During 2017, cultural exchanges continued playing important roles in organizational and personal development as well as solidifying the friendship between the U.S. and Laos. In August and September, two owners of the social enterprise that coordinates the Foundation’s work in Laos had two unexpected adventures during their visit to the United States, resulting in what is now being called the “4-H and ICE Exchange.”
The first three “H’s” refer to Hurricane Harvey in Houston. One of the Lao visitors was on a flight from Tokyo that landed in Houston an hour before the airport would close, and remain closed, for 6 days due to the torrential rains and flooding from Hurricane Harvey. Fortunately we were able to get him a hotel room, but his experiences in Houston were of a different sort than planned for the first stop of the exchange: in-depth conversations with dozens of other stranded travelers, a shared room with an Afghani on his way back to Central Asia; flooding on the first floor of the building, and a couple of days of breakfast only when food ran out.
After a couple of days, boredom set in, and he volunteered to participate in disaster recovery activities. We finally were able to get him on one of the first flights out of Houston when the airport reopened, and he arrived in Iowa at almost the same time as the other participant who had traveled nearly 700 miles by car to meet him there.
The fourth “H” represents his visit to Iowa City to attend a pre-game reception hosted by the University of Iowa president and a chance to see an Iowa Hawkeye football game at a stadium packed with 70,000 cheering fans.
The second exchange participant also had an unexpected encounter with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents at a checkpoint on a desolate Arizona highway that threatened to expand the exchange by his deportation to Mexico. The ICE agents had never heard of Laos and asked whether it was a village near Juarez before demanding to see his immigration documents. Of course, there were none because our guest was not an immigrant but was in the United States with a business/tourism visa.
After additional ICE agents were called in, a careful examination of passport entries, considerable discussion, and much consternation, the situation was resolved with the recognition that even though the color of Lao skin is similar to that of many Hispanics, that was not sufficient grounds to send our guest to a country and culture even more unfamiliar than that of the southwestern United States.
The road journey for this exchange participant included about 7,000 miles on highways in California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Iowa, Tennessee, Georgia, New York, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia. He also met with ten Foundation supporters and stayed in some private homes, adding a special richness to the cultural exchange.
Both participants spent 4 days each in New York City and Washington, D.C., and enjoyed an opportunity to visit sites that they had likely seen on television and in movies but had never expected to see in person. They included the United Nations, the Statue of Liberty, the 9-11 Museum, the observation deck of the new World Trade Center Freedom Tower, and the Washington, Lincoln and Jefferson memorials.
Extended time in Iowa working in the Foundation’s warehouse and meeting colleagues contributed to the personal and organizational development of Lao and Americans alike.