Maya Duratovic is a true connector — not just of Idaho professionals but business leaders from across the world.
As a board member with Global Ties Idaho and manager of the Boise State University English department, Duratovic has brought groups of international visitors to enjoy the beauty of the Gem State and make valuable connections.
Thanks to the work of Duratovic and her colleagues, this summer BSU hosted the prestigious Mandela Washington Fellowship — a program for African professionals with a lower acceptance rate than Harvard University.
Duratovic recently sat down with the Idaho Business Out Loud podcast to discuss the value of cultural exchange for both the international visitors and Boise’s business community.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You are very involved in programs to bring international professionals to the Boise area for cultural exchange and learning. Can you start off by telling us how you got into that?
About three years ago, I applied for a grant with Boise City Arts and History Department to teach Bosnian cooking classes. I’ve been involved with the Bosnian community since 1997 when my family moved here as refugees.
We have a Bosnian cultural center, a nonprofit organization, so we’ve done lots of different activities throughout the years. This grant came about, and me and my friends thought it would be really fun to teach Bosnian cooking classes to the community. So we were doing that, and I got a call from Carole Schroeder, the executive director of the Idaho Council for National Visitors. We changed our name to Global Ties Idaho.
She told me about a group of international visitors that wanted to come to the cooking class. They came and there were a group of people from all over Europe that were working on refugee issues and how to integrate refugees into their communities in Europe. They wanted to talk to us about how the United States has been doing that for the Bosnian community.
After that experience, I talked to Carole and told her my interests in international affairs, which is really hard to get into in Boise because we don’t have a lot of that. That sector doesn’t really exist here. She asked me to become a board member, and I’ve been on the board since then, and we work with the state department where our ambassadors in different countries choose leaders that are going to be the next presidents, prime ministers of their communities, countries. They come to the United States for a three-week program where they go to a small, medium or large city and learn about the different things that they work on in their countries.
For example, these refugee professionals came to explore how we deal with that here in Boise. It’s an amazing program that brings in, like I said, emerging leaders and, for example, Margaret Thatcher went through the program when she was younger and lots of different heads of state from around the world, so it’s been around for many years.
Recently, Boise State hosted a very prestigious program, the Mandela Washington Fellows, a group of African professionals. Can you tell us about that program?
Yes, that program is also run through the (U.S.) State Department and the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. There are about 38,000 Africans that apply from the 49 Sub-Saharan countries, and 700 are selected. It’s harder to get into this program that it is to get into Harvard. The 700 fellows are split into groups of 25, and then universities in the United States apply to be the ones to host them.
Through Global Ties Idaho, the organization I just told you about, I found out about this opportunity to apply. A friend of mine, Margaret Bundy, and I were sitting about my kitchen table one day, looking at some emails. I saw this opportunity, and I said, “Oh, wouldn’t this be amazing if we applied?” She’s like, “Yes, let’s do it!” but I knew that it was a grant that was really hard to get, and so I was more skeptical than she was, but she was very optimistic and we worked with the university administration and applied for the grant.
I don’t think a lot of people thought we would get it because it is so prestigious and hard to get, but we worked really hard and we were one of the best proposals, so we won. We were one of 27 universities in the United States that hosted them, and we are in the ranks with Dartmouth and UC Davis and all of these other great universities that do this program.
Our track was public management, so we worked with Idaho Power and St. Luke’s. The Boise Chamber of Commerce was our number one connection. They were ready to share this with so many people in the community and get us connected to any kind of businesses we wanted to connect them with.
But since most of our fellows were doctors and lawyers and people that were working with community issues and community building, we didn’t get to work with a lot of businesses, but nonprofit organizations.
There are different components of the grant. One is cultural exchanges, one is set visits where we go visit different places in town that do the same things that the fellows do back home, like we took them to the Women’s and Children’s Alliance. Another component is volunteering, so we had them volunteer at the Shakespeare Festival and the Kiwanis Breakfast that we have in town, so they really got to see a variety of things in Boise.
What were some of the highlights of the fellows’ visit to Idaho?
