In Ibrahim Usman’s home country of Nigeria, homosexuals are outcast, demonized and sometimes even killed.
So imagine his shock recently when, visiting the U.S. for the first time as part of a diplomatic leadership program focused on volunteerism, he was assigned to spend a day volunteering to help feed the poor — at a primarily gay church.
He certainly didn’t know what to expect.
“I was expecting to see abnormal things — scary things,” he said. “But they were so decent, so well organized. I didn’t see anything but service.”
Usman is one of 103 leaders and future leaders from 95 countries around the world in San Francisco currently. They were invited by the Obama administration’s State Department to visit various cities in the country and learn about American volunteerism.
The program is a combined effort of the State Department, the Institute of International Education and the Meridian International Center.
The visitors spent their first week in Washington, D.C. — where Usman had his surprising experience — then split up into groups, first traveling to four cities across the nation and then in pairs to 50 smaller cities.
For their final week, they are in San Francisco for a conference on partnering with businesses for volunteer projects, sponsored in part by San Francisco-based Visa.
On Monday, the 103 visitors were welcomed by Mayor Gavin Newsom in a gathering at City Hall. He touted his Project Homeless Connect program, which his administration started several years ago to provide services to San Francisco’s homeless and has since been duplicated in scores of cities across the nation.
Also attending the event was Obama appointee Alma Candelaria, director of the State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program. Multicultural exchanges like the one Usman experienced are exactly what the program hopes to promote, she said.
“I saw an ad on a bus in D.C. the other day that said, ‘There’s no better way to see eye to eye than to meet face to face,’” she said. “That’s what this is about — an exchange in the true sense of the word.”
Who: 103 people from 95 countries
Sponsors: State Department, Institute of International Education, Meridian International Center
What they did: After starting in Washington, D.C., the group split into four and visited different cities (Kansas City, Houston, Indianapolis, Salt Lake City), then individuals paired up and spread out to other cities before finishing this week in San Francisco; observed and participated in volunteerism in U.S. cities