A Return to Berlin (Part 2)

cranes over berlin

May 11, 2013

The biggest surprise on arrival is the amount of construction in the heart of East Berlin and the heart of West Berlin.

After German reunification, Berlin was often referred to as a “city of cranes” because of all the construction taking place. Over 20 years later, cranes are still a fixture on the skyline.

by Dr. Steven E. Sokol, President and CEO, World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh


A Return to Berlin




May 10, 2013

 As I buckled in for the flight from Newark to Berlin, I found myself wondering what the coming week will bring. Berlin is a city I know well – having lived there before, during, and after the Wendi. Even after I left Berlin to move to New York City in 2002, I was back in Berlin at least four to six times a year – and in a good position to regularly measure the pulse of contemporary Germany. But, it has been three years since I was last in Berlin.

The last time I was in Berlin was June 2010. Now, I am going back to Berlin in the run up to the September election to lead a tour for the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia.

I’ll be spending a week with 15 Americans from across the country who want to learn more about Germany’s past, present, and future. In addition to seeing the sights and visiting museums,  we’ll have meetings with parliamentarians and opinion leaders as well as policy briefings at the Federal Foreign Office and the U.S. Embassy.

As I prepare for the week-long trip, I wonder what will have changed since I was last in Berlin…

From a political standpoint, it will certainly be an interesting time to be in Berlin:

President Obama will make his first official state visit to Berlin in June – just one week before the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech. Obama was in Berlin before he was elected, and he has been to Germany since becoming president, but he has yet to visit the nation’s capital in his current capacity.

German federal elections are four months away. A lot can happen between now and September, but our group will have a chance to delve into the emerging trends. And, this election could be very interesting. Although Angela Merkel still enjoys strong support, there is some criticism of her handling of the euro crisis. The Christian Democrats’ coalition partner – the Free Democrats – have slumped from nearly 15 percent of the vote in the last election to five percent in recent surveys. (Five percent is the minimum threshold for representation in Parliament.) Meanwhile, the Green Party has increased to 15 percent in opinion polls. And, a eurosceptic new party – Alternative for Germany – has emerged as a wild card that may weaken Merkel’s chances of reelection by siphoning off votes from the center-right. This could leave an opening for the return of a left-leaning government of Social Democrats and Greens.

The debate over the future of the euro – and the future of Europe – rages on in Germany and across Europe. And, U.S.-European free trade is a hot topic with negotiations for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) going at full steam.

Our delegation will certainly have lots to talk about…


by Dr. Steven E. Sokol, President and CEO, World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh

Gaziantep: Pittsburgh’s Newest Sister City

“Gypsy Girl” – An iconic image of Gaziantep.

Gaziantep is a city of some 1.4 million people in southeastern Anatolia – only about an hour’s drive from the border with Syria. The immediate vicinity has been continuously inhabited since the Paleolithic Age and experienced the domination of powers such as the Assyrians, Persians, Romans, and Byzantines.

Located on the Silk Road, it is no surprise, that Gaziantep has a rich history in commerce. Today, it is an important – and growing – economic center of Turkey. The main sectors include cement and construction, textiles, leather, soap, food, carpets. The delegation heard from government and business leaders that Gaziantep is very entrepreneurial and is always looking for new business opportunities. Gaziantep is among the top ten fastest growing cities in the world – even though it does not have many natural resources. It is behind cities like Dubai, Qatar, and one in China, and one in Nigeria.

More than 600 companies in Gaziantep export to 158 countries – and in 2011 Gaziantep exported $5 billion to 171 countries. 38 percent of exports were to Iraq, 26 percent to European Union member states, and 11 percent to countries in the Middle East. In 1992, Gaziantep had a population of roughly 350,000 to 400,000 – but as a result of its rapid development, many people have been migrating from other parts of the country to seek opportunities in Gaziantep. This has put pressure on the social infrastructure and social fabric of the city.

Dr. Asim Güzelbey has been Mayor of Gaziantep for eight years, and has taken on many of these challenges. The city has made major investments in infrastructure through European Union development programs, funding from local sources, and the sale of land.  He believes that the best investment a community can make is in human capital.

 Today, Gaziantep has no unemployment and is in need of qualified labor.

