After two years of virtual meetings, where we perfected the use of Zoom and asking people to unmute, the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) has returned to in-person programs at full speed. While we all appreciated the chance to still connect during the throes of the pandemic, there is no true substitution for the connection face to face interaction offers. This was recently highlighted in the experience of Team SVAT, standing for Special Visitors, Ashi, and Tatyana (in reference to their resolute liaison team). This contingent of seven participants from various countries recently came to the U.S. for a three-week IVLP focused on “Protecting Soft Targets against Terrorist Attacks”. The group had a robust professional program, which you can learn more about at this link, but here we will focus on the cultural connections that were established from their experience. Whether it was the simple joys of splashing in the Pacific Ocean or their first baseball game, Team SVAT was consumed by the enlightening opportunity to engage in everyday American life.
This was perfectly conveyed during the group’s home hospitality, where they were invited into the homes of local San Diego residents for an informal evening of dinner and conversation. Aymen Abderrahmen of Tunisia felt like he was a member of a mini-UN with Vietnam, the United States, Denmark, the Philippines, Russia and his own country all represented around the table. Raimonds Oskalns of Latvia reflected how “the people were amazing and welcoming, opening us to their homes and their hearts” where they had “the most diverse discussions on psychology, travels” and other topics. Ashraful Islam of Bangladesh mused how it was a great opportunity to learn the local culture, and how international cultures are mixed into the lifestyle of the U.S. “It will always be a memory I take in my heart.”
While in New York City, Team SVAT enjoyed a classic summer holiday spending Memorial Day Weekend there. This culminated in the chance to attend the Memorial Day parade in Brooklyn, where they were able to connect with local veterans. Mohammed Karara of Morocco was “impressed by the way the U.S. remembered men and women who have paid the ultimate price to defend freedom and liberty.”
Given their security and law enforcement backgrounds, this group were no strangers to special missions, and this project had a very important one: trying both New York and Chicago style pizzas and adding their opinion to the debate. Chicago squeaked by with a 3-2 victory, however this may be due to some recency bias since when polled they had just filled up on the Windy City’s famous casserole dish.
While these experiences clearly added to the cultural and human element of the project, they also complemented the professional aspects of the program. Wherever he went, Ashraful Islam was a very keen observer of the security elements in place to protect soft targets. Passing through the Holland Tunnel into New York, most people would be lamenting about the traffic. Not Ashraful, who found it a perfect opportunity to consider all the cameras and personnel there to ensure everyone’s safety. Even while visiting Sea World in San Diego, he enjoyed the spectacle but still constantly considered how the tourists were being protected as they were all considered soft targets.
Krum Stoimenov of Bulgaria reflected how the most important aspect of the entire program was the opportunity to form a close bond with his fellow participants from other countries. He stated how it would be useful for them all to keep in touch in the future to exchange information, and they can always ask for support from each other when needed. On the last day of the project in Chicago, in addition to trying to dethrone New York’s pizza crown, Team SVAT also celebrated how they were no longer fellow participants on the IVLP, but now simply friends.