Opinion: Opening your mind and heart to other cultures is good for the soul

Allali is a leadership coach and a member of the San Diego Union-Tribune Community Advisory Board.

Mark Conrad lived in San Diego for 38 years, but was born into a large Mennonite farming family during the Great Depression in Oregon. He was raised to take the commandments of God very seriously. This included being a pacifist to avoid taking the lives of others. Humility, community, religious life and the simple life, placing the needs of others above his own, these were all his values.

In November, Conrad and his wife traveled to San Diego, and my family invited them to dinner for their favorite Algerian dish, couscous. Conrad brought photos and articles to remember the good time he spent in Algeria. He told me the story of his life.

His story and many others continue to be essential to human existence, they connect us to the universal truth about ourselves and the people around us, they help us find commonalities with others. Through stories, we share joys, difficulties, fears and sorrows, and bond with others.

In 1954, Conrad began his PAX (meaning peace, and similar to the Peace Corps) experience in Germany and Algeria. PAX was organized by the Mennonite Central Committee to bring relief and development to people around the world. “It was an enriching and life-changing experience, learning about other cultures and religions opened my mind and heart,” Conrad told me.

Conrad was first sent to northern Germany, near Hamburg, to build homes for Prussian Mennonite refugees who had fled Russia and East Germany during World War II. Hamburg was the site of a horrific bomb attack in 1943, in which as many as 43,000 people were killed in just a few days.

After a year in Germany, Conrad was asked to consider traveling to Algeria to help with reconstruction after a 6.7 magnitude earthquake hit near the town of Chlef, killing more than 1,000 people. “I thought it was an honor that they chose to ask me, and it was time for me to try another experiment,” recalls Conrad.

Conrad traveled by ship to Algeria. There were already three PAX members who started the Algerian project, Wayne Lapp from Montana, Walter Smeltzer from Ohio and Robert Weaver from Pennsylvania. Conrad and Weaver became lifelong friends.

The ethnic Algerians were at war with the French at this time. This eventually led to Algeria’s independence from France in 1962. Not only was there an ongoing war, but many hurdles had to be overcome in order to serve productively in Algeria. As part of the first PAX crew in Algeria, they had a steep learning curve.

Conrad and the PAX members completed the work of hauling and demolishing rocks to create a rocky road to the small village where they planned to build homes. When they attempted to start building the first house, they were ordered by the French landowner to stop. The PAX program moved the project to another city, where they built 33 houses. Weaver and Wayne were the main medics, and the locals began bringing children and animals to them for healing.

At the start of their stay in Algeria, Conrad said, “We didn’t have a vehicle, although we had an electric wheelbarrow, which we used to transport stones and bring water about 800 meters from our tents. They walked and hitchhiked when needed to the larger town, about 25 miles from their tents. There was little traffic to catch rides in town. Sometimes they had to walk all the way.

Their stay in Algeria ended in June 1956, and in the years that followed, Conrad and Weaver always wanted to return to Algeria and visit their previous work sites.

In 2009 Conrad met my husband, Imam Taha Hassane of the Islamic Center of San Diego when he was invited to speak at the First United Methodist Church in San Diego. After his presentation on Islam, Conrad mentioned that he had been to Algeria, and learned that Hassane was from the province where he had served in PAX.

“My wife and I invited Hassane and her family to come to our house for lunch and sailing,” recalls Conrad. “We were invited to their homes and other gatherings with their friends and for several Muslim and Algerian holidays.”

When Hassane suggested coming back and coming back after 50 years, Conrad, Weaver, and Richard Hess of Pennsylvania, who was part of the fourth wave of Pax members assigned to Algeria, loved the idea. And in June 2011, with Hassane, Conrad, Weaver and Hess, they returned to Algeria.

Conrad said Hassane made most of the plans and contacts, “helping us get visas, a rental van, an itinerary and accommodation.”

A highlight of the trip was visiting most of the places they had lived during their stay in Algeria. They brought booklets of photos taken 50 years earlier to help explain to local people in French and Arabic who they were and why they were there. The reactions of local Algerians to the booklet, seeing them again and recognizing them created surprise and joy.

It was moving. “We laughed, we cried, we were grateful to see each other again and realize that our efforts were appreciated and used even after 50 years,” Conrad revealed.

And it helped recognize our common humanity. There were good conversations, time to listen to others and openly asked questions for greater understanding, empathy and respect, time to drive, eat and make new friendships.

Of the trip, Weaver said, “Our trip back to Algeria was probably my best trip and I’ve had many good trips. I know it had something to do with “coming home”. It also had to do with traveling with Hassane and staying in the different family homes. It is a trip that I will never forget and that I relive often.

Conrad ended our conversation with this beautiful reminder:

“I was often told as a child that there is more happiness in giving than in receiving. My experience through the PAX program and volunteering confirmed this. Listen, expose yourself to other cultures and give of your time and of yourself if possible. Spreading peace and goodwill leads to a more peaceful world. Take every opportunity to immerse yourself in another culture or learn about the beliefs of others.