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Or, Foreign Relations As They Should Be!

During  the recent election campaign, we heard a great deal of negative rhetoric about refugees and how we should or should not view people who were not lucky enough to be born Americans.  It brought to mind what, for me, was an event showing Americans at our very best—our generosity, our compassion, and our “can-do” optimism.

[Warning! This is a long story, so I am telling it in segments here.]

In June of 1991, with graduation over and students long gone, I was busily sorting, tossing, and storing things until the fall, when this cheerful little sprite of a woman came waltzing into my classroom saying, “Have I got a deal for you!”  I knew her, though not well, as a fellow teacher, albeit in the elementary school on Ramstein Air Base.  Lynn Champagne was also the mother of two students in my English and U.S. Government classes.  On a recent tour to Russia, Lynn had met and become friends with Marina Belova, a teacher of English in a Russian secondary school.  Lynn’s “deal” was that I should agree to be the American sponsor of an exchange with high school-aged students from Russia.

Ramstein Air Base was and is a NATO base, headquarters of the U.S. Air Force in Europe, and an important element of the American military presence in Germany.  Lynn had already persuaded my principal that the exchange could be a good educational experience for our students, and he later cleared the way for it with the base commander.  I bought into it because I sponsored the Model United Nations club, and because I and my students were keenly interested in people-to-people international relations.

My Russian counterpart was to be Marina, whose school was located in Ivanovo, a textile center some 150 kilometers NE of Moscow.  This was 1991, only two years after the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Ivanovo was hard hit by the economic crises that followed.  (Think Detroit in recent decades.)

I mentioned to Lynn that if the Russians were interested in a student exchange, perhaps they would be interested in Model United Nations as well.  Oh, my.  Were they ever!  Me and my big mouth.  MUN is a big deal in the international schools in Europe.  THIMUN (The Hague International Model United Nations) sponsors a week-long conference every January in the Congressehalle in The Hague, The Netherlands.  It involves about 3,000 students.  Each school is assigned a country to represent and discuss—from that country’s point of view—whatever issues the U.N. itself deals with that year.  The trouble was that country assignments are made in January each year for the next year’s conference.  My club already had two full delegations.  But “our” Russians were eager to participate; THIMUN directors were enthusiastic about involving the Russians; and I hadn’t the heart to disappoint those kids.

At the time, the Department of Defense operated about fifteen high schools in West Germany, most of which had MUN clubs.  I knew that some of them did not have full delegations for the 1992 conference.  So, I called other faculty sponsors and asked if they would be willing to add a Russian student to their delegation.   Not a single one of them turned me down!  What’s more, they were willing to pay the fee ($135) for the Russian student.  (I did mention that they were from a severely depressed area in a country hit hard by its political turmoil.)  One American school took two Russian students, and another took three!

So the Russian students were spread out that year among several American delegations, but the next year they fielded their own delegation, and the following year they hosted their own mini conference.  Today, MUN is an important element of schools in Ivanovo, Moscow, and St. Petersburg.

But I get ahead of myself.  We have not yet got to that first exchange and its aftermath.

(To be continued . . .)