Danaan Parry is Director of Holyearth Foundation, sponsoring organization of the Earthstewards Network, which brought 20 teenagers and 10 adults from the Soviet Union for an American visit in November of 1986.
"I would never do anything to hurt you, no matter what anybody says," I overhear, as the 30 Soviets move quickly toward the departure gate which marks an end to their three-week stay in the homes of American kids in the Washington, D.C., San Francisco and Seattle areas.
For one full year, we have worked and planned and prayed for this to happen, to actually have Soviet kids living with and eating breakfast at American kids’ tables, studying computers with them, being a real part of each others’ lives. And now it’s done. Or at least this leg is done, because in one quick week we go back to them in Novosibirsk, to be hosted by their parents, to learn computers again on their turf, to eat their food, to be a real part of their lives.
Such small events. Eating waffles together at Martha’s house in Reston, Virginia, and then eating pelmeni together at Danil’s parents’ apartment in Novosibirsk, Siberia. Small events that change the world.
We’ll do it again, and again, until the illusion of "enemy", the borders of fear, the walls of mistrust, begin to fade away. It is only in the doing of small things by ordinary people, lots of people, that systems change.
Perhaps the best way to see the import of this precedent-setting exchange of Soviet and American kids is to share the letters we received from one of the American host families just after their guests, their dear friends, went back to the U.S.S.R.
Vanessa Lock, age 16, of Reston, Virginia, writes:
Saying goodby to our new friends was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. I had told myself that I wouldn’t let it upset me. We had promised to see each other again, so why cry? I didn’t want any of them to go.
Konstantin had taught me math. Natasha had taught me how to cook a Russian meal. Yuri had taught me about the Soviet culture. Each one of them had taught us a lesson. The entire trip was a learning experience.
I learned that Americans have a very stereotypical view of the Soviet Union…American teenagers especially. All we seem to know is that they are the enemy, and that at any moment we could blow each other up. And that’s frightening.
In one week we proved to each other, and many others, that we are all the same. It just seems to be unfortunate that we’re from other sides of the world. They are no different than we are. I think certain people fail to see this. I will always remember everything that happened that week…the tears, the joy, the gifts, and the pictures. Will our promises be kept? Will we be remembered? Will we see each other again? I can only hope I’m that lucky.
And from Vanessa’s mother, Martha Lock:
Both Sunday mornings that our guests were here, we shared a big American breakfast with our neighbors who have a little boy almost three. It was this child who had come to our house Halloween morning in his costume and brought such loving recognition to Yuri’s eyes. (His own little boy turned two while Yuri was on this trip.) What was so apparent during these meals was Yuri’s desire to share his own beautiful wife and children with us, just as we were sharing our families with him. Perhaps our remaining responsibility as a host family is to let this desire inspire us to actively work for more comprehensive exchanges.
I want to share with you some of the incredible sense of humor displayed that makes me want to be darned sure this fantastic human race doesn’t destroy itself.
On Halloween night Yuri put on an awful pig mask and made the appropriate scary noises. Taking the mask off, he said to Konstantin, "Wasn’t I horrible?" Konstantin answered back, "More horrible without mask," to which Yuri replied, "Konstantin makes his first joke."
One evening, due to an earlier conversation with the other teenagers, Konstantin requested we watch a James Bond movie on TV. Typical of their early days of television viewing, after a short time their attention began to wander, so we had Yuri begin a slide show of Novosibirsk. The TV remained on in the darkened room. At one point, after we’d appreciatively commented on the Siberian landscape, Yuri failed to go on to the next slide. A few seconds passed as we politely waited. Suddenly we all realized Yuri was immersed in the scene on TV of James Bond stroking the bare back of a voluptuous blond. Realizing the delay, Yuri deadpanned, "Beautiful picture." And we all burst into laughter as he changed to the next slide.
As in many situations, animals frequently serve as good ice breakers. Natasha was so shy in the beginning of the visit. She spoke little English, and she was often upstaged by the more precocious Konstantin. She loved dogs, and one of the first things she unpacked was a photograph of her dog, Micki. Sometimes when Natasha would disappear from the room, I would discover her in the laundry room with our own vivacious labrador retriever, Derby, who had been shut away to keep her from disrupting our guests. At the end of the second day, when I picked everyone up at Telenet, I had the unfortunate task of reporting that Derby had eaten Natasha’s Russian/English dictionary. Lacking adequate Russian myself, I told this information with large stage gestures and pantomime, as Konstantin translated, in the hopes of showing Natasha how distressed I was. To my relief she burst into a huge grin and seemed delighted by the event. It immediately allowed us a new rapport. (Derby sent Micki a new rawhide bone and rubber ball in Natasha’s suitcase.)
As Konstantin was repacking for the final time, he pulled an adorable soft, plush teddy bear from his bag and proudly told me it was his bear, and its name was Danaan; didn’t I think it looked just like a Danaan Parry? I thought it touching, because the world over the stuffed bear seems to be a symbol of warmth, affection and security. It was a wonderful compliment to you, Danaan.
With each of our three guests, there seemed to be one event that marked the beginning of real camaraderie between us. With Konstantin, it was the discovery of Greg’s ten Beatles albums and the capacity to copy them all. For Natasha, it was the dog story. But with Yuri, it was more subtle and therefore perhaps more rewarding. Each evening we would pick them up, and he would appear more and more at ease, but still slightly on guard. The night that the adults went to other homes for dinner parties, someone else brought him back to our house. Thus, he walked through the door alone to find us all sitting and relaxing together in the living room. When asked if he enjoyed the dinner, Yuri said yes, but he would rather have been "home" with all of us. To hear his reference to our house, with the same sentimental expression and tone of voice he might use toward his own house and family in Novosibirsk, sealed our friendship forever.
I was afraid about having the Soviets, not because they were foreigners, but just because of my own need for acceptance, approval, and getting things perfect. I made a commitment to be more open for this exchange. Thus it seemed, as my vulnerability showed, so could the Soviets reveal theirs, and from this openness a trust was formed.
I knew these people weren’t Martians. I expected to admire the Soviets for their great intelligence, and I was not surprised at the level of communication and understanding. However, in the final analysis, it was not mere respect for the mind that prevailed, but an attraction of the hearts. May we all meet again.
These two letters typify the deeply-felt connections made through the Kids to Kids project. They stand as testimony to the importance of Soviets and Americans meeting face-to-face and heart-to- heart.
More stories about this adventure in international friendship will be included in the 1986 Earthstewards Network Yearbook, to be mailed in late January to members. For information about Earthstewards Network, see the "Resources" section of this issue.