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 A Worldly Circle of Friends

Group focuses on global peace, one connection at a time
By Joy Dickinson in The Dallas Morning News - June 8, 2002

In the late 1980s at the height of the Cold War, Zia Shamsy hated the animosity between Americans and Russians and wondered what he could do, as an individual, to lessen those tensions. He ended up joining a peace group and traveling to what was then the Soviet Union. "It was very eye-opening," says Mr. Shamsy, 72, who has lived in Plano for 29 years but was born in Iran and studied in Germany. "I saw that the Russian people had such a different experience than us. 'they'd been bombed. They'd been occupied - Americans have no idea what it's like to live in an occupied country. "I got to see it through their eyes."
That might well be the unofficial motto of a group Mr. Shamsy belongs to, Friendship Force International. The Atlanta-based nonprofit group, founded in 1977 by Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter and Wayne Smith, a friend of theirs, tries to foster peace through individual relationships and travel exchange. Mr. Smith, who had been a missionary in Brazil, had the initial idea for the group, which was founded with the philosophy that "you never get to know people until you put your feet under their table." It calls its members "citizen ambassadors."
Friendship Force now has more than 350 clubs in 48 countries and 41 U.S. states. During its 25-year existence, more than half a million people have participated in more than 3,300 exchange trips. In 1992, the group was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. The Carters' son Chip is president of the group, and Mrs. Carter is an honorary member of the board of directors.
Mr. Shamsy helped found the Dallas chapter, which has more than 100 members. "What makes Friendship Force different is we're not a travel club, and we're not an ethnic dinner club, although we do certainly travel and we do eat," he says with a laugh. "But what makes us truly unique is the international exchange process, staying in other people's homes when we go to other countries and getting to know them as individuals. That's what we're really about; the travel is just the way we go about it."
The Dallas group will host Friendship Force's international convention Nov. 7­10.They expect 500 to 700 people to attend, and Mrs. Carter is slated to speak. Since joining Friendship Force, Mr. Shamsy has been on exchange trips to Australia, China, South America and Mexico. Members typically stay with Friendship Force members in the country they're visiting, getting more of an inside look than do most tourists. "The home-stay aspect is so important," says Mr. Shamsy, who worked in engineering and research/development at Xerox Core before retiring. "You get to really know each other - in a week, you go from being total strangers to being a member of the family. And most of these contacts become lifelong friendships."
Mary Williams, 65, has been a member of the Dallas group for about five and a half years. "A friend of mine told me about it, and it was so in keeping with what I wanted to do," she says. "I sent in my dues and was a member before I ever attended a meeting!" Ms. Williams says most members believe, as she does, "that we're one world, not just separate countries anymore. We've got to get past that 'us vs. them' mentality, and I think personal friendships are the only real way to do that." Especially since Sept. 11, she says, "We've heard from so many people all over the world. To the people we know, we're not just those Americans over there' any more. They know us. They were afraid for us."
The group has nine Southwest chapters, including a large Fort Worth group. The Dallas and Fort Worth groups originally were combined, but split when there were enough members to form separate clubs. The Dallas group meets monthly, usually with a speaker who will talk about international travel or foreign affairs.
Since joining, Ms. Williams has hosted visitors from Latvia, Germany, Peru and Tokyo. She has gone on exchange trips to Australia, New Zealand, England and Belgium and is planning a trip to Tokyo this fall. Members travel in a group for the official exchange trips, but often visit on private trips after getting to know one another.
Members can also join exchange trips sponsored by other chapters of Friendship Force throughout the country. Ms. Williams’ trip to Belgium was with the Connecticut chapter. "I've definitely gone places I wouldn't have otherwise, and once I got there, I saw things I’d never have seen on a regular tourist trip," she says.
The sightseeing part of any trip "is really secondary," says Myrna Ridings, 62, of Richardson. She and her husband, Dick, 65, have been members for about seven years. Both are retired; he worked at Texas instruments as an electrical engineer and she was a visiting nurse. "It's all about the people," Mrs. Ridings says. "And they're already our friends because of our mutual membership in Friendship Force, even though we're meeting them in person for the first time. You have an amazing sense of camaraderie almost immediately." The Ridings have been on trips to China, England and Ireland and have hosted travelers from Chile, Germany and Japan.
Usually a minimum of 10 people go on the exchange trips, and some trips can have as many as 40 participants. Most Friendship Force members around the world speak some English, Ms. Williams says, but if there's a language barrier, they overcome it. "The first two people I had were two young Russian girls from Latvia, and they only spoke maybe 10 words of English, but we got by." Learning a new language, or brushing up on one you've studied previously, is a side benefit of Friendship Force, she says. "When I went to Chile, I had studied some Spanish, but I was nowhere near fluent. So I asked my host if we could speak Spanish all week, and that was so good for me. She was wonderful, slow and patient and happy to explain things." That woman eventually came to Dallas for a Mary Kay convention, and while she was here, she and Ms. Williams turned the tables and spoke only English.
In addition to the exchange trips, Friendship Force has a program called Bridgebuilders, in which members try to help with the needs of communities around the world. When Dallas members visited Chile and Peru, for instance, they met a woman whose grandson is blind. She told them how difficult it is for many blind people in South America to get computer access. When they returned to Dallas, the group set up a program to refurbish old computers, which they then send to schools for the blind in South America.
Members of Friendship Force tend to be retirees who have the time and financial resources to take long trips, Ms. Williams says. "But we really want to encourage younger people to join. We sometimes do shorter trips. "And if you don't have the time to host a family in your home, you can always do what we call 'day hosting,' where you take them on an outing or have them for dinner one night at your house." The Dallas group's youngest member was a 27 year-old Peruvian woman who originally came with a group from Trujillo, Peru and later came back to study English. She lived with Ms. Williams while going to school here.
The Ridings also had someone end up living with them, a 22 year-old Japanese woman who had met them on an exchange trip with her parents. When she returned to Japan, she wrote the Ridings and asked if she could spend the summer with them. "She spent five weeks with us at our summer home in Wisconsin," Mrs. Ridings says. "We have such a strong relationship with her now, and we'll see her on the Dallas group's trip to Japan in September."
Members say the true joys of Friendship Force membership come unexpectedly. "I had a Peruvian group come visit, and I happened to have this Chilean band's CD," recalls Ms. Williams. "They said, 'We didn't know you liked protest music!' I didn't know it was protest music; I just liked the sound, "Anyway, they knew all the words to the songs, and within an hour of their getting to the U.S., we were all dancing and singing Chilean songs in my living room. You just can't match that sort of thing for bonding."
Joy Dickinson is a free-lance writer who lives in Corrales, NM.

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