One of the things I do for the website is I continuously search out individuals and organizations that have accomplished unusual things or made special contributions. Through my research I had come across an organization called SERVAS, an organization of hosts and travellers world-wide throughout 130 countries that intends to foster peace through intercultural exchange.
Hosts throughout the member countries generally receive travellers for 2 days (or longer if they wish) and accommodate them in their home. Sometimes if they don’t have the facilities, the hosts take their guests on tours of their local city or have lunch or dinner with them, in which case they are referred to as day-hosts. Many times the travellers become part of the family, helping out with chores around the house, or even being invited to participate in family reunions or other local activities with their hosts.
The Servas Conference participants at UBC
The really unique thing about Servas, something that sets it apart from other hospitality exchanges, is that the organization’s stated mission is to foster international peace, tolerance and understanding through personal connections. Every traveller and every host is interviewed by a volunteer to ensure that the individual’s philosophy is consistent with the organization, and that the traveller is indeed prepared to undertake a cultural exchange with the hosts, rather than just looking for free accommodation. Following the interview, the traveller receives an official signed and stamped Letter of Introduction which must be presented to the host as proof of the screening process.
Travelling with SERVAS is definitely not a concept for freeloaders, but a dedicated community of like-minded people who wish to establish human connections across the globe and improve global relations one contact at a time. After I completed my interview with Patrice Samara from the US Office of Servas, she suggested I might want to come out to Vancouver to cover the first Canadian-US Servas Conference. I had never been out to the Canadian West Coast, and I found the concept of Servas very intriguing, so off I went and used my Airmiles to get myself out to Vancouver.
The youth group presents at the conference
The conference officially started at 5 pm on Friday, August 5. One of the first conference events was a welcoming greeting by a local First Nations elder who symbolically welcomed us onto his beach, using a metaphor for the ocean-front land that had been the holy ground of his fore-fathers. As part of the ceremony a woman was spreading eagle feathers on the crowd, sharing one of the most treasured possessions among native people, a true welcoming gesture.
Other program points of the conference included a sharing of experiences about peace and travel, personal experiences of hosting or being a guest, a very interesting exploration of what it means to be from Canada or the United States, as well as youth perspectives and experiences in Servas. The organization is making a targeted effort to reach out to young people to spread the message of peace through travel to the next generation.
I spent the majority of my time at the conference interviewing individual Servas members and will be completing more indepth interviews with some of these individuals over the next few weeks. I had a chance to spend 2 to 3 hours with 5 different people and I was truly astounded, not only at their travel experience, but at their dedication to this organization and to making a positive contribution to our world in general.
One of the women I talked to, a marathon runner, volunteers by taking a group of blind people out to run on a regular basis. A young volunteer from Argentina is dedicating a huge amount of his personal time and energy to build a no-cost language exchange program for young Servas members in countries like Argentina, Uruguay, Mexico, Brazil, Canada and the United States. Through this initiative young people will have the opportunity to stay with other Servas members free of charge and learn English, Spanish, Portuguese or French at no cost from volunteer teachers who are also Servas members.
Patrice from US Servas and moi
Another very energetic Servas member from San Francisco volunteers her time to help the local homeless community and to participate in a variety of peace-building initiatives. I also talked to a nice couple from New Jersey, both teachers, who spread the message of peace to an audience of young people and they are also involved in the Sierra Club, to help save our environment. Another interesting person I talked to is a diversity consultant and she helps organizations develop the necessary sensitivities for working with a multi-cultural workforce.
Over the last few years I have been spending a lot of my time reflecting on the state of the world, and in light of recent developments like 911, the War in Iraq, the Madrid train bombings and the recent London transit bombings, it is painfully obvious that we are living in very violent times. We are in dire need of people who dedicate a good portion of their lives towards making this place a better world, towards building peace and understanding, and exactly this is Servas’ stated mission.
I admit that I have been losing faith in humanity over the last few years, but going out to Vancouver and seeing 200 people, all idealists and active volunteers, was a truly wonderful experience. It restored my confidence and my optimism, and I felt embraced by these many wonderful enlightened spirits. The conference and the people I connected with will remain in my thoughts for a long time, and it goes without saying that I will be joining Servas myself.
I started the conference as a writer, but I left as a friend.