The Dinner Two Days After 9/11

The smoke had not yet cleared from the sky, the sirens were still wailing, and across America, the sound of TV's and radios hummed 24/7. The shock of 9/11 and deep fear gripped everyone and people were preoccupied with little else. Across the country in Utah, Lynn and DeAnna Debry were glued to the TV. They had lived in New York for some time, so the shock of it all was particularly close to home. In just two days, they were set to welcome a group of international visitors into their home and they just weren't quite sure if they wanted to anymore. What happened next transformed their lives. But lets start at the beginning. 

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The International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) is the longest-running diplomatic initiative of the U.S. Department of State. Established in 1940, IVLP seeks to build diplomatic ties between the U.S. and other countries by sponsoring professionals, business leaders, government leaders, and nonprofit workers to spend time in the US connecting with people and organizations in like fields of interest. Beyond the mutually beneficial purpose of professional connections, the program also supports building a US populace of internationally aware and diplomatically involved citizens. This is through the Home Hosting component of the IVLP program. During visitors' time in a city, they join a US family for an evening to dine together and build connections on a micro level. While these visits are not the focal point of the program, they certainly have some of the longest-lasting impact, particularly for the families that host them. Lynn and DeAnna DeBry, long-time residents of Utah, have been hosting international visitors for over 40 years. I was fascinated by their time with Utah Global Diplomacy, so on a hot July afternoon, DeAnna and Lynn welcomed me into their cool home in downtown Salt Lake to tell me about their experience.

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It was back in 1990 that Lynn and DeAnna first discovered Utah Global Diplomacy. A client of Lynn’s invited the couple to attend the annual fundraising concert, "Vivaldi by Candlelight." It was there that they learned about the opportunity to host international visitors in their home for dinner. In their first dinner, guests hailed from East and West Berlin. The year prior, the Cold War had ended, so cultural divisions between the two groups of guests were still prevalent. DeAnna recalls how the West Germans spoke more westernized and used what seemed to be more “hip” language. As each group talked about their lives at home, the others were astounded. Such a positive cross-cultural exchange inspired DeAnna and Lynn, and they decided to continue hosting. They describe that the opportunity to interact with people of different cultures, countries, and religions provided their family and children with greater international awareness and a greater openness and respect for differences.

At this point in the conversation, I asked Lynn and DeAnna to tell me about their most impactful experience with IVLP. Immediately the mood became more serious, and DeAnna nodded her head, stating, “Oh yes, I remember one very clearly.” I settled in, and she began the story.

It was Sept. 13th, 2001. The DeBrys had been scheduled weeks prior to host six international visitors from Indonesia and other East Asian countries. The DeBrys were excited for the dinner and had even invited their friends from the Utah Symphony to attend and perform a hoedown for the guests, all part of their “true American” dinner. But then, just two days before their scheduled meal, America was hit with some of the most devastating terrorist attacks in modern history. The entire world was in shock, and the DeBrys had their TV on constantly. The terrorist groups responsible claimed religious jihad in the name of Islam. It was during this time that the DeBrys realized that all the individuals scheduled to dine in their home were Muslim. She recalled her thoughts, stating, “We have Muslim people coming to our home, and I don’t think I want them here.” At this moment in the conversation, there was a sober pause. Then DeAnna took a deep breath and explained that she and Lynn searched their souls, turned to prayer, and ultimately realized the importance of welcoming the visitors into their home. “The whole purpose of what we were doing was to establish friendships. We will never turn our back on a friendship. It was an opportunity to connect and learn what we should do and how we should interact with each other and the situation.” So the DeBrys went to the store, bought food, and prepared their home to welcome the visitors.

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When the visitors arrived in their home, it was immediately apparent that there was a shared sentiment of hesitation and fear. There were no planes arriving or departing the US, and these visitors were essentially trapped in a place where anyone of their religion was under suspicion of being linked to the perpetrating terror group. DeAnna describes, “They were stuck in a place that had just been horribly bombed, and they were terrified. They were afraid of what we would think of them, and we were terrified of being angry.” But as the night went on, both parties began to let their guard down. Because despite the cultural and religious differences, there was a deep commonality upon which they all agreed. “Our families were the most important thing in the world. God was in every one of our lives, and we were all from a country that we loved.” It became apparent to everyone there that there was no place for fear or hatred between them. Following the dinner, the two musical friends of the DeBrys, who had originally intended to play a hoedown, instead performed a beautiful melody called the Ashokan Farewell. By the end of the song, all in attendance were in tears. DeAnna explained that there was a palpable feeling of how they could not allow war or conflict to ruin connections, friendships, and families. “That was one of the most poignant moments we have had in our lives.” This experience allowed the DeBrys to recognize the need for reconciliation and openness at a time when American families wanted to close in on themselves.

While the DeBrys had experienced a profound moment of understanding during this crisis, the majority of the United States was driven by pain, fear, and misunderstanding. Muslims, Sikhs, and other religions from the Middle Eastern region were being targeted, discriminated against, and illegally arrested for their supposed ties to Al Qaeda. DeAnna explained that she and Lynn realized the need to share their understanding and connection. So they invited a Muslim friend, Maysa Kergay, to come speak to their different church groups. Maysa’s willingness to share her religion and listen to the fears and concerns of people in the community acted as a healing balm. DeAnna explains, “It made us realize that those who distribute hate are not living the religion that they say they are. In a true Islam, there is no room for hate. The Muslim religion, the Christian religion, and the Jewish religion are very much intertwined. We have very much the same goals and aspirations. Family, helping the poor, being a good neighbor, honoring our countries.” That is what the visitors exhibited to the DeBrys, and that is what Maysa helped the community understand. As the DeBrys put it, “You cannot judge people by the actions of others who profess to follow the same religion.” Through this experience, the DeBrys were able to act as citizen diplomats, not only with international visitors but also within their communities and among their friends.

The DeBrys explained these home-hosting dinners are the perfect opportunity to form real connections. Often views or assumptions about different countries are dictated by prominent leaders or what news describes, but these dinners give a glimpse into the real nature of a country. DeAnna noted that over the many years and hundreds of visitors who have been in their home, topics of dinner conversation always return to the same topics of food, family, and God. People share the vulnerable and personal sides of themselves, which, in turn, breaks down the barriers of cultural and linguistic differences. DeAnna explained, “These experiences have helped us be more accepting and appreciative of people who are different from us. We are less judgemental if anything. It opens our world up to things different from what we grew up in.” 

Through these grassroots-level dinners, Lynn and DeAnna DeBry have welcomed many different people into their home. They have shared knowledge, food, culture, and most importantly, built friendships. While these many visitors may not stay in contact or remember details of the visit, it is almost certain that they will remember the warm welcome and the kindness of the DeBry’s. I know I most certainly will. 

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