Through ‘foreign’ eyes

NEW ULM – These visitors probably have some of the most interesting resumes on the planet – and they came to New Ulm, of all places.

The following are just random excerpts from brief biographies of 12 leaders from 11 European countries, provided by the U.S. Department of State:

* Fouad Gandoul manages the Limburg provincial office of the Flemish Christian Labor Union (ACV) and chairs the local section of the union in Genk, Belgium. Gandoul is also vice-president of the employment agency in Genk. He serves as a judge for the Labor Court in Hasselt. Gandoul serves on the steering committee for the NGO Empowering Belgian Muslims (EmBeM), an umbrella organization that works to empower minority youth.

* Orhan Tahir is a lawyer, researcher and Roma rights activist who works on the overall coordination of the ROMED2 and ROMACT programs for Bulgaria within the Council of Europe. He served as a Senior Fellow at the Open Society Institute, Roma Initiatives, Budapest. His research on “Centralized Control or Local Democracy: Roma Neighborhoods in the Context of Bulgarian Local Governance Reform” examined decentralizing funding for, and bottom-up approaches to, Roma integration.

* Hadija Haruna is an editor for the public radio station YOU FM and writes for newspapers Der Tagesspiegel and Die Zeit, and Fluter magazine. She is an active board member of the Initiative of Black People in Germany and has organized a successful Black History Month program in Frankfurt. She received the annual Kausa Medienpreises 2012 awarded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research. In 2013, Haruna reported from World Youth Day in Rio as one of ARD’s junior correspondents.

* Dr. Vural Uenlue serves as President of the Turkish Community in Bavaria, an organization that advocates for empowerment of Turkish immigrants. In 2009, he founded his own company, IMPERAT GMBH, a management consultancy and licensing rights agency in Munich. He is a member of the General Assembly of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) on behalf of the Turkish public broadcaster TRT.

* Said Bensellam, an emerging young leader in Amsterdam’s Moroccan immigrant community, is the Director and Founder of Stichting Connect Initiatieven, a non-profit organization that brings people together by celebrating diversity… He is also active in promoting greater understanding between Amsterdam’s Muslim and Jewish communities.

Martin Simacek is the Director of the Agency for Social Inclusion, Office of the Government, in the Czech Republic; Nasrin Billie is a journalist in Denmark; Sisko Pellila is the Manager of Enterprise Services, Economic Development, the City of Helsinki Executive Office; Mohamed Husein Gaas is Ph.D. fellow and guest lecturer in the Norwegian University of Life Sciences; Zuzana Stevulova is Human Rights League lawyer in Slovakia; Juan Ignacio Martinez Pastor is the Director of the Research Department, Center for Sociological Research, in Spain; Alan Ali is the Manager of the Fryshuset Youth Center in Sweden.

The group came to town Wednesday as part of a project entitled “America’s Multi-Ethnic Society and the Role of the Successor Generation” sponsored by the State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP).

The visitors met with Mayor Bob Beussman and took a city tour led by George Glotzbach. After lunch at Turner Hall, they explored the Brown County Historical Society Museum led by Museum Director Bob Burgess and Research Librarian Darla Gebhard. The visitors concluded their stay by attending a presentation by Sister Ana Marie Reha, Director of Hispanic Ministry, Diocese of New Ulm.

“I can only speculate about why the State Department brought us to New Ulm,” said Uenlue, in one of the several conversations that unfolded during the day. “Perhaps it is because it appears to be a very homogenous community ethnically, on the municipal level.”

The group had just visited New York City and Washington, D.C.; very diverse communities, Uenlue added. “Perhaps they wanted us to see ‘the other side of the coin’…”

People here seem to live the German culture in a much more open way than in Germany, Uenlue said. “They are proud of their heritage – you can see it in the monuments, in the way they dress.

“In a sense, they are more German than Germans.”

As people here keep their old traditions, the assumption appears to be that there is something to lose, noted Haruna.

This duality of attitude – “we are German, and we are American” – is very interesting, especially for someone of Haruna’s bicultural background.

The debate here is very different from that in Germany, she noted.

The question becomes, what are you, and can you be “both”?

“I see a community with an interesting history, culturally closed,” noted another participant in the conversation. It is very quiet, and “criminality” is low.

“But looking around, I also see a lot of grey hair. … I see components of a society that may totally disappear in 50 years.

“How – and this is just a question – do you ensure the community’s sustainability in the future?”

While the early focus of the day may have shone the spotlight on New Ulm’s historic aspects – and thus steered the conversations into specific channels – the visitors also took every possible chance to talk to people on various topics as the day progressed.

Some noted that the “American model” of integrating ethnic groups seems to be successful, helping immigrants develop a new, American identity, without losing their roots, sometimes in the course of a single generation.

During the last presentation, by Sister Reha, they asked numerous questions trying to understand this model’s struggles and successes. The visitors repeatedly acknowledged seeking insights that relate to their own work in societies trying to come to grips with multiculturalism.

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