An Eid Reminder: The Power of Citizen Diplomacy

On July 12, I had the privilege of opening a diplomatic reception U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry hosted in honor of Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting, prayer, contemplation, and charity. The reception’s theme was “citizen diplomacy” -- private citizens working to strengthen relationships and make a positive impact with people and communities around the world. 

During his official remarks, Secretary Kerry underscored that citizen diplomats “are essential partners beyond our borders,” sharing their talents in so many ways -- “as artists, students, scientists, businesspeople, and more.” My friend and colleague Evan Ryan also underscored this point. As Assistant Secretary for Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA), Evan oversees the State Department’s wide array of academic, cultural, private sector, professional, youth, and sports exchange programs, which involve 55,000 participants annually. Because of her outstanding ECA team, citizen diplomacy is an integral part of our foreign policy. 

Our special guest that evening was Mandy Patinkin. A distinguished actor known for his memorable roles on Broadway, in films, and on television, Patinkin is an outspoken advocate for welcoming refugees from Syria, victims of the worst humanitarian catastrophe since World War II. Patinkin recounted his work with the International Rescue Committee center on the Greek island of Lesbos, where he helped pull ashore the rubber rafts overcrowded with families fleeing war and violence. This encounter moved him, making him recall his own family’s escape from Nazi-controlled Poland and the Russian pogroms. At the reception, Patinkin called upon our shared sense of humanity to “care more and to do more,” urging attendees to consider their individual roles in confronting this challenge.  He exemplifies what it means to be a citizen diplomat, and were truly honored that he and his wife, Kathryn Grody, were able to attend. 

The U.S. Government continues to do more to aid refugees and displaced people around the world. In addition to highlighting the power of citizen diplomacy, Secretary Kerry announced that the State Department will meet President Obama’s goal of welcoming 10,000 Syrian refugees to the United States this fiscal year. He also announced that the United States is providing nearly $439 million in additional lifesaving humanitarian assistance for those affected by the war in Syria, bringing U.S. totals to nearly $5.6 billion since the start of the crisis.

Citizen diplomacy has been central to my work as Special Representative to Muslim Communities including through delegations of business people, religious leaders, and civil society representatives who have traveled around the world to advance issues ranging from free trade to human rights. At the Seventh Annual Global Entrepreneurship Summit, which President Obama hosted in Silicon Valley last month, I met Yasmine El Baggari, a young Moroccan entrepreneur and founder of Voyaj, a platform that makes citizen diplomacy a reality by connecting hosts and travelers worldwide to provide meaningful exchanges. Recently, Assistant Secretary Ryan invited me to meet with 600 high school students in the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study (YES) Program, which ECA administers. Hailing from over 40 countries and territories, YES students came to the United States for an academic year of study, leadership building, and cross-cultural understanding. In doing so, they also became ambassadors for their countries, and their presence touched the lives of their hosts, their schools, and their broader communities.

I first witnessed the transformative power of citizen diplomacy many years ago through my previous work at the Department of Homeland Security, where I helped establish the Transatlantic Initiative with then Member of Parliament Sadiq Khan -- now the Mayor of London. The program brought a delegation of American Muslims to the United Kingdom to meet with their British Muslim counterparts.  Mayor Khan referenced the importance of such cross-cultural interactions in a video message, which he graciously sent us for the Eid Reception.   

Every day, in the United States and around the world, citizen diplomats are shattering stereotypes and advancing shared interests. This Eid Reception was an important reminder of their role as indispensable partners who believe they not only have the right, but also the responsibility to reach across cultures, bridge divides, and strengthen our shared humanity.  

About the Author: Shaarik H. Zafar serves as as the Special Representative to Muslim Communities at the U.S. Department of State.



Altamash M.
Illinois, USA
July 27, 2016
Excellent work Shaarik. Looking forward to many more inclusive events & citizen diplomacy.
Posted by Shaarik Zafar
July 14, 2016


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