuseyn, who will not be leading the Hajj from his area this year, I’m glad to hear. But nothing touches my heart quite so much as a call from Azerbaijan, where Akif Takiyev (who was my homestay guest about 18 years ago) and his daughter (who was about 4 then) and various small children (who were very much 'in the future' then) all want to check in on me, to see if I am ok. The kids know me as 'Auntie Hannah', and they alternately stand up to the phone’s camera and say 'I love you' or run and hide out of extreme shyness, while Akif sits across the room on the sofa, beaming.
Siobhán: Were any of your friends planning on returning to the U.S. this year?
Hannah: Yes. Also in Azerbaijan, I spoke the other day with Alibay, whose dad Shahin Guliyev came to Philadelphia with Akif. Shahin is running a mini-English class with all the members of his family; I am sad that he will likely not be able to come Stateside for some ESL classes this summer as he’d hoped.
Siobhán: Here in Philadelphia, we have had to cancel events and close businesses. What have you heard from around the world?
Hannah: Much the same everywhere. I learned the other day that, in Ukraine, two major music festivals have just been canceled, wiping out hours and hours of planning and organizing on the part of my good friend Volodya, who stayed here in 2009. But he and his family are healthy, and he is staying home and writing music.
Siobhán: Have you heard any good news to share?
Hannah: Ivan Nebesnyy, a composer who was in Philadelphia at that same time, recently had huge operatic successes in Lviv.
Siobhán: We are sharing ways to exchange online. Could you recommend something for our community to read, watch or listen to?
Hannah: The Ukrainian National Symphony Orchestra (managed by Olexander Hornostai, who was also in that group) played super concerts on the U.S. East Coast recently. The one I heard in Newark was recorded, but sadly it’s not on YouTube, where I’ve enjoyed following Ivan Nebesnyy and Volodya Runchak. All of us can try to stay in touch with our visitors by email or internet-enabled communication apps and this is certainly a good time to reach out.
These genuine relationships are the lifeblood of Citizen Diplomacy and why we are so honored to have members like Hannah.
These days, everyone can use a little extra love and definitely some hope. Please take a few minutes to reach out to international friends or anyone you may have hosted in the past. As Hannah says, "What a gift the internet is!"
Our international visitors give us the gifts of knowledge and a global perspective. Welcoming 1,200 international visitors each year is thanks to outstanding hosts and Citizen Diplomats, like Hannah and you.
I look forward to staying connected to you all.
Stay safe and take care,