In addition to being an emerging economic powerhouse, Gaziantep cuisine is recognized across the country and has influenced Turkish cuisine as a whole.  This region is famous for its pistachios but also for its kebabs and kofte (meatballs with bulgur), and baklava.

Signing the Sister City agreement between Gazientep and Pittsburgh.

On Tuesday, August 28, the Cities of Pittsburgh and Gaziantep signed a sister city proclamation. There was a great deal of enthusiasm on both sides about the potential to deepen the relationship in meaningful ways.

by World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh President & CEO, Dr. Steven E. Sokol

Editor’s Note: This is the second of several blog posts about the Pittsburgh delegation’s trip to Turkey. Stay tuned for more!

Arriving in Istanbul

Arriving at Istanbul Airport is an assault on the senses. Throngs of people push and pull in different directions loaded down with bags and shouting at each other. Istanbul is where the Occident and the Orient meet. It is also the end of the great Silk Road. For centuries, people have been coming to Istanbul to trade.

It was here – at the Istanbul Airport – that I connected with a delegation from Pittsburgh to undertake an important fact-finding mission to Turkey. Headed by Congressman Mike Doyle and Councilman Bill Peduto, eight Pittsburghers set out to spend a week together developing a deeper, more nuanced understanding of modern Turkey – and its rich history. The catalyst for the trip was an invitation from the City of Gaziantep to become sister cities. Gaziantep is Pittsburgh’s 17th sister city – and the first sister city in a majority Muslim country.

On the drive from the airport to the historic center of Istanbul, the group had a chance to see a mass of cargo ships waiting to enter the Bosphorus as well as their first glimpse of the city’s skyline. Istanbul can be described as one of the most visually stimulating cities in the world. And, the first impressions were just scratching at the surface.

Geography – and history – have shaped Istanbul. This is where Europe and Asia meet. Istanbul is the only city to span two continents. It has a very strong and diverse historical, cultural, and religious heritage, which is still palpable today as one walks through the streets and alleyways.

The population of Turkey is over 74 million – and half of the country’s population is under the age of 29. Istanbul is the largest city in Turkey. It home to some 20 percent of population. By official counts, 14 million people live in Istanbul, but it is estimated that there are another four to six million people who are registered elsewhere but actually live in Istanbul. By comparison, five million people live in Ankara – which was declared the nation’s capital in 1923 by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey. Until then, Istanbul had served as the capital of the Ottoman Empire for 470 years. Today, Ankara is the center of government, bureaucracy, and diplomacy, while Istanbul continues to thrive as a vibrant commercial center.

Shielded from the global economic slowdown, the Turkish economy is still moving strong. Turkey enjoyed a 9 percent growth rate in 2011. It is expected to be a little slower this year, but still good. 65 percent of industrial exports from MENA countries are produced in Turkey

In addition to Congressman Doyle and Councilman Peduto, Pittsburgh was represented by Simin Curtis, Founder and President of the American Middle East Institute; Reverend Glenn Grayson, Pittsburgh Interfaith Impact Network; Aradhna Oliphant, President and CEO of Leadership Pittsburgh, Inc.; James Nathan Williams III, Director of Government Affairs for the University of Pittsburgh; and me, in my capacity as President and CEO of the World Affairs Council.

We were joined by Jean Roehrenbeck, Legislative Assistant to Congressman Doyle. Our Pittsburgh-based Turkish hosts – Serdar Ayman and Hasan Eygoren, who both represented the Turkish Cultural Foundation – accompanied us as well.

Over the course of a week, this group had the opportunity to meet with opinion leaders and decision makers from business, politics, and academia to learn more about modern Turkey. This was rounded out by tours of historic sites to understand the region’s place in history and the role of religion. In addition, we met with local business leaders and their families.  The delegation visited Istanbul, Ankara, Gaziantep, and Izmir.

by World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh President & CEO, Dr. Steven E. Sokol

Editor’s Note: This is the first of several blog posts about the Pittsburgh delegation’s trip to Turkey. Stay tuned for more!


20 Global Travel Scholars for 2012

This summer, the lives of twenty local students will be forever transformed. In late June, they will travel all over the world to experience firsthand the daily lives of Koreans, Italians, South Africans, Peruvians, and fourteen other cultures. These high school juniors – selected as Global Travel Scholars by the World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh – will leave behind friends, family, and the familiar comforts of Western Pennsylvania to immerse themselves in the joys and challenges of living in a foreign country.

