Friday, November 21, 2014

Open World: Host Families and Ukrainian Visitors Form Connections of a Lifetime

Some "host families" greeted the Ukrainian delegation upon their arrival at the Toledo airport on 7 November, then we all met for a brief orientation at Sally and Fred Vallongo's house. Here we all are, visitors and hosts, getting acquainted, starting our great adventure.  Elizabeth Balint and Victoryia Maryamova of the GLC, who did so much to keep us together and provide an incrredible learning experience, and Rep.Marcy Kaptur who made the Open World program possible, are also pictured.  
One of the best things about the Open World program is the chance for local residents to "host" international visitors.  We began with some trepidation, interested but not knowing what this "hosting" would entail. We ended by agreeing, with lots of enthusiasm, that the experience was fantastic. New friendships were formed, strong bonds that will last forever. "These women are amazing," Sally Vallongo noted with some awe, speaking for all of us.    

Tamara, Sally & Fred Vallongo
There were five host families. Sally and Fred Vallongo hosted Tamara Zycova from Kyiv, the coordinator of the delegation. Tamara was in charge of making sure the group got off from Kyiv and shepherded them, along with the incredible Elizabeth Balint, from place to place. Tamara spoke excellent English, was calm, professional, funny. When she misplaced her phone, the Vallongos made a special trip to Ann Arbor to get to an Apple Store.  As it turned out, we found Tamara's phone, hidden in my sofa. But they had a great experience. The Vallongos loved hosting Tamara and learned a lot about Ukraine through her.

Beth Anne Varney
& Vera at Karen's

Gary Varney at his house with Vera and Natalia.
Gary and Beth Anne Varney hosted Vera Flyat from Starobelsk. Gary knows some Russian and Vera speaks no English so we thought it would be a good fit. And it was.  BethAnne said she felt "blessed" to host Vera. They took Vera to the Toledo Museum of Art, around their lovely Sylvania Mayberry neighborhood, around town, shopping. They had a great time, and Vera rewarded them with her homemade borscht! A real exchange. Vera made enough borscht for all the women from Lugansk oblast to share at my place on their last night in Sylvania. What a night, borscht and wine, reminiscing, remembering, sharing. As tired as we were, we didn't want the night to end.

Diane Kalb hosted our Burtyn guests, Stanislava and Antonina. Diane has a large home and loves to entertain. She had plenty of opportunity to do so. She was delighted that Rep. Marcy Kaptur came to visit one night.  "I was with a group of friends, my Bible study group. Boy were they impressed that Marcy came knocking on my door!" Diane provided some huge and delicious dishes for our potluck farewell party at the Sylvania Heritage Museum, too.  What a host! Slava and Antonina also spent a few nights with Ukrainian-American hosts in Grand Rapids, Ohio, enjoying vists through the town and to the zoo.
I'm sharing a Sylvania bench with Karen and Tonya. 

Karen Irion Tank hosted Tonya from Starobelsk; they adored each other from the start.  Karen is a pianist and piano teacher and Tonya sings. One night at a gathering at Karen's home, Tonya sang an Edith Piaff song, accompanied by Karen. Talk about an"exchange"! So moving.  Karen was enthralled with her guest.  "She's a philosopher! We can talk about everything. She is thoughtful and talented."  One of Tonya's talents is cooking, and like Vera, she made her host a delicious red borscht. Karen was thrillled to be a host. "It enriched my life," she said.  "I will miss Tonya." Their bond is deep and heartfelt.
In the middle between Vera and Natalia, in my living room. 

Natalia in front of my apartment house on Main,
Sylvania. We couldn't believe it was true!
I hosted Natalia, the college English teacher who helped me when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Starobelsk. She was my translator, friend, and savior through some rough times. She made it possible to write grants for Vera's Victoria NGO and for the Starobelsk Biblioteca. I remember a visit to her house on the Aydar river in Lymon, with a huge garden and lots of trees, Her sister and brother (who lives just over the line in Russia) were there, her husband Vasyl, and sons Artur and Artom. It was a hot summer day and everyone went for a swim in the river after shaslick (barbeque) and a fabulous Ukrainian meal. I hadn't brought a bathing suit, but couldn't resist the temptation.  I stripped down to my underwear and plunged in. I think they were amazed, and amused. The Amerikanka was okay afterall!

Daughter Michelle, grandkids, & Mike Stein,
 Philip's granddad,  who dropped him off 
 to play with his cousins..
How special it was to have Natalia in America, absorbing new surroundings, ideas, people, my neighborhood, the suburbs, the city, the farms. She thought our people were "hospitable and our nature beautiful." We walked around the Old West End (which she loved),  stopped at my old family home on Robinwood,
At TMA cafe.  
then walked down the street to the Art Museum and had lunch at the cafe.

She met my family. Elissa was around for meetings and greetings, at Laura's Russian class, at a farewell reception at the Sylvania Heritage Museum. We paid a special visit to Michelle and her kids, and to my granddaughter Julia and her son Philip. Natalia had heard so many stories, and now she got to meet my kids and grandkids, in person.  How unbelievable.  "I didn't have hope I would ever come here," she said. "But now I do.  I have hope." And of course we went shopping, to the Mall, to Marshalls, Gabes, Clothes Mentor, to this store and that. She had a blast finding great "bargains."  It was a side of Natalia I hadn't known in Starobelsk. Of course there aren't many big stores there either!

Natalia with Laura, daughter Elissa, 
artist Martin Nagy, who taught the
girls at Maumee Valley and is active
in GLC and the Hungarian Club.
It's a small world!
The Open World program takes place on so many levels, the educational, cultural, social, and personal.  Every level matters, flows into one another, blends and creates something new, for guests and for hosts.  I can't tell all the stories of the host families; I hope they will one day soon. But I got the gist of their stories through the times we were together. I know how special it was to host Natalia.  I know how important our talks, walks and exchanges were. I know we learned from each other in a true people-to-people way that is the foundation for peace in the world.  Unforgettable.

In front of the old Cary family home on Robinwood in
the Old West End of Toledo.  Natalia loved it. 
Natalia, Tonya, Vera, last
night in Sylvania. 
TMA! After a walk through the OWE.

Shopping, and more shopping. 

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