Presenting: Mary Jane Mikuriya – Servas Traveller and Committed Local Volunteer in San Francisco

Discovering antique quilts at Esprit, of all places:
A Servas visitor from Australia, was an artist who wanted to see the wall hangings at Esprit, a women’s clothes designer and distributor. I said I did not think they had quilts but would call to see if we could visit them. Much to my surprise, the company headquarters was filled with antique quilts, the company provided a catalogue of their quilts which could be purchased and there were open visiting hours. No, there was no publicity about this display and the company preferred word of mouth. When we visited, I did not know as we walked through the large brick walled building whether to look at the fabulous quilts or at how the company headquarters was organized. I realized that these quilts were made by women and were such designs as white on white squares that would be seen at the Museum of Modern Art a hundred or so years later. I realized that my visitor had shown me part of San Francisco that I was completely unaware of, but thanks to her I learned about them. When the company was sold, the quilts were donated to a museum for all to see.

Learning about Tajikistan:
One of my most recent Servas visitors was from Tajikistan. I must say I did not know anything about this country or even where the country was on the map. So I went to the World Fact Book developed by the CIA. Yes, the CIA which offers very current country specific information freely on line. I learned that it was in Central Asia and formerly part of the Soviet Union. When the Soviet Union left, there was no structure of government. Tajikistan was destabilized by civil war which has resulted in tremendous personal losses, economic crisis, deep poverty and other social problems. Tajikistan had the lowest per capita GDP of all the 15 former Soviet Republics. Muborak, my guest said that many have left Tajikistan for safety and economic reasons and they send money home. For those that remain, the economy is very poor–the teachers receive $2 per month, the physicians $5 per month and the public servants do not always receive their government pay checks. Under these conditions, bad things are happening.

Muborak is a sociologist who was here in the US to give her third presentation to the UN on the (mis)treatment of women and children in Central Asia. She and her team of women investigators have interviewed over 1000 abused women and 5000 abused children. There is no government agency to support women’s rights and children’s rights in these countries, hence Muborak is bringing this information to the UN to encourage UN action to support the UN Millennium Goals for women and children.

Insights about Zimbabwe:
In Spain, I met a Servas host from Zimbabwe. She has always lived in that county, which used to be call Rhodesia. She is 78 years old and her retirement pay has not kept pace with inflation. She said her retirement pay is equivalent to 2 slices of bread. I asked how she survived. She says that she has joined some other retirees and they share their skills and creativity. She is responsible for fruit and vegetable dumpster diving and brings home the discards from the fruit and vegetable market. They can always make soup for their group and survive.

From Servas members, I learn of events that are not published or talked about in the media. I value how Servas has provided me the opportunity to learn what is happening in other parts of the world that are not available in the press or on TV.

Israeli-Palestinian peace quilt

German-Jewish encounters to make peace with the past:
During Servas Gatherings, Travelers report where they have been and what they have learned. Over the last 5 years, several older Jewish US travelers originally from Europe decided to face their concerns with Germany. They reported having wonderful German Servas hosts and realized their hosts were not alive during the Nazi Era. When they returned to the US, they surprised themselves with the realization they had made their peace with their anxiety surrounding Germany. What a relief! What a gift! They had made their peace with Germany. Can you hear their surprise and thanks to Servas? What a wonderfully powerful possible solution to reducing long held negative beliefs and fears — to visit the hosts in country of concern to see if your concerns are still valid.

4. Please tell us about your 3 favourite or most memorable travel stories.

My father died in 1986. I felt as a US Servas Board member that I had to attend the Board meeting in Seattle. I decided to drive and take two weeks enroute and one week after the Board Meeting. I took my two interracial children, then 5 and 6 years old, and our Chinese American teenage baby sitter who had never been out of San Francisco.

One of our visits was in Bellingham, WA. There we stayed with a single 80 year old Servas host who welcomed all 4 of us Servas Travelers. She was an amazing woman who when she got a divorce had gone into the Peace Corps for 2 years, upon returning to Bellingham met her next husband. When he died she joined the Peace Corps again. Now at 80 her last husband had died so she joined Servas because she missed the conversation with internationally minded travelers. During our first day, there she took us to the Methodist Church’s children’s beach picnic. This is the first time that these elementary school children from Bellingham had met mixed race children. The blond children would touch my African American daughter’s dark skin and very curly hair. The mothers were welcoming but curious about our host and how she had such unusual guests. It was an experience for me since I had not realized there were such racially isolated communities in my own country. My host was pleased to share her guests, the type of people she had worked with in the Peace Corps, and and we were pleased to see that we could be part of her community education project.

When I returned to San Francisco, I felt that my grieving over my father’s death had changed to acceptance. It was if a long time had passed. I now understand the power of travel for healing the psyche and for helping in important transitions in life.

5. You are also an interviewer for Servas and that has given you some unique insights. Please comment.

I am an interviewer for Servas Travelers. We have certain requirements and expectations for Travelers.( See for the forms and directions.) One of the requirements is to complete a Letter of Introduction which asks 5 questions. Before and during the interview there are two questions that separate appropriate travelers from the freeloaders. One of the questions has to do with what the potential traveler does to promote Peace and the other asks about the purpose of your trip.

