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Peace through understanding

Staff Reports

&quotPeace cannot be achieved through violence, it can only be attained through understanding.&quot ~ Albert EinsteinAs a young boy, I witnessed scenes of incredible violence as ethnic and religious strife erupted following the Independence of India and its partition into two separate states: India and Pakistan. My family left for England shortly afterwards, but the memories of the riots and bloodshed remained with us and led to a family commitment to peace through understanding of different cultures and religious backgrounds.World War II had recently ended, much of Europe was still in ruins, and travel very difficult. But every summer we visited different countries, and when I was nine we hosted our first exchange student, a boy from France. Over the next 12 years, we had a constant stream of guests from France, Sweden, Germany, Italy, Spain, Finland, and Norway. My brother, sister and I spent many enjoyable summers living with families all over Europe.What we learned from this experience is that exposure to different cultures is a very powerful force in the promotion of international understanding and peace. We found out that all people have the same basic desires: freedom from hunger and violence and a safe environment that allows for a rich and satisfying life for our children and ourselves.But we also learned that there are cultural differences that can get in the way of understanding. Despite many similarities, people of differing cultures may perceive things differently or play by different rules. It does not always work to assume that other people in other cultures are like us. When they are not, it is only too easy to have a negative response, which often leads to looking down on the other culture and sometimes results in conflict. By being brought into contact with other cultures, young people can learn a lot from each other and are able to discover and explore similarities and differences between their cultures. Such an experience can help combat negative prejudices and stereotypes.I took my early experiences with me into an international career spanning 40 years, the last 13 of which I worked with the United Nations. And now that I have moved to the Vail Valley, I am happy to see many locals sharing my views as to the importance of a greater understanding of others with whom we share this planet.I am especially pleased to see an active Youth Exchange Program run by the local Rotary clubs. Battle Mountain hosted Perseu Leal, an exchange student from Brazil, last year; and this year has welcomed Penny Su from Taiwan. Last year two local girls went to Italy; Nicole Gordon, for the whole year, and Jamie Simmonds for the summer. Nicole wrote from Italy: “Being here just shows you how much more there is and how every country is unique in a big way. But at the same time they are all similar in certain parts of life.”Currently we have three students studying abroad, in Denmark, Ecuador and Siberia. Before leaving for Denmark, Dane Leary commented: “My parents are thrilled that I have chosen to study abroad a little too thrilled if you ask me but I’m glad that they’re behind me 100 percent. I am so thankful that there is a program like Rotary that gives students like me an opportunity to travel to other cultures and learn how people around the world live.”Kelly Lemon said she was attracted by Ecuador’s Latin American culture and the wide range of scenery, from sunny beaches and snowy mountains to the jungle. And last month the volunteer dental team from Vail Rotary was happy to have her assistance as interpreter when they spent time providing free dental care to poor children in Ecuador. Chelsea Craig is now braving the winter winds of Siberia and said, before she left: “I want to thank the Rotary Club for the opportunity of a lifetime. I am so looking forward to this trip and think I will gain a lot of new knowledge of the world around us.”Not only the exchange students benefit. At Battle Mountain, Penny Su’s classmates can learn about a very different way of life. Penny will live with four separate host families, each of which will get to know her and appreciate her culture. Just as I learned so much from the foreign children who lived with my family in England, so do the host families of the valley learn from their guests.Vail Eagle Valley Rotary Club would like to hear from families interested in hosting incoming exchange students. Please contact me (phone: (970) 479-0634; email: petermleslie@aol.com) or Larry Agneberg (phone: (970) 926-8650; email: agneberg@vail.net).As Harry Truman said, “It is understanding that gives us the ability to have peace. When we understand the other fellow’s viewpoint, and he understands ours, then we can sit down and work out our differences.” VTPeter Leslie is a former CFO of the United Nations Development Program, now living in Vail. His comments on are on the web site of the Foreign Policy Association and his column appears bi-weekly in the Vail Trail.


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