Tar Heel of the Week

Tar Heel of the Week: Leila Bekri improves international understanding from a small office in Raleigh

CorrespondentJune 28, 2014 

COREY LOWENSTEIN — clowenst@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

  • Leila B. Bekri

    Born: November 1969, New York, N.Y.

    Residence: Raleigh

    Career: Director, International Visitor Leadership Program, International Focus

    Education: J.D., Faculty of Juridical, Political and Social Sciences of Tunis; master of international relations, N.C. State University

    Family: Son, Aidan

    Fun Fact: English is Bekri’s third language. Her native language is Arabic, and she learned to speak French fluently in school. She says she took English there, too, though she never spoke it regularly until she moved to Raleigh.

— Leila Bekri’s job is to make connections, whether between librarians from Wendell and Poland or entrepreneurs from Europe and Durham.

As director of an exchange program for professionals sponsored by the U.S. State Department, she’s a strong believer in the power of these exchanges – both in sharing ideas professionally between colleagues and in widening personal perspectives.

Bekri is a native New Yorker who spent most of her youth in Tunisia and has traveled widely. Her experience in learning from different cultures informs her work.

“It’s not theoretical,” Bekri says. “The impact is real.”

The International Visitor Leadership Program has drawn more than 200,000 foreign visitors to the United States since its inception in 1940.

They are by and large the leaders of their home communities, professionals and policymakers whose new ideas can be put into practice immediately in their home countries. At least 350 such visitors have gone on to be heads of state or cabinet members, according to the State Department.

In Raleigh, the program was for many years the centerpiece of the International Affairs Council, which was dissolved in November. Within days, Bekri restarted the program as part of International Focus, the nonprofit group that runs the city’s annual International Festival.

Bekri’s office must continually offer proposals to entice the State Department into adding Raleigh to the itinerary for each group. Despite the abrupt change of venue and the need to reapply for federal funds, this year’s schedule is as packed as last year’s, which included 34 programs with a total of 124 visitors.

Melissa Driver Beard, director of International Focus, says Bekri’s professionalism and reputation were crucial to keeping the programs alive through a transition she says was seamless.

“She’s really an institution in herself,” she says. “She has such a way with the visitors and she takes her work so seriously. She put a lot of effort into creating programs that include everything possible that would be relevant, and she is so well-respected in D.C. I’m not sure this would still be going without her.”

Accent on knowledge

Bekri, 44, was born in New York City but moved abroad as a child to Togo, West Africa, because of her father’s job with the United Nations. She spent most of her youth in Tunisia, the home country of her parents.

She says she always felt a pull to return to the United States, which she did in 1998. She came to Raleigh with a law degree from a Tunisian university and what she calls “a survival kit” in English – only the very basics she learned in school.

“I knew just enough to get around,” she says.

She spent a year working on her English, largely through reading and television, before entering graduate school at N.C. State University.

While pursuing a degree in international studies, she landed an internship working with the visitors’ program at the International Affairs Council. A year later, in 2002, she got a full-time job there.

Twelve years later, she says that her strong accent makes her deep knowledge of North Carolina surprising to many people she meets.

Tasked with finding places and people that would provide helpful insights to visiting professionals in a variety of fields, she keeps track of nonprofit groups and universities, local governments, hospitals and schools.

She also maintains a network of local citizens who host the visitors for meals throughout their time here. Bekri says these visits are often as educational as the other sessions.

“When people come here and have genuine interactions, they see our country in a different context,” she says. “They can be more independent in the way they process ideas of America.”

The main purpose of the trips is for foreign leaders to learn from their U.S. counterparts, and vice versa. This might involve panel discussions or lectures at universities, companies or think tanks.

Raleigh is a small part of their tour, encompassing two or three days of their two-week stay. Many come fresh from a week in the nation’s capital and are thrilled with the friendliness and natural beauty of the area.

Often the visitors go home with a new-found appreciation for the power of volunteerism, she says, which many find to be better rooted here than in their own countries.

“The number-one impact is civic engagement, the idea that you don’t need to depend on the government all the time,” she says. “The idea that you can get things done at your own level.”

Quick rebound

Bekri says the closure of the council came as a shock. In addition to the visitors’ program, the nonprofit group sponsored lectures and other cultural activities that its board had decided were no longer viable.

While the cost of the visitors’ program, including Bekri’s salary, is paid for through the State Department, the program needed a base organization with office space to function properly.

International Focus, meanwhile, was a small nonprofit organization that works with 60 international groups throughout the Triangle to put on its annual International Festival in September.

Driver Beard says the group was looking for ways to expand its programming when she got a call from a council board member seeking a home for the visitors’ program and several other initiatives run by Bekri and colleague Maria Adoskina.

She put the group’s strategic planning on hold to focus on incorporating the new programs.

“It really brought the other side of the coin for us,” Driver Beard says. “We’d been working locally with ethnic groups here in Raleigh and this brings the rest of the world to Raleigh.”

The combination has created a tight fit in the International Focus office on Glenwood Avenue, where a group of interns jockeys for space in a central area surrounded by three offices, all decorated with mementos from around the world.

Bekri says she’s seen the visitors’ program ebb and flow over the years because of federal funding and international policy, but she’s glad the closing of the council didn’t cause a major bump.

This month has been packed, with seven groups passing through in the first two weeks of June from countries such as Ecuador and Serbia and a group from the Near East.

In addition to the professional advice, she says the so-called soft diplomacy she’s engaged in helps replace the impressions – not always positive – that foreigners have formed of our country based on television and movies.

“People come here and all they know about is Wall Street and the White House,” she says. “We break those stereotypes.”

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