Israeli-Palestinian peace quilt

I am amazed the number of travelers that feel that they are not involved in Peace activities because they think that peace activities are organized activities. Perhaps another way to ask this question is what volunteer work do you do. Then the applicant can tell you how they volunteer in a center for handicapped, tutor adults in reading, or staff a hot line crisis center. One Servas traveler who worked with homeless youth in San Francisco was taking a Servas trip to the Vatican before he went into a monastery. During the trip, he stayed with a Servas host who took him sailing on the Adriatic and as a result of this visit, the traveler decided not to join the monastery but remain helping homeless youth as a form of service to God. He wrote in his travel report how Servas Changed his life.

What I see that Servas travel is a good help for people making a career change. When the dot-com bust occurred in San Francisco, the unemployed dot-com workers who had put in 16 hour days decided they needed a different kind of life and used Servas to visit hosts who were in their field of interest, say Environmental or women’s rights. For me interviewing for Servas has opened my eyes to many wonderful, concerned, dependable, interesting people who want to make a better world.

As a Servas traveler I am impressed with the hosts dedication to helping others. In Germany, I stayed with a host who spoke Russian and Slavic languages. Under the European Union, the undocumented non EU immigrants were jailed. She would go to the jail and translate for the prisoners. In Thailand, my host Jurunee asked where I would like to visit. I said the We-Train Women’s Project which provides vocational training for women, emergency housing for women and their children, a clinic for women with AIDS and care for orphan babies. My host and her 4 year old daughter took me there and we toured the facility together. As a result of the visit she said that she would donate her daughter’s out grown clothes and collect children clothes from her friends for this Women’s project.

6. You also dedicate your time to promoting social justice and peace. What kind of initiatives are you or have you been involved in?

Justice is very important to me. Know what injustice is and how it can hurt, it is important to speak up and be counted.

San Francisco is a very expensive city and some working poor have to choose between food and housing. Each winter, the Unitarian Church hosts 90 working poor men for 6 weeks. The mayor’s office provides the beds, the food bank supplies the food and the Unitarians provide the housing and cook the breakfasts and dinners and clean up after. I find that I like to work the early shift from 5:30 AM – 7:30AM to cook breakfast. It is a humbling feeling to know that minimum wage and living wage are not the same. It is for that reason that I support the Living Wage Coalition through petition drives, advocacy and money. There are many causes that need our support and I feel that volunteering is a wonderful way to be connected to our fellow men.

A Vietnamese young man joined a Vietnamese gang. He was a college-bound student, who earned a bit of money working for me. One day he called to say he would not come to work, he was in jail. What was he doing in Jail? He and his gang got into a fight. He was not supposed to be in jail more than 24 hours as a juvenile, so I called the Asian Law Caucus for help. They arranged to have his release. Within two years, Coung’s best friend was killed in gang activity. Yet, Coung could not quit the gang. I helped him distance himself from the gang by counseling him how to graduate in January instead of June, taking night work at a hotel, and leaving the area. Coung is now working on his CPA, has a good job and has made a success of himself, sadly, he can never return to San Francisco. He calls me on Mother’s Day for a chat. Why? Because I was his mentor and helped him change his life. We all need mentors in our life to become the best we can be. Just think about the people who were important in your life. When is the last time you talked to them and told them how they had helped you?

7. When you are not volunteering for a good cause, how do you spend the rest of your time?

Actually I spend about 30 volunteer hours a week on Servas Administration, as the Vice Chair and International Representative of US Servas, Chair of several committees, interviewing new members and in the leadership of local Servas Activities. However, due to term limits, I will be off the board and have more time for a personal life. I work about 70 days a year tutoring and organizing parent meetings. Good thing I find work rewarding.

When I am not working for Servas or in schools, I am baby-sitting my grand son or organizing family events. I enjoy preparing dinners and hosting US State Department visitors for the International Diplomacy Council. I like to listening to books on tapes while cooking for a crowd. I look forward to socializing more and attending the theater next year when I will not be on the Servas board

8. What are your upcoming plans, travel and otherwise?
I love to travel. In the near future, I look forward to traveling to Brazil, visiting Cappadocia in Turkey and arranging home exchanges in Florence, Barcelona, and Vancouver. Who knows I may sign up to teach English in another country.

9. You are amazingly youthful for your age. Please share with us the secrets of how you stay so young. (I just have to ask….;)

I feel youth is a state of mind. I feel young perhaps because I know so many good people. I believe that the Laws governing human happiness and fulfillment are:
Give to live; Share to enjoy ;Serve in order to unfold.

It’s been great, Mary Jane, to hear your life’s story up to now, a true example of someone who has triumphed in difficult circumstances and chosen to share her home, her energy and her time to make this a better world. I hope I have a chance to visit you some day in San Francisco and see you in action………

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