From Cold War to travel ban, Ann Arbor-founded exchange program promotes "one-on-one diplomacy"

Deb Anderson sums up Youth For Understanding (YFU), the nonprofit her grandmother founded 65 years ago in Ann Arbor, with a simple question: "How can you hate someone that you don't even know?"

The Whitmore Lake resident heard many stories growing up about the "ragtag group" of 75 German teenagers her grandmother, Rachel Andresen, brought to Michigan for a year as YFU's first group of foreign exchange students. Andresen was director of the Ann Arbor-Washtenaw Council of Churches at the time, and she was inspired to help rebuild Europe after traveling there and seeing the destruction in the late '40s.

YFU has since grown to become one of the largest intercultural exchange programs in the world. With operations in more than 60 countries and 4,000 annual participants globally today, the nonprofit organization has helped exchange 250,000 students worldwide to date. When you factor for family members and classmates those students interact with, it's reasonable to estimate millions of people have been impacted by YFU over the years.

Its United States headquarters moved from Ann Arbor to Washington, D.C., in the '70s, but YFU still has a strong local presence. In recent years the organization has also made some new local connections, tapping local leadership for its board of trustees and partnering with the University of Michigan's (U-M) Tauber Institute to help improve its operations.

From Ann Arbor roots to global reach

With World War II still fresh in people's minds and the Cold War escalating in the early 1950s, YFU's first group of German exchange students arrived in Michigan with crumbling suitcases containing one or two changes of clothes. Anderson says her grandmother Andresen worried how they would be received.

"These kids came, and my grandmother was terrified," Anderson says. "I mean, some of the homes they were (placed) in, those dads were fighting in World War II. This was a scary moment for her."

When the year was over and it was time to go home, a crowd of hundreds gathered to see the students off, share hugs, and shed tears.

"They loved these kids so much," Anderson says. "(They) went home with so many clothes and brand-new suitcases. All of a sudden, it was like, 'Boom! This is really going to be something.'"

With the success of that first exchange, Andresen organized a similar trip for American students to Germany the following year. She also started building a network of volunteers and host families in the Midwest and, eventually, across the United States and Europe.

Anderson's earliest memory as a child is stuffing envelopes for YFU mailings with her older siblings in Andresen's downtown Ann Arbor office, and being rewarded for a job well done with a movie at the Michigan Theater. Although she grew up in California, she spent summers with her maternal grandmother, working as her aide as Anderson got older.

Anderson's parents also served as chaperones early on, escorting thousands of American teens by ship from New York to Europe.

"We would sail on this ocean liner to Southampton in England, and from there we went on to Rotterdam," Anderson recalls. "Once we were on the main continent, then all the European kids would board the ship and go back to New York."

As YFU grew in the '60s, it expanded into South America, Japan, and even some Soviet bloc countries "to warm up the atmosphere a little bit," Anderson says. The organization was incorporated as a nonprofit in 1964. Four years later YFU purchased and moved its staff (then nearing 100) to Ann Arbor's historic Hoover Mansion, which was under threat of being razed.

When Andresen retired in 1973, YFU was the largest nonprofit youth exchange program in the world. She was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for her work that same year.

Andresen died in 1988, the year before the Berlin Wall came down. Anderson thinks it would have meant a lot to her grandmother to see the divide removed.

"That (wall) just really bothered her so much," Anderson says. "So here we are today still talking about walls. I think she'd be really upset. I don't want to speak for her, but that wall goes down and now we're building another one."

Anderson cites a 2013 story about a Palestinian exchange student from the West Bank placed in York County, Pa., as an example of YFU's work still making a difference. Initially met with resistance, the student was eventually embraced by the community, just like those first German teens had been.

"She would have been thrilled by that," Anderson says of her grandmother. "She just believed with her heart it was impossible to hate anyone you actually know, that you actually live with."

Diplomacy starts at home

More than 1,500 foreign exchange students have been placed with YFU host families in Washtenaw County since 1995, including 46 currently on exchange, and there are 418 registered families available to host in the county today.

Melissa Eljamal first opened her home to a YFU exchange student eight years ago. The Ann Arbor resident and her family have since hosted two more students, the most recent of whom was on exchange from the West Bank last year.

