Exchange Matters / April 17, 2015

Women’s Empowerment Through International Exchange

Since its inception 75 years ago, 200,000 foreign nationals have taken part in the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP). That’s 200,000 stories to be told about visitors learning more about America and making personal connections on their visit. And there are countless more stories beyond the participants themselves, from the Americans whose lives they touched on their journey.

Sadly, the vast majority of these experiences will never be broadly known. And while past stories have never been comprehensively documented and archived, today things are changing. As the Internet and camera phone become must-haves for everyone, everywhere, IVLP participants and the people who host them now have a platform to use to share their experiences both in their home countries and elsewhere.

The stories told by women IVLP alumni can be particularly compelling. For many, a visit to the United States opens doors and possibilities that either don’t exist in their countries of origin, or have never been tried. Some alumni become inspired by their American experiences to try new things at home.

Meriam Haouami’s story offers one such example. During her exchange program in America, this IVLP alumna from Tunisia shared best practices with the NGO and community leaders she met in our country. Later, Ms. Haouami visited Europe with assistance from the E.U. She then went on to create the first Model African Union. It was attended by the Tunisian Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs; the country’s Minister of Higher Education; and representatives from 23 African states. In recognition of her accomplishment, Tunisia’s President gave her a role in her country’s official delegation to an actual African Union meeting. This experience gave Meriam an opportunity to witness firsthand the work performed by heads of state and ministers, as well as a commitment by the organization to conduct a model African Union annually in a different capital city on the continent.

Ms. Haouami is hardly alone in being inspired by her exchange program experience. Jordanian teacher and journalist Samar al Shdaifat realized that a motivated individual like herself could make a difference in their lives, thanks to her experience visiting the United States as an IVLP participant.

The civil war in Syria has forced millions of refugees to flee to neighboring Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan, where they survive under the most desperate of circumstances. After seeing how ordinary citizens in the U.S. volunteer or work for free to help their communities, al Shdaifat decided to do the same for the Syrian refugees living in her hometown, Mafraq. She reached out to Jordanian charities and businessmen from her country living in Australia. The result: 44,000 pounds of donations, including desperately needed food, clothing, and goods for babies and small children.

In Uzbekistan, a country with long-standing human rights concerns, Nargis Ziyavatdinova has become a pioneer advocate for the rights of children with disabilities in her country. Among other activities, this IVLP Gold Star alumnus organized a puppet show modeled on the Minneapolis-based PACER Center’s “Count Me In” initiative. Ziyavatdinova’s project led-off a series of events designed to demystify her country’s 5,000 disabled children.

As these and countless other untold stories demonstrate, women are high-impact players in international affairs. Women’s role in foreign affairs will be one of the key themes of the forthcoming Discover Diplomacy Weekend, taking place May 1–3 weekend in Washington, DC. As part of the event, Global Ties U.S. will host a luncheon and panel discussion devoted to the role of woman’s leadership in foreign policy. We hope to advance the discussion about how we can all play a role in making our societies more equitable, balanced, and just.

By Robert Zimmerman, Global Ties U.S.