This marks the ninth year that the Council, in partnership with The Experiment in International Living, has provided this unique opportunity to local students. Through the generous financial support of regional foundations, corporations, and individuals, the Council is sending its largest group of Scholars, representing sixteen different high schools, to seventeen different countries.

This group of Scholars is also among the most diverse in program history. Charles Hickerson, one of seven African American males who will be traveling abroad this summer, is excited to experience life in another country. “This program opens a door for students like me who have only been able to ‘travel’ through books, magazines, and the internet,” says Hickerson, a junior at Propel Andrew Street High School, who will explore Italy for five weeks. “Chances like this do not come often and I do not take this for granted.”

Jacalyn Sharp, a junior at Pittsburgh Sci Tech 6-12, will spend four weeks in Scotland fulfilling her lifelong dream of traveling there and putting her Gaelic language skills to the test. “It is amazing that my dream is actually going to come true,” enthuses Sharp. “This is an opportunity unlike any other. For a lack of better words, it’s like floating on a cloud,” she says.

While abroad, students learn and grow -- and have fun!

Providing international travel experiences for students who would not otherwise have the opportunity is the guiding principle behind the Council’s Global Travel Scholarship Program. “Today’s students will enter a globally diverse workforce in which it will be essential to communicate cross-culturally,” notes Dr. Steven E. Sokol, President and CEO of the Council.  “Providing young people with an opportunity to develop intercultural skills at such a critical age is a key benefit of our Program,” says Sokol. “Our Scholars return to Pittsburgh as true ‘global citizens,’ with a much greater capacity to understand and think critically about their world.”

Some of the Scholars have already grasped the significance of their upcoming adventures. “Becoming a Global Travel Scholar will be a life-altering experience,” explains Kara Jones, a junior at South Side Area High School who will be participating in a travel intensive program in China for four weeks. “This trip will expand my comfort zone and help me establish relationships with my host family and other people I will meet.”

In addition to the lifelong connections the Scholars will make this summer, they will also learn quite a bit about themselves. David A. Murdoch, former Chair of the Council’s Board of Directors and Chair Emeritus of World Learning (the parent organization of The Experiment in International Living), was a driving force behind the implementation of the Global Travel Scholarship Program in Pittsburgh. “The Experiment provides a true understanding of the world in which we live, and provides the necessary tools to cope with adversity,” notes Mr. Murdoch. “Experimenters come back with a confidence and maturity that only an opportunity like this could provide.”

Sadik Roberts, a junior at Pittsburgh Obama who will experience the vibrancy of West African culture for five weeks in Ghana, is eager to step out of his comfort zone and grow as a person.  “This is a chance to fly across the world, visit a distant land, learn about ancient cultures, and find the truth within myself.”

Timothy Joy, a junior at Ambridge Area High School, can barely contain his excitement about all the new experiences that await him in Thailand. “This journey will be an adventure but I see it as more than a vacation,” he says. “I see it as an outstanding learning and growing experience,” notes Joy. “Along this journey, I hope to find myself, experience things I never have, and most importantly, immerse myself in a new culture.”

Perhaps no aspect of their time abroad will challenge the Scholars more – and have a greater impact on their  personal and intercultural growth – than the time they will spend living with local host families, many of whom speak little or no English.  “The homestay portion of the program is of greatest concern to the Scholars each year,” explains Murdoch. “They are worried about the language barrier and about adjusting to the family’s daily routine. Yet, when they return, the Scholars single out the homestay as the highlight of the entire summer,” he says with a smile.

Scholars bond with host families while abroad.

Reflecting on her upcoming trip to France, Heaven Brown, a junior at Cornell High School, displays wisdom beyond her years when she says, “This experience changes people’s lives in the blink of an eye. I can’t control the gut-dwelling feeling that builds up inside me knowing it will be mine.”

Upon return, each Scholar will be responsible for writing a reflective essay; sharing their experiences with friends, family, teachers, staff, and funders at the Welcome Home Session; conducting at least two school or community presentations; and designing a globally-themed project to engage their peers in international affairs issues.

More details about the program, including names, schools and destinations of the 2012 Scholars; a list of program supporters; and information about the organizations can be found after the jump. 

