When I was first contacted by WorldChicago with the opportunity to host a fellow from Georgia through the U.S. Department of State Professional Fellows Program, it really was not a hard sell for me to make to my commissioner, Mona Noriega. The Chicago Commission on Human Relations has had a wonderful working relationship with WorldChicago for many years. We have received dozens of visitors from all over the world. In every meeting, our staff has consistently walked away feeling that we had gained more from the experience than our visitors.
Meeting Nino Tvaltvadze and spending time with her was like bringing on a new member of our team. She fit right in, and the staff really enjoyed having her with us. While she visited many of the familiar tourist attractions, she told me what she found most enjoyable during her stay was spending an afternoon at Catholic Charities helping to serve dinner to the homeless and other less fortunate individuals and families. She explained that in Georgia there is nothing like this. The poor are helped by neighbors and family members, but there are no institutions with formal programs to provide this kind of assistance.
We also took Nino to meetings with elected and appointed officials, community groups, and one of the school closing hearings. She found this all to be very fascinating, but most of all she was impressed with the children who presented testimony on why their school should not be closed.
We also put Nino to work on a project — which she volunteered for — translating our general brochure into Russian. The brochure has since been printed and distributed to several Russian organizations and community sites in the city.
When we accepted the opportunity to host Nino, we were unaware of the reciprocal visit opportunity. Once we found out about it and I was selected to go, I was very excited — and a bit nervous. What I encountered would truly be a once in a lifetime experience.
While I was in Georgia, I’m sure that I looked every bit like the “wide-eyed tourist,” but no one seemed to mind. I have to say as an African-American and the only person of color I saw the whole time I was in the country, I was taken aback by the warmth and welcoming nature of everyone I met in Georgia. Sure there were stares, particularly from the bright-eyed children, but once I gave them a smile and a “hello,” they quickly returned it with a smile.
During my visit I was able to meet with NGOs, local and national public officials, and give a lecture to law students. I talked specifically about our work in Chicago addressing issues of discrimination, racial and ethnic tensions, and hate crimes. While most of the people I met with expressed that racial discrimination is not a problem in Georgia, they were able to relate our work to theirs in terms of discrimination against sexual minorities, the Roma, and violence against women.
It was also very interesting to talk about the Commission’s legal powers to address discrimination through the Chicago Human Rights Ordinance. I learned that most of the authority to address problems legislatively in Georgia rests with the central government, not local government. In that respect, I saw a country with a rich history going back thousands of years, but still a very young country finding its way on many very basic local issues and problems.
While I enjoyed the meetings and having the opportunity to meet the Mayor of Kutaisi, and the Chair of the Human Rights Committee of Parliament, I really enjoyed meeting just regular people.
One of the most memorable moments of my trip was when I went with Nino to pick up her daughter from kindergarten. I had just learned that my visit to Georgia made the local news — and more importantly, Facebook — so when I entered the school, all of the children stopped and said “Hello! How are you?” in English. Then they counted from one to 10 in English. You could have just wiped me off of the floor at that point. It was the most touching thing that I can ever remember happening to me.
By far the most wonderful part of my experience was staying in the home of Nino’s parents. Her mother, father, aunt, and grandfather treated me like a member of the family. They were all very warm and welcoming and made my trip a pure joy! While only her father and aunt spoke any English, it really didn’t seem to matter that much. I’m not quite sure how, but we all managed to communicate on some level. I was also fortunate to be there to watch and learn how to make wine. This is an annual tradition for the family, like it is for many Georgian families.
Visiting Georgia and hosting Nino was truly one of the highlights of my professional career and personal life. It was an experience that I will never forget, and I will always be grateful for the opportunity to participate in the program. I have developed life-long friends in another part of the world which I previously knew nothing about, other than my misconceptions about Georgians being Russian and not realizing Georgia’s own unique history and culture.
Nor could I have ever imagined the warmth and hospitable nature of the Georgian people. You can only gain so much by reading about another culture in books and on the Internet. I truly realize now how important it is to experience a new country firsthand and to be immersed in the culture, even if only for a week. It was truly one of the best weeks of my life.
— Ken Gunn, First Deputy Commissioner, Chicago Commission on Human Relations