Open world program opens homes and forms new friendships

I gave Mariya a Christmas ornament of The Fox Theater from Atlanta

Last week a delegation from Russia came to Atlanta to discuss social issues and healthcare through the Open World Leadership Program. The six delegates were hosted with families who have opened up their homes by being members of the Georgia Council of International Visitors (GCIV).

Mariya Yuryevna Solodunova, a young lady from St Petersburg was assigned to live with us for a week. She is a child psychologist who works in an orphanage providing counseling to children, parents and the care takers. Having volunteered in an orphanage in Yaroslavl in Russia couple of years ago, I was eager to learn more about what she did. Mariya (pronounced Marsha) is absolutely passionate about her work. She told me about how cutting edge her orphanage was and how her team has been on a mission to replicate its model to other places. Basically, they hired mothers to work as care taker with the orphan babies between the age of 0-4, a delicate age when they are most in need of emotional and physical care. This has changed their psychological behavior completely leading them to grow up to be healthy kids. More on that in my next post.

Mariya and I had a wonderful time together. This was her first visit to the US. Even though we live across the world from each other, we found we have a lot of similarities and could converse on practically any subject (even though Mariya said her English was limited which I disagreed with). One evening we had a girl’s day in and cooked pirogues (Russian stuffed bread), drank wine and shared stories. Needless to say I got to learn a lot about Russian traditions. Did you know that Christmas in not celebrated on Dec 25th in Russia? Also, they do not put presents under the tree till Christmas Eve and the children actually have to earn them by doing a performance or a recital.

One thing Mariya shared with me brought about a self awakening. She said that in Russia people are generally cautions about their belongings and their privacy, and would not leave their home open to a complete stranger. The fact that I gave her a key to my home after only a few hours of knowing her surprised her that I would trust someone so much so soon. I explained to her that we humans try to protect our materialistic things and forget that we came into the world with nothing and will leave with nothing. It is only our gestures towards each person leave an everlasting impact on one individual or an entire society. Then why do we give so much importance to the materialistic thing? A Buddhist believer, she found me to be. She said after staying with us, it has opened her heart and she will now be more trusting of people as well. Perhaps she will sign up to be a host family in her city.

GCIV Farewell party

The last evening, all the delegates, host families and GCIV staff members got together for a farewell celebration. We ate, drank and sang Russian songs. One of the ladies from Sibera even sang us a song in Hindi called “I am a disco dancer.” She did not speak English but her Hindi singing was awfully good!

It was wonderful to meet other like minded people who open up their homes to complete strangers and want to share their lives with others. Because of such people, visitors to the US have a warm welcoming feeling and great memories to take back home. Mariya was emotional when she was leaving us. She said she had not met such kind and compassionate people as she did during this entire visit and that she would love to come back soon.

I believe getting to know people from different countries actually teaches you a thing or two about life as well. In addition to learning about the culture, you get to learn more about yourself and your own culture.  I had a similar experience in India last month which I encourage you to read about.

Becoming a host is easy. All you need to provide is boarding, some meals, a friendly spirit and an open minded attitude.