Read the rest of this entry »

Project Koraput: Land Bank

by Jen Saffron
March 22, 2012

Laxman, Photo by Jen Saffron 2012

The clock ticked 21 minutes to download today’s international exchange rates.  49.1 rupees to the U.S. dollar.  Impressive.  We decided: cash in the $2500 before day’s end.  Debendra placed the brand new $100 bills into a yellow bag in his briefcase, then clutched the briefcase under his arm while eating curries and rice with his hands. The electricity flickered overhead, we finished our milky Indian coffees, and Hebel drove us to the bank.

There are laws about exchanging that much money in these parts.  Only foreigners can do it.  The bills are carefully inspected, Visa copied, signatures scripted.  Given the amount, which is enough to build a small home, the bank manager escorted us to the teller, a shy woman with a black plastic headband.  First, she counted 12,275 rupees.  When we pointed out the missing zero on the end of her tabulation, her face changed to disbelief.  A guard with a gun watched the door.  After the transaction, we made a beeline for the car and told Hebel to step on it.

This money, comprised of hundreds of donations funneled through Community House, will secure the second parcel of land – the Hindu woman agreed to sell, instructing Debendra to come by after morning chores.  Debendra showed up the next day at 6:00 a.m. to show his honor, returning at 8:00 with his lawyer and the briefcase.

There are no simple plans enacted in the third world – and what, building a village with two women, a pastor, and a PayPal button?  Time and money are their own machines, and they tell us who’s the real boss.   Getting things done often turns into trying to get things done.

We hatched a plan for today, anyway, to photograph landless people purchasing yet a second plot of land, with Hindus and Christians working together in peace.  The legal paperwork would be written up with the public invited to witness.  Not us, though because the presence of the white women would jack the price and the deal would sour.  With the money and signatures secured, Debendra would signal Bikram, his oldest son, and we’d arrive to record the final thumbprint seals by the Koraput survivors.

But, it was noon and still no word from Debendra.  An hour later, he rolled up on his motorcycle, clearly flustered.  “The political people are now involved.  They came, unannounced, and said they would buy the land for a higher price!  It’s now a competition.”

We were stunned.  What about the Hindu woman honoring the deal?  Debendra said nothing was sure.  But he was sure of one thing: someone had talked and now the political cronies were speculating.  He asked the villagers to keep their mouths shut, knowing it doesn’t take just two white women with cameras to cause problems, as greed lurks.  It can just take one person making a comment to an outsider – one matchstick lights the whole jungle on fire, Debendra says.

Nandaguda has a Christian street and a Hindu street, both lined with mud houses.  Poverty aside, the village is tranquil and surrounded by rice fields, a canal, and pastured animals. Hindu or Christian, they have much in common, living together on the outskirts of Jeypore.

At their recent town meeting, they agreed that welcoming the survivors would prove beneficial, as the increase in residents would establish a Panchayat, or a small municipality.  Electricity, better water, paved roads, schools – these come with the Panchayat blessing.

There were exactly two Nandagudans, however, that did not concur.  One of them, a young woman, confronted the survivors to make her position very clear. Taking a break from digging, 70 survivors lunched in the Nandaguda church on Christian Street, sitting on the floor eating dal and rice.  The young woman approached and unleashed a string of trash talk.

The survivors continued eating from plates made out of leaves, just looking at her.  These people had already seen their houses torched and had fled for their lives.  Taking on a catfight wasn’t part of the rebuilding plan.  Chanchalla and her son, Prabhat, tried in vain to calm the dissent.  Eventually, the young woman ran off and although the survivors maintained dignity, talk followed the incident.  Was this rebuilding plan really going to work?

Sumitra, Photo by Jen Saffron 2012

That night, a meeting ensued outside Debendra’s family flat.  Away from heated talk among the men, we stayed in the shadows with the women and their sleeping babies.  Building consensus is messy, often slow work.  The patience and perseverance required for this iterative community work, in the face of immediate need, places grassroots projects like this at risk.

And, who are we to have involved ourselves?  We’ve been skating a thin line between camera work and social work.  But, we’re clear why we are here.  We decided to simply act, working with the full awareness and respect of the privilege we’ve been granted – the trust of the survivors, allowing us access to their intimate community and engaging in planning talks even though we can’t make big promises.

We will cull thousands of photographs, audio recordings and writing to help propel the Koraput Surivors Project forward.  And, as profound and adventuresome as this trip has been, this is just the beginning, with much more to learn and more decisions to be made as the new community unfolds.  Back in Delhi, now, we’re already scheming our return.

