In 1949, Minnesota welcomed a 22-year-old law student named Josef Mestenhauser, a refugee fleeing political persecution in Communist Czechoslovakia. Four years later, he co-founded the organization that today is known as Global Minnesota, a nonpartisan nonprofit dedicated to promoting international understanding through education and citizen diplomacy.
For more than 60 years, Global Minnesota has connected Minnesota communities, educators, schoolchildren, political leaders, business executives, and everyday citizens with visitors from around the world. Thanks to these professional and educational exchanges, international diplomacy happens right here in Minnesota, conducted by Minnesotans, and it makes a meaningful difference in our lives and in the lives of people around the globe.
Today’s ill-conceived barriers place that mission of person-to-person diplomacy at risk, precisely at the moment our nation and our state need it most. In the past year alone, Global Minnesota has hosted dozens of emerging leaders from the Middle East and Africa through the U.S. Department of State’s International Visitor Leadership Program.
Minnesota journalists and social-media specialists have met with their Middle Eastern counterparts to discuss the First Amendment and protection of free speech.
Arab women leaders from government and non-profit sectors shared strategies with local organizations working to address youth radicalization and learned about judicial and legislative practices that protect women and children.
Iraqi and Sudanese disability advocates discussed how Minnesota’s public and private sectors respond to the need for greater accessibility.
Middle Eastern and North African security officers responsible for their countries’ cooperation in the global effort to combat international crime shared best practices with Minnesota law enforcement and justice officials.
Under the new travel restrictions announced by the Trump administration this week, many of these valuable exchanges would never have taken place. We would certainly never have been able to host the group of Iraqi women parliamentarians who at this very moment are applying the knowledge they gained in Minnesota to promote women’s political participation in Iraq. Nor would we have been able to host the two inspiring “International Women of Courage” award winners who visited Minnesota in April, a Yemeni lawyer who is drafting her country’s new constitution, and an Iraqi physician working to heal the physical and psychological wounds of Yazidi women brutalized by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.
We are better, stronger, and, yes, safer because of our personal engagement with these individuals — through the friendships we’ve forged, the knowledge we’ve gained, and the values we’ve shared.
Global Minnesota, together with our many members and supporters, will continue to reject the pessimism and fear that tempt us to shut ourselves off from the world. Minnesota’s gift to the world — and to ourselves — will continue to be the enthusiastic and optimistic engagement that builds bridges and opens doors, and says to international visitors, researchers, refugees, scholars, business partners, and immigrants: “Welcome, friends.”
Carol Engebretson Byrne is president and Tim Odegard is program director of Global Minnesota.