Before they came, talking to other community members, I told them that we can’t compete with UC Davis and other universities that can take them to Lake Tahoe or New York, but I know that we can compete on the heart. Boise’s got heart. Our community is so welcoming and so ready to embrace and learn about different cultures because we don’t have a lot of that here, and so the highlight to me was the connections that the fellows made with the community members.
One of the most exciting things for them was that we had them go to home-hosted meals every Tuesday night. The first week, we split them up in groups of four, and the first week, one of the community members that hosted them, Dan, was asking me, “What kind of things are they going to do while they’re here?” He’s like, “Well, you’re not taking them to Lucky Peak to go boating.” I said that is logistically (challenging), and it’s expensive and we don’t have a boat. And he’s like, “Well, what if I made that happen?” So he rented a boat with his own funds and got some of his friends together.
We had like three boats, and we took them out on the lake, and that was just so amazing to know that that happened just because the community wanted it to happen, and the fellows enjoyed the water so much. To be able to do something like that was very special to them.
Another thing that they enjoyed was the rodeo. We took them to Idaho City. They were like cowboys all day with hats and cowboy gear. Another thing that we did was, of course, float the Boise River, and that was fun.
I imagine one of the great features of this is that the learning goes both ways. Their visit enriches Boise as much as it enriches the people who come here.
From the beginning, we wanted our community to know that, like you said, the learning goes both ways, and the U.S. State Department’s goal is for our communities to learn about different communities as well. One of the reasons I think also that they chose Boise was because we don’t get a chance to meet people from around the world as much as, say people in D.C., so we were the prime fit for this kind of program. Boise definitely learned a lot from them.
For example, when we were volunteering at the Kiwanis Breakfast, I saw some ladies and they were like talking. I don’t know if I was eavesdropping, but I heard them say, “Oh, look at those refugees. They’re volunteering.” I just wanted to educate them, not that there’s anything wrong with refugees because I’m one myself. But I wanted them to learn that there are people in these communities that are working on making their homes better, and so I approached them and said, “Actually, they’re here through the Mandala Washington Fellowship, and they’re here learning how we deal with public management so that they can go back home and work on those issues in their communities so that we don’t see as many refugees here and that people don’t have to flee their homes.” And I think people here in Boise learned from the fellows.
The fellows came here to learn about how we deal with our energy, how we deal with poverty, how we deal with health, and take some of those things back to their homes and not just get aid from the different countries around the world for Africa to become prosperous. They know that that’s how they have to work through these things to improve their countries.
And as far as the fellows, they did a survey at the end of the fellowship, and they’re asked if their time here has given them a different perception of the American society and people. Eighty-seven percent said that it has changed their view of what America is all about and what Americans are like.
To add to that, one of the visitors with Global Ties Idaho that I had from Romania, I talked to her and was like, “How do you feel about being sent to Idaho of all the places in America that you can go to? Were you sad that you had to come to Idaho?” She said “No, not at all, because I can go to San Francisco by myself, but Idaho is one place that I wouldn’t choose to go on my own.”
Actually, she said her friends were telling her, “Oh, you’re going to America. It’s an awful place. Everybody’s awful there. They’re rude. They’re mean.” And she said, “Being in Boise has totally changed my mind on that.” She’s going back home and she’s saying that, “When I go home, I’m so excited to tell everyone that the perception that we see on TV is not real, that Americans are great people.”
When you think about the ripple effect of these visitors and the different things that they get to experience here, it’s so cliche to say but it is building a better world and peace in the world. Being able to show them how much we volunteer here and how much we’re willing to help so many people in our circles, it really gives international visitors the real picture of what it’s like to be here in America.
What other groups have been coming here to Boise? What other projects have you worked on?
We get a lot of groups that are working as refugee coordinators, diversity. We have politics and government because it’s a lot easier for us to get a meeting with Dave Bieter than it is to get one with the mayor of Boston. We get arts and culture, so we visit the Shakespeare festival and Morrison Park and we work with the Global Lounge group that organizes World Village Festival. Those are some of the themes that we get, so we have to find appointments. We get lots of natural resources, disaster preparedness, so then when they come here we have them meet with people who do similar things during the day, and in the afternoons we have them meet regular people for drinks or dinner and show them around our town and always take them to see the sunset at Camel’s Back. Everybody enjoys that.
