Y’s Reach Is Global With Fellowship Program


"It’s not an easy thing being a leader,” said Niemat Adam Ahmadi, coordinator of the Darfur Diaspora Association of East Africa, a coalition of organizations that are trying to aid refugees from Darfur and are hoping to take an active role in rebuilding the war-torn province. At times, said Ahmadi, 37, the members and staff of any group could pin their hopes on a particular leader but wind up disappointed — one of her biggest fears.

But Ahmadi, a native of the Sudanese province whose agency is based in Kenya, believes she improved her skills and gained even more confidence through her participation this month in a unique fellowship run by the 92nd Street Y and backed by the Ford Motor Company Fund.

The Ford International Fellowship of the 92nd Street Y, as the program is known, brings to New York close to two dozen fellows each year — young but established professionals who have founded, lead or help to lead non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, in their respective countries. The fellows come from a different set of countries each year, although Israel is always a constant, and the groups they represent are involved in such issues as health care, education, poverty and human rights, said Alison Gardy, the Y’s director of international relations.

To help them in their struggles, Gardy’s department plans a rigorous, three-week schedule for the fellows that includes classes in nonprofit management and leadership development at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs; meetings with corporate leaders, diplomats and nonprofit executives; and visits to ethnic neighborhoods. The fellows, who live together at the Y during their time in New York, also participate in team-building exercises in Central Park, spend two days in Dearborn, Mich., home of the Ford Motor Company, and teach each other about their native lands by preparing and giving country reports.

Ahmadi, a soft-spoken but determined woman with a master’s degree in sustainable development, said in a recent interview that she learned a great deal from other fellows in this year’s program, which ended last week. In addition to Ahmadi, this year’s class — the program’s seventh — included 20 fellows from six countries: Russia, Northern Ireland, Sri Lanka and Costa Rica, as well as Israel and Sudan. The program’s 146 alumni, including this year’s 21 fellows, represent 41 countries.

Muslim by faith, Ahmadi made particular reference to the Jewish community, saying she learned “how they’re close to each other and help each other.” Never before, she added, had she met anyone Jewish.The Y tries to tailor the program to the needs and interests of each participant, Gardy said, scheduling meetings with, say, the leaders of educational organizations for fellows who work in education or sessions at women’s organizations for fellows whose agencies aid women. The fellows, in turn, often react to speakers through the prism of their own background, as became evident during a day of field trips early this month.

Visiting the Doe Fund, for instance, an agency that helps formerly homeless people through programs like Ready, Willing and Able, the fellows listened to George McDonald, the agency’s founder, and peppered him with questions afterward. A 35-year-old man from Costa Rica, a predominantly Catholic country, pointed out that similar work in his land is carried out largely by Catholic groups and asked if the program included any spiritual element. (McDonald’s answer: The Doe Fund is not a faith-based organization, although it does have a “faith in humanity.”) A 30-year-old woman from Russia, where alcohol and drug abuse are huge issues, wanted to know if the agency dealt with the problems of substance abuse. A 36-year-old woman from Sudan, a country which has been ripped apart by war, wondered if the fund offered its clients, many of them traumatized, help with healing.

In addition to the Doe Fund, the fellows that day also visited the James Weldon Johnson Leadership Academy, an elementary and middle school in Harlem; the Community Service Society of New York; and former U.S. Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, now an executive at Citigroup.The Y launched the annual fellowship in 2001 after representatives from the Ford Motor Company, a partner of the Y in several projects, announced their desire to fund an international program for community leaders.

They “would have been happy” to keep the program strictly Jewish, just like one that existed during the 1990s, recalled Gardy, who joined the Y and created its International Relations Department to establish the fellowship. But it was the Y, she added, that pushed for a more diverse program, aimed at all ethnic and religious groups throughout the world.

Some may regard that choice as unusual for a Jewish institution, but Gardy believes the program fits the Y’s mission to reach out to people “from all walks of life.” She also believes it strengthens the Jewish community, creating “a great exchange of common values” and fulfilling “an important component of tikkun olam.”

The program, of course, also exposes up-and-coming leaders from dozens of countries, many of which have no relations with Israel, to Israelis or Jews. Three of this year’s fellows are Jewish: Svetlana Yakimenko, 54, of Russia, director of Project Kesher, which started off as a Jewish women’s organization and now supports dozens of women’s groups throughout the former Soviet Union; Ran Cohen, 31, of Israel, director of a project at Physicians for Human Rights that advocates for migrant workers, refugees and asylum seekers; and an Israeli woman with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee who works for that agency in Russia but whose name can’t be mentioned for security reasons. In addition, four fellows represented Israel: Cohen; the JDC employee; Yousef Abu Jaffar, a Bedouin activist who directs a coalition of three organizations seeking to create educational enrichment programs for Bedouin youth; and Trees Zbidat-Kosterman, a Dutch woman who helps staff an Israeli-Arab woman’s organization in the Galilee.

Those four fellows teamed up to teach other participants about the nature and makeup of Israel, a report that has touched the program’s fellows in past years, Gardy said.

In planning their presentation, Cohen said, the four fellows agreed to discuss Israel’s ethnic communities — “the people of Israel” — rather than the national context. They also decided to avoid talking about national symbols, such as the Israeli flag or anthem, both of which could be divisive, said Cohen, the son of Moroccan Jews who calls himself a Jewish Arab.

Following the presentation, Sanjeeva de Mel, 37, a Sinhala Christian from Sri Lanka, said he discovered that Israel is “a much more pluralistic community than I thought. They have their issues, like everyone else,” he added, likening the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to fighting in his own country between government troops and Tamil separatists.

What impressed Roxana Avila-Harper, 43, of Costa Rica, is that four people of entirely different viewpoints “were able to talk to each other and express their disagreements. I thought that if they could do it, then a country could do it,” she said.