Eljamal says the biggest challenge at first is remembering to treat exchange students like family, not guests.

"There's a lot of adjustment you can imagine when you take on a new individual, a teenager no less, into your home and figure out how they're going to meld with your family," Eljamal says. "That's difficult enough, even if they're American. Then you add the cross-cultural differences, so there's oftentimes adjustment on both sides."

Some adjustments are easier than others, and as a YFU area representative Eljamal helps hosts and students mediate when things get rocky. She also recently joined YFU's National Volunteer Advisory Council to help address issues with the organization's massive network of more than 2,000 volunteers.

The daughter of a German immigrant, Eljamal has been passionate about international education since studying abroad as an undergraduate in Germany in the 1980s.

"There's just so much energy, not just in hosting but being engaged with these students from other countries who are so thankful for being here and having a chance to get a deeper dive into what American life is beyond what has been exported to them in movies and television or things they've heard," she says.

While the Trump administration and courts argue the legality of a recent executive order banning travelers from seven majority Muslim countries (no current YFU exchanges are affected), Eljamal says she's "miserable" about it.

"The more opportunity students who are here on exchange have to interact on a one-to-one level with people who are most likely to be afraid of them, that is the opportunity we have for making a difference," she says. "It's all about that one-on-one diplomacy."

Eljamal met her Palestinian husband while living in Germany. She admits to having a negative attitude about his homeland before meeting him and his family, but she now has "total admiration and respect for all things Arab and Muslim."

"That's why YFU is so important," she says. "It enables those relationships to be instilled and sustained over time, and those students to come here and realize we're not all gun-toting cowboys, either. They can go home and spread the message to their own countries that we're not as bad as part of what we're portrayed. It's a little harder to do that now, though."

Valuable perspectives

As a YFU alum, Daryl Weinert says the organization always had a place in his heart. The Ann Arbor resident calls living with a family in Spain in 1980 a "life-changing experience."

"It literally and figuratively opened up the world for me," he says.

In 2011 Weinert, who is associate vice president for research at U-M, accepted an invitation to join the organization's board of trustees, and a year later he became its chairperson.

"I was really honored to do it because I really believed in the mission, which is intercultural understanding, and I was excited to have a chance to give back," he says.

As chair, Weinert used his background in industrial and operational engineering to start addressing organizational challenges he saw.

"I really recognized a huge problem with some of our operational approaches to this conundrum of bringing in these thousands of students each year and finding these placements," he says.

So Weinert connected YFU with U-M's Tauber Institute for Global Operations, which pairs business and engineering students with organizations for summerlong consulting projects. Students are typically placed with Fortune 500 companies. YFU was the first nonprofit Tauber partnered with.

"We've had a couple of those teams now spend the summer in Washington, D.C., and do an incredible job helping YFU improve its operational side of the house," Weinert says.

Following his senior year at U-M in 2015, engineering alum Alp Kiremitci spent 14 weeks working with YFU through the Tauber Institute. During that time, he and his teammate helped develop a two-year plan for YFU's long-term financial and operational stability. They also evaluated the organization's gains, losses, and market share and made recommendations to YFU's executive team that would help generate value.

For example, research showed interest in short-term, high-impact programs — like establishing new water sources in a remote area — was growing among students, so Kiremitci and his partner recommended more marketing emphasis on such projects.

Today Kiremitci works as a strategy consultant in New York. Originally from Istanbul, Turkey, he says working with YFU helped him realize the importance of international education in his own life.

He recalls one day on the job when a group of Finnish students came to YFU headquarters and were sharing their first impressions of the United States, as well as some basic facts about their home country. He says he still thinks of those kids anytime he sees Helsinki pop up in the news or on social media.

"Having these foreign people coming to the U.S., it's definitely a gift for them, but it's also a gift for us who are living in the U.S. as well," Kiremitci says. "We just gain a different perspective from them."
 
Eric Gallippo is an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer.
 
Alp Kiremitci photo courtesy of Alp Kiremitci. Rachel Andresen photo courtesy of Youth For Understanding. All other photos by Doug Coombe.
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