For years the Minot Area Council for International Visitors has been welcoming international groups, including Yemeni activist Nadwa Al-Dawsari, and acting as citizen diplomats who show foreigners what everyday life is like in the United States.
This year is the 70th anniversary of the National Council for International Visitors, a group sponsored by the U.S. State Department, and an example of North Dakota hospitality featured in Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's speech at the national conference earlier this year.
"Last month, for example, I was at a town hall in Yemen to talk about civil society and human rights," Clinton told the audience. "And one of the alumni there was a young woman named Nadwa. She's an activist who works in conflict resolution and peace-building, and for her program, she had visited Minot, N.D. She has returned several times since to talk to students of the community about Islam and about the work of women mediators in resolving tribal disputes in Yemen.
Submitted Photo - - From left, Julianne Wallin, Mona Tahar and Joyce Dammen at the NCIV National Meeting in February. Tahar, a simultaneous interpreter, accompanied a group of international visitors to Minot in March 2009.
Submitted Photo - - Anne McCormich, a program associate with World Learning, Ernst Pijning, MACIV, and Joseph Jastrzembski, MACIV, at the NCIV National Meeting in February.
Submitted Photo - - Julianne Wallin., left, and Jan Brooks of MACIV at the State Department Reception during the NCIV National Meeting in February.
Andrea Johnson/MDN - - Members of the MACIV meet last week at Minot State University.
Submitted Photo - - Miranda Huseth, left, program associate with World Learning and a native of Wyndmere, with the MACIV delegation to the NCIV National Meeting outside of Congressman Rick Berg’s office. With Huseth are, from left, Jan Brooks, Amina Escalera, Ernst Pijning, Julianne Wallin, Joseph Jastrzembski and Joyce Dammen.
"Now, I'm told that on Nadwa's first visit, she was on the road with a group of international visitors when they got caught in a classic North Dakota hailstorm," Clinton said. "And at the time, they were passing through a small town called Max maximum population 287 so they pulled their vans over and knocked on the door of the nearest house.
"Now, it's not every day in North Dakota or, really, anywhere in America that you open your front door and you see a group of young people from Yemen, Uganda, Ecuador and Kazakhstan," she said. "But the couple answering the door were typically good-hearted Americans. They invited them all in out of the rain and they sat down for a chat. I think it's safe to say that that couple became instant citizen diplomats."
In her speech, Clinton described that episode as one of hundreds like it, in which the International Visitors program promotes understanding of different cultures and often promotes good will between countries.
The Minot Area Council for International Visitors group has been in existence since 1993. It is one of more than 90 such community groups in the country. Some, like Minot's, are all-volunteer, while others have paid staff and others are a mix of paid and volunteer staffs.
Minot's group welcomed visitors from countries such as New Zealand, South Korea, Turkey, the Philippines, Bangladesh and Japan, in its first year alone.
Nearly 20 years later, the group is still going strong. The volunteers set up meetings with individuals and area organizations for the groups of international visitors who arrive and organize "home hospitality," which gives the international visitors an opportunity to visit American homes and socialize with members of the community.
One year a group of international visitors arrived during Halloween and found themselves carving jack o'lanterns and helping to hand out Halloween candy to trick-or-treaters at the door.
Visitors are often curious about American homes and ask a lot of questions, sometimes about unfamiliar foods. Many visitors speak good English, but translators are provided by the State Department for those who need assistance. Sometimes the Minot group has been able to find native speakers of the visitors' language in the Minot area and that adds a more personal touch to conversations with the visitors.
Visitors are able to talk to people in the community about anything they want to and get candid perspectives, which also impresses some of the visitors from less open countries.
Groups who travel to the United States visit communities and organizations that relate to their area of interest. Minot has hosted grassroots and volunteer organizations, as well as health care specialists, agriculture specialists and people interested in small-town governance. The groups also visit other cities in the country to get a good perspective of the breadth and diversity of American life.
Many past international visitors have gone on to become prominent in their home countries. People who participate in the program are current or emerging leaders in their fields and include a number of current or former chiefs of state and heads of government, cabinet ministers and other leaders in the public or private sectors. Some past visitors were part of the recent revolutions going on in the Middle East.
Minot hosts between three and five international visitors groups each year, though most come between spring and fall. Very few people want to visit Minot during the winter.
Those who do come tend to like Minot. Some board members said they've heard that Minot is the favorite stop on the tour.
Visitors to Minot may stay in touch with people they met while on the trip. Some, like Al-Dawsari, might make return trips.
Jan Brooks, a member of the Minot Area Council for International Visitors, said they learn as much from the visitors as the visitors learn from them. Brooks said she has learned about women's roles in Islam from some of the past visitors she has met, and has been asked to speak on the topic to some local Minot groups.
Joseph Jastrzembski, a history professor at Minot State University and executive director of the Minot Area Council for International Visitors, said the next group of visitors is scheduled to visit Minot in May. It is a group with a focus on community approaches to social issues and will feature visitors from South and Central Asian countries. The visitors will be from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Sri Lanka.