We had a group that was adventurous enough to go on the mountain rollercoaster in Bogus in the wintertime. I said, “You guys go, I’ll be here with the camera, but I am not going.”
What can the business community, the nonprofit community — what can we do to support this effort?
We would love to have more followers on our Facebook page, Global Ties Idaho, and through that we share the different groups that come through, and if anyone is interested in meeting people from India or from Japan or from Cambodia, we post which groups are coming through and ways for people to get involved. Also, sometimes it’s difficult for us to get appointments with organizations in town that do these things because they don’t think we are a legitimate organization because it sounds so like something you would do in New York, not something you would do in Boise. If the business community gets a call from us, please know that we are real.
Do you share some of the stories and photos on your social media page, so we can take a look and see what happened or what’s coming up?
Yeah, that’s on Mandela Washington social media page on Facebook, and Global Ties is a separate Facebook page.
It sounds like businesses can help put you in touch with who you need because it is very specific to the industry that each visitor is a part of, right?
Exactly, and also just time spent with visitors is so important and crucial. We love to find people that are willing to meet us for drinks or go to Camel’s Back or take someone shopping in Boise, just random things that you would normally do here, but doing it with someone that is from out of town, you learn a lot about where they come from and you also learn about how we function as a society through the way that they talk about how things are different in their countries.
It’s true, you’ve got a completely different perspective of things that we maybe take for granted or consider normal.
Yeah, just recently we had a visitor from Japan, and they were telling me how, for example, visitors in China and Japan don’t understand that we’re so decentralized with our government. For example, the police chief doesn’t have to report to anyone in the federal government, and to them, they can’t imagine that because everything is so centralized, and talking about if that’s effective.
So the thing that stood out for me the most about the fellows is their positivity, resilience and tenacity in spite of the enormous challenges that they’re working to fix. They are all in their 20s and 30s, and you’d think that by now they’d become jaded because so many things are still not getting fixed: poverty and the health issues that they’re working on. But it just amazes me to see how motivated they are to keep going and do good things for their communities and make change.
An example — one of the fellows, after visiting the Idaho Food Bank, she asked me a question that I just couldn’t believe. She asked, “Can you tell me if the United States has ever gone through something that was devastating to the country, and everybody was affected and the people didn’t have food and things like that?” I was like, “Yeah, the Great Depression was awful, and everybody was affected by that.” I was like, “Why did you ask me that question?” She said, “You know, I want to know that our countries can get past the bad times and become what the United States has become.” And that was just so mind-blowing to me, and it was good to have that conversation with her.
Yeah, I imagine that inspiration, it carries over to people interacting.
It is infectious. One of the members in our community actually is still trying to help one of the fellows. He works in Uganda on the border of South Sudan, and they’re still going through a civil war, so he works as a doctor in a refugee camp, and he doesn’t have any electricity. He’s working with this lady from Boise now that is interested in helping him build solar panels so that he can have electricity. His clinic runs on generators, and he doesn’t always have access to enough fuel to run them. And what he has to do is take his medicine from the fridges during the day and put them into a freezer at night so that it can stay good, and then he puts it back out when he turns on the generator, so you could imagine the hardship that provides for him to be able to provide health care to the community.
So, there is some long-term collaboration that comes out of this as those connections are made?
Of course, and the fellows were really impressed by our agriculture in Boise, and they’re looking at maybe doing different things.
Yeah, it will be interesting to see what kinds of things come out of this and their collaborations with the people that they’ve met here. One of the biggest supporters, like I said, has been the Boise Chamber of Commerce. They had the fellows’ flags on their digital board out there for the entire month. People could see them. They invited us to one of their receptions. They hosted us at a baseball game, and through that, we were able to meet other businesses. St. Alphonsus, they hosted the fellows for an entire day. It’s really nice to see that people in Boise are interested in helping in any way they can.
What’s the next visit that’s happening?
Just this morning, I was working on a group that’s supposed to be coming I think October 3rd. We don’t have the bios yet on who they are, but it’s about diversity and inclusion, so it’s a group from multiple countries.