John and Jean with guests from Armenia

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International Visitors Leadership Program Home Hospitality

South Writ Large spoke with John Twomey about he and his wife Jean’s experience hosting 110 international visitors representing 46 countries through the US State Department’s International Visitors Leadership Program (IVLP).


What first drew you and your wife to hosting through the US State Department’s International Visitors Leadership Program?

We were having a nice dinner out with a couple of friends who raved about the wonderful experience they just had hosting some international visitors for dinner. They went on about how great the conversation was, how refreshing it was to get a global perspective on how the US is perceived, and how deeply interesting these people were. They were sure we would find it equally as enjoyable and practically twisted our arms to sign up and host a dinner ourselves. Jean, my wife, and I like to think of ourselves as being open to new opportunities, and so we were both in from the get-go.


Did the experience live up to your expectations?

Oh, it exceeded our expectations! When you have 180 US embassies searching globally for the best and the brightest to invite to the US, and to dinner in your home, it’s not surprising that you might have some quite interesting dinner conversations, or that you might get to meet individuals who have successfully overcome extreme obstacles. Your dinner guest, though forty years younger than you, may have already accomplished more than you ever could have conceived for yourself.

The International Visitors Leadership  program is designed to allow these outstanding young individuals to get to know the US, to build bridges and relationships both professionally and personally. Certainly, that will be a benefit to us in the future as these rising leaders make a greater and greater impact on their countries, their regions, and the world. But for Jean and myself as hosts, our worldview has been dramatically broadened, expanded, and enriched.


Can you give us a couple of examples that left a particular impression on you?

We had four guests one evening. Three were quite outgoing and had shared with us their stories: what they had accomplished, how they got invited into the IVLP program, what they hoped to accomplish in the future. However one guest, from South Sudan, was somewhat reticent. When asked directly though, he shared his story. I hope I can give it justice. The rebel army had come to his family’s farm. A terrible choice was proffered, give up one of your sons or you all will be killed. At eight he became a soldier, armed with a rifle, taught to commit atrocities, forced to commit atrocities. Five years later he was able to escape and made it to Europe where he was offered asylum and received an education. That, in and of itself, was quite a story of risks, courage, and perseverance. But the story doesn’t end there. Rather than staying in Europe and making a safe life for himself, living in the comfort of a First World nation, he decided to return to his homeland, a country still racked with strife and poverty, and founded a nonprofit whose goal is to help former child soldiers, such as himself, overcome the traumas that were inflicted upon them and help them become contributing members of society. His life has been threatened more than once, by those who have a history of carrying through on such threats, and yet he perseveres. I often think of him when presented with an opportunity to step up, to address an injustice, to fight for rights under threat.

As Iran deals with the protests relating to the death while in custody of a young woman arrested for violation of the hijab laws, I am reminded of a night when we were to host a group of young women from Iran. I arrived at the hotel to pick them up and scanned the lobby looking for three conservatively dressed women and not seeing any I sat down and waited for them to come down to the lobby. After a couple of minutes, a young woman in high heels, a short skirt, and full makeup approached me and asked if I was the person who was going to pick them up for dinner. It was Labor Day and they had the day off. The hotel was strategically placed across the street from a large mall and the women had spent the whole day shopping and taking advantage of every spa, nail, hair, and makeup service it had to offer. While in the US they were bent on taking advantage of every freedom they were deprived of in their own country. When you take into account that their English was impeccable, we could have just as easily been hosting young professional women (vegetarians) visiting from New York. Removed from the arbitrary constraints we may have been raised under, we have so much in common, so much less desire for conflict.


Were you always interested in travel—thirty countries on six continents certainly seems to indicate great curiosity for the world beyond our borders.

I’ve always had the itch but prior to my forties I hadn’t traveled outside North America. With kids out of college my wife and I were free to do a couple of international Habitat builds and visited several countries in Asia. One indelible experience stands out:  We sat at the junction of the Tonle Sap and Mekong Rivers in Phnom Penh watching the rivers join but not mix. The two different-colored streams met and coexisted side by side as they slowly became the merged, larger Mekong. Since then we have visited thirty countries on six continents.


Have you subsequently visited any of the home countries of the guests you hosted?

We haven’t had the pleasure or opportunity to visit the home countries of our visitors. Most have come from the Middle East, from countries that have a fair amount of strife (South Sudan, for example) and where being an American might not be an advantage. As an example, we hosted three scientists from Iran who had special visas to visit Research Triangle Park in North Carolina for an international air quality conference at the Environmental Protection Agency. The State Department asked International Focus to informally arrange a dinner for them and they ended up at our house. They talked about how beautiful Iran is and offered to host us. This was right after Iran had arrested three US hikers that theoretically had strayed across the Iran border. Needless to say, we declined.


What do you typically serve your guests?  Have you come across any challenging dietary restrictions? Any occasions where language barrier was a factor, or any “lost in translation” moments?

Initially we tried to offer our guests that quintessential American dinner—Thanksgiving turkey. Even if it wasn’t anywhere close to November, we felt it would give our visitors a sense of that great American experience—stuffing, cranberry sauce, the whole nine yards. We quickly ran into issues because many of our visitors were Muslim and we had to deal with halal and no alcohol. Although we did have one group of Muslims bring wine for dinner, telling us they were Muslim “lite”!

Now we mostly serve fish or chicken with lots of vegetables in case any guest is vegetarian. We do receive dietary guidance before every visit, so we don’t get caught flat-footed.

Some of our visitors have needed translators, though as the evening wore on it became apparent they understood a lot of the English that was being spoken; they mostly were embarrassed about their accent or their fluency in spoken English. As a side note, one visitor told this joke (after some wine). If you can speak three or more languages, you are multilingual. If you can speak two languages, you are bilingual. If you can speak one language, you are an American. I’m an American.

I’ve just gotten back from a trip to Iceland and England. I did not meet anyone in Iceland who didn’t speak fluent English. I then went to northern, rural England and had a local waitress come up to the table and tell us the specials for the evening. She spoke for at least a minute and none of the three Americans at the table understood a word she said. We all just ordered fish and chips.


What do you feel your international guests take away most from their visits? What seems to surprise them most about the American way of life? What gives you and your wife the most satisfaction from your experience as a host?

I think the takeaway for most of the visitors is a sense of connection to individuals from around the world who share their professional and maybe even personal goals. It is clear that the bonds that are created between the participants in the visit are much greater than the bonds to any Americans that they only meet for a day or a few days, at most.

I always ask the question “What has surprised you the most about the US?” The almost universal response has been how friendly and supportive everyone they have met in the US has been.

As for us as hosts, there’s the satisfaction of helping the diplomatic efforts of your country, a sense of rising to a patriotic duty. Also, it’s fascinating to meet people from around the world, from countries that we would not likely ever visit—Armenia, Iran, Iraq, South Sudan, Pakistan, Jordan, the Philippines. Short of traveling to a country, engaging with a native is the next best thing.