Diplomacy at Home: Holding Down the Fort

Written by Kelli Cooney, Master’s Candidate in the Public Diplomacy Program at Syracuse University.

My public diplomacy efforts this summer are focused on Asia, the Middle East, South and Central America, some Caribbean Islands, West, East and Central Africa and Eastern Europe. Representatives of various cultures, regions, religions and languages, some of them entrenched in deep conflict, have committed to meet together for six weeks of intensive bridge building conversation right here on the  west side of a little city called…  Syracuse. Ever heard of it?

English language students visit the rose garden at Thorndon Park to celebrate a week well spent and practice conversation.

I am an English as a second language teacher for adult immigrants and refugees, and I am still learning as much as, if not more than, anyone in the classroom. While I want my students to have a positive experience in their new country for their own sake, I am constantly aware that their impression will impact the world’s view of America.  I am one of the few in the class with a job and also perhaps the only one without a… smart phone. Buzz buzz. “Teacher. Cuba!” That call may help to dispel the common belief that in America there are no traffic rules. It’s not a free for all and most outings don’t actually end in a collision with an oil truck. Or it might highlight what it is to be able to speak your mind without fear. The experience of freedom of speech can be overwhelming and appetite whetting for those who have never experienced it.

Though Josephine is “from Burundi,” most of her pre-America life was spent in refugee camps in Rwanda and Tanzania where she was trained by UNHCR as a midwife and delivered more than 250 babies as the only attendant. You would never know it, though. She embodies humility. I am always interested in her American experience and was delighted by a recent account of picking up her son from kindergarten. She arrived to meet a disgruntled six year old, arms defiantly folded across his chest. When she asked what had happened, he answered that all the other mothers kiss their children when they pick them up, but “you never kiss me.” Josephine was informed that if she wasn’t going to kiss him, she shouldn’t bother picking him up. He would walk home. In her culture, babies are kissed, but older children not so much, and definitely not in public at school. But Josephine is in cultural negotiations and decided this is an area where she could be flexible. She is learning to kiss her son when she picks him up from school.

An article by an Iraqi friend of mine, whose wife has been in my class, was published by the Syracuse Post Standard on World Refugee Day. In it, he closed by saying, “In Iraq, we have an expression: ‘They open their home for us. The United States has opened its home, and we have been able to live life peacefully. For this we are sincerely grateful.”

It is an honor to play a small part in American public diplomacy. And as I am currently enrolled in the Graphic Design portion of the Newhouse School’s graduate school “boot camp,” I can say that thanks to SUPD, my students are receiving the most beautifully crafted grammar work sheets this side of BBDO.

Views expressed are solely those of the author and do not reflect any organization, agency, or department.

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