Jen Saffron is a writer, educator and curator of photographs.  Lynn Johnson is a professional photographer. Both reside in Pittsburgh, and will travel to Koraput on March 14. Read about their experiences and check out their photography here in the Council Blog.  Find out more about their project, here.

Project Koraput: I’m Workin’ on a Building

by Jen Saffron
March 21, 2012 

Thy seat, O brave one,

is empty today –

fill it with your valor.

– Rabindranath Tagore

The Koraput survivors traveled an hour by bus with pick axes, shovels and pans, cramming into a tuk tuk for the last segment, arriving on the reddish land that is now theirs.  They came to dig the first house foundation on their recently purchased parcel, seeking to settle on the outskirts of Nandaguda with a total of 60 homes.

Laxman, an elderly man in a pink tank top, blue lungi and sandals, instructed the younger men to stake out the trench dimensions, and green twine appeared.  The plumb line secured with a small bamboo stick, it was time.  Pick axes raised high, they began excavating the earth into 2-foot deep footers, the older women clearing stones.  Sumitra, a sari clad woman in her early 30s, almost single handedly dug an entire trench in 95 degree heat.  I observed the frustration melting from her face, the build up of 4 years of living off crumbs.  Popun, her slight, adolescent son, looked on.

Laxman, just over 5 feet tall with a high-pitched voice, proved indomitable.  A man of about 60 in a state where the average life expectancy is 62, wielding a pick axe straight and true.  Laxman, the mason in his community, sharing his knowledge for the benefit of all.

It would be easy to cast these religious refugees as victims, to feel sorry for them, to assume they can’t do anything for themselves, that they don’t have knowledge or skills.  Not so.  Despite walking 22 kilometers in the night with their babies, through the jungle with the threat of snakes, tigers and elephants, despite the hardship of living in abandoned buildings, they choose to stay together and to keep the faith.  They didn’t fight the Hindu extremists, they instead chose to be warriors for their own lives, and in that way are becoming an inspiration to others.

The Nandaguda people notice their strength and dignity, too. As the sound of axes and shovels pitched on, a Hindu villager quietly appeared with an offering for the sweaty group: two beautiful papayas.  Earlier that same day, I spotted an older woman in a sari, approaching with a deliberate gait.  She came bearing the news to Debendra Singh, her pastor: this morning, people came to the Hindu woman’s parcel and began measuring.  Were we buying this, too?

Nandaguda runs on the timeless engine of all villages: word of mouth, women’s work, and preserving the common good. Pastor Singh already talked with the Nandaguda people, among them his own parishioners, asking them about their feelings that landless refugees sought to resettle 100 yards from them.  How did they feel that a group 20 families larger than their own, with new ideas and customs, would join them in the fields outside of Jeypore?  For the most part, people had come around to the idea.

But, the Nandaguda Hindu woman had not wanted to sell.  Was it because of the Christians, or her mistrust of outsiders?  Her parcel of land in Nandaguda, blackened by field fire, abuts the Koraput survivors’ land.  Procuring her parcel means space for latrines, vegetable gardens, a paved road, perhaps another bore well.  The future health and safety of the community depends on it.

Meeting Time, by Jen Saffron 2012

Talk turned dark as Debendra started to worry – someone saw us, someone saw the white people walking on her land, and now she will jack up the price, because she has a prize.  Who will get it?  Did someone already make an offer?  If not, Debendra had better or someone else would, and the loss would be too great.  He had already deliberated over that parcel, because without it, the new village would be hemmed in on all sides, no room to grow. How can we start building houses AND get the land?

Debendra and the Koraput men met in a circle, talked it out, and decided they would approach the Hindu woman and buy the land.  For now the priority is clear, but how it would happen would be by the grace of God.  Debendra paid a frail old man 10 rupees to find the Hindu woman and carry the word, and he went off on his ancient bicycle, in search.

Deed to the Land, with the Koraput Survivors, by Lynn Johnson 2012


Jen Saffron is a writer, educator and curator of photographs.  Lynn Johnson is a professional photographer. Both reside in Pittsburgh, and will travel to Koraput on March 14. Read about their experiences and check out their photography here in the Council Blog.  Find out more about their project, here.