Home Alone - Home Together
I am sitting stretched out in my writing chair. As usual, there's a cup of coffee getting cold on my left side. My wife is watching the ball game (Go Mariners!). The two dogs are loafing, also as usual (why don't they go out and get a real job?) Echo the bunny is busy redecorating his cage as he often does, moving the dried grass from one location to another. The two snakes, mostly inscrutable, are doing their usual snakely things. Azul the arthritic parakeet, had to be put down two weeks ago (R.I.P), as he could no longer grip his perch, marking this as the first time in almost two decades that there isn't a member of the avian species in the house.
Devoid of children, too. This is unusual. Both kids are gone. And the phone is unlikely to ring.
Oh, wait! Here's an e-mail from Meera! She's arrived in Cairo, and, "It's sooooooo beautiful," she writes, "I wish you were here to see it with me. I guess pictures will have to do." Now I have to wait for the pictures.
Meera won a full "Youth Ambassadors" scholarship from AFS to study intensive Arabic at a language institute in Cairo for the summer, and live with an Egyptian family there. The scholarship is paid for by the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Cultural and Educational Affairs, which arranged for pre-visits with State Department personnel and meals at the Egyptian Embassy in DC before she headed off on her adventure.
The scholarship was very competitive. They only awarded 25 of them from among about 200 applicants nationwide, all of whom had to be nominated by others in their community, and then pay $75 to apply. Then there were a half a dozen essays to write, recommendations to solicit, medical papers to complete, interviews to schedule and undergo. I've joked (without, I must admit, much appreciation for the humor from the rest of my family) that I expect her to bring back a blow-up Sphinx to put under our mimosa tree.
Being 16 and in Cairo makes sense for Meera. She wants to be an accountant. That's not a non sequitur, even if, when she informed us of her career aspirations a year ago, she was the only 15-year-old I had ever met who was enthusiastic about being an accountant when she grows up.
But not just any kind of accountant. An international development accountant. You see, Meera has a plan. She is going to be the accountant attached to the first major international project to rebuild the West Bank and Gaza. We are all well aware that the world will have to cooperate just a bit to make that possible, but stranger things have happened, and she is going to be prepared to take advantage of the opportunity.
For the past four years, Meera has been working for the Rachel Corrie Foundation named after the young Olympia, Washington resident who was run over by a specially equipped American-made Israeli bulldozer as she attempted to protect the family home of a Palestinian pharmacist Khaled Nasrallah. Khaled and his family has visited us in Olympia, and Meera has been involved in efforts to rebuild his home, which was completed on May 24th this year! In the past several years, Meera has performed several benefit concerts, including one for the Israeli-Palestinian Families of the Bereaved Forum for Peace and one for the Atfaluna School for Deaf Children in Gaza City. She helped administer registrations for a major international Israel-Palestine peace conference that brought the grandson of Mohandas Gandhi - Arun Gandhi - to our town, worked on the post-conference accounting, and serves as treasurer's intern for several peace groups about town. In the community of folks interested in and working for peace and justice in the Middle East, I am simply known as "Meera's dad".
Meera has already met a future business partner. A graduate student in international development at American University was friends with Rachel Corrie while she was living in Rafah, and has dedicated his life to peaceful rebuilding in her memory. Meera met him when he was a guest at the annual Corrie Foundation dinner, and saw him again when she visited Washington, DC recently. Who knows if anything will ever come of it? At any rate, learning Arabic is just part of the plan, and at the very least, her Arabic will come in handy in greeting visitors to our town.
Both girls were actually home at the same time for a total of 13 days! Aliyah just returned from her year in Italy, and is getting used to communicating in English again (her program forbade the use of English, all her papers had to be written in Italian, and her host family spoke virtually no English). Following her academic year, she received a one-month travel fellowship to research the development of early Renaissance vernacular music in Umbria (south of Florence), and also got to visit with some of our friends in Italy who have supported our work in south India, where the two of us went together to help out following the 2004 tsunami. She's enrolled herself for the summer in a course in intensive German four hours day, and is pleased that the instructor, who is Swiss, also speaks Italian, so she doesn't have to go "cold turkey". But this week she is away at a Quaker conference. The 13 days were enough to take some pictures for the grandparents.
When I was 17, back in the age when dinosaurs roamed the earth, my parents told me that I could go to college anywhere I wanted, so long as it was within a three-hour radius of New York City. Now I tell my kids they can travel anywhere they want, provided it is within a three-day plane journey of Seattle. Both my wife (who hitchhiked throughout Europe for six months when she was 17) and I agree that the world is a much, much safer place for young travelers than it was 30-40 years ago (yes, there are a few places it is likely wise to avoid). Our own lives have been indelibly changed by our network of friends from around the world, from Burundi to Italy to Japan and all points in-between, and it is hard for me to comprehend how much our lives would be impoverished without them.
I have written elsewhere that the ultimate purpose of education is to learn to treat each other better. In keeping with that theme, I have equipped my kids with five principles that I hope they will continue to take along with them on their travels:
- So much of who we are is an accident of birth - we don't choose our parents, our place of birth, our race, our gender, or our class, and travel is a constant reminder of that.
- We are responsible for the world to the degree that our position in life is a result of the fortune of our births.
- There is a difference between travel and tourism. It is good to travel to many places, but also to understand one other place besides your home really well. Learn the language, and plant some other roots.
- Travel is about making human connections - and there is no better way than to spend time in other people's homes, and invite them into yours. Make them part of your life and you will discover that you can travel without leaving home.
- Bring your best skills and gifts along on your travels; find ways to develop and use them for the community's and world's good.
The house is kind of quiet. I shouldn't be allowed to grumble. I always hoped to raise world citizens, so I can't complain when they're not home. What I hope for my children is the same thing I hope for myself, to recognize that home has truly become a much larger place.
I'm looking to buy a canary.
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There are many wonderful travel opportunities for homeschoolers and homeschooling families. Two of my favorites are:
- AFS - AFS is the oldest and largest international exchange program in the world. They've been at it for 60 years. Each year, some 11,000 young people spend a summer, semester, or year in more than 50 different countries. Almost all the programs involve a homestay with a local family, and either intensive language instruction or a school experience; some involve significant community service opportunities. While the programs can be relatively costly, there are scholarships available, and advice and support for raising funds in one's home community. A strong alumni association of past exchange students is an added benefit.
- SERVAS - SERVAS is a cooperative network of "international travelers for peace". There are more than 14,000 members in 135 countries who will open their homes to you, engage you in conversation and fellowship, and show you their town. Travelers and hosts are both screened in advance, and there are lists of members with their interests and ability to accommodate. Individuals or families can travel, and there are opportunities for youth travel and hospitality as well. And for some of you who just can't get away, you can bring the world into your home by becoming a host yourself! Cost is $40/year.