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Long Island’s Friendship Force celebrates cultures with food, fun

From left: Juan Rodriguez, 18, Juan Plata, 17,

From left: Juan Rodriguez, 18, Juan Plata, 17, Luana Coelho, 16, and Irene Moral, 15, eat and share ideas at the Friendship Force Long Island event in Woodbury on Sunday, March 5, 2017. Credit: Jeff Bachner

More than 100 people gathered Sunday in Woodbury to celebrate international friendship, sharing stories and sampling foods from all across the globe.

From Brazilian pao de queijo and paper-thin French crepes, to Taiwanese tea eggs, the eclectic spread reflected the many nationalities and cultures represented at the Sunday luncheon in honor of World Friendship Day and nonprofit Friendship Force’s 40th anniversary.

Friendship Force, an international cultural organization founded in 1977, seeks to promote peace by bringing people together through travel exchanges.

“You break down the barriers between the politics of countries,” said Sheila Ziegler, a board member of the Long Island chapter. “It’s all about people. . . . We don’t want to just see buildings and museums when we travel.”

Members believe that seeing a country through the eyes of its natives changes the way a person experiences the world. The Long Island chapter hosts members from Friendship Force’s 370 international clubs, and in turn, has traveled to a growing list of nations including Costa Rica, Japan, Latvia and Azerbaijan.

Board president Ivan Ziegler, 70, said that spending a week in another person’s home was both a bonding and learning experience. “Even though you come from different countries, you really deal with the same issues,” Ziegler, of Melville, said.

More than 25 teenage foreign exchange students attended the Sunday program. All are attending Long Island schools through a program organized by International Student Exchange, a Bay Shore-based nonprofit. For most students, it’s their first introduction to American culture and they stay at least one academic semester.

Juan Rodriguez, 18, originally from Mexico, said that he embraced the opportunity to experience American life and make friends from all over the world.

“Even though Mexico is so close to the U.S., it’s a huge difference culturally, and with school, food, everything,” said Rodriguez, who’d inquired into local colleges here.

Hugo Athimon, 17, said he’d found Long Island residents friendlier than those of his native country, France, though the food did not compare. He said he’s hoping to discover the country and improve his English skills during his time in Center Moriches.

Host parents said that student exchanges were also an educational opportunity for them. Centereach residents Michele and Bill McNaughton said that though they’d expected to learn about different cultures, they’d also grown as individuals.

Multiple hosts also remarked that after months of care, parting was a difficult process. “When you bring children into your home, you’re giving your heart to them,” said 88-year-old Rose Milillo of Huntington.

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