U.S. 'citizen diplomats' honored for volunteering abroad
By helping improve lives around the world, they rebuild the America's image abroad.
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Today, the concept is getting fresh attention – in part because recent government policies, from the Iraq war launched without United Nations approval to the rejection of the Kyoto accords, are seen to have damaged America's image abroad. But it is also getting attention because of the recognition that even if the government were to put much more resources into image-building, it is the millions of Americans engaging with the world daily who can potentially make the biggest difference.Skip to next paragraph
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The honorees, who received their awards at a summit on citizen diplomacy in Washington this week, did not set out to be "citizen diplomats." It was something they found they were doing anyway through their activities.
"For me it started with a BBC report on Darfur that really shocked me," says Anjali Bhatalia, who, as a 16-year-old in Kinnelon, N,J., set up an organization called Discover Worlds to help kids in Rwanda. Three years later, she has established a network of sister schools linking Rwanda and the US.
Initially unconscious of the diplomatic dimension of her work, Ms. Anjali says she knew she wanted to "get beyond the looking-for-a-résumé-type activity." "Like a lot of students, I wanted to make a real difference."
Greg Mortenson, the Montana mountain climber, is interested in expanding education opportunities in Pakistan and Afghanistan, especially for girls. With his organization, Pennies for Peace, Mr. Mortenson has built 64 schools in those two countries and co-written a national bestseller based on his experience, "Three Cups of Tea," that has drawn packed halls when he speaks around the US.
"That tells me that people all around the country are really yearning for a different way of doing things in the world, I sense in these conversations a longing to do something besides fighting terrorism [with war]," Mortenson says. "People really light up at the idea that education might be a better way to stop terrorists."
Several of the honorees say they are aware their acts may seem "extraordinary" to many people. But Khris Nedam, an elementary school teacher from Livonia, Mich., whose students raised money to build schools in Afghanistan, says Americans should focus on the "ripple effect" of even a small gesture.
"My students started with the idea that kids like them needed a school, then that expanded to a clinic and a deep-water well that [three years later] were all up and running," she says. "It just blossomed."