Children in Washington travel the world in a day


Children at the sixth annual International Children's Festival at the Ronald Reagan Building joined the Carpathia Folk Dance Ensemble for a Macedonian dance lesson. (SUSAN BIDDLE/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)
May 6, 2012

Bolivia — check. Norway — check. Turkey — check.

“Brunei?” a young boy asked, glancing from his passport to his friends.

Before waiting for an answer, the boy took off across the crowded atrium, his friends trailing behind with their own passports in hand.

No, this is not the opening sequence of an “Amazing Race”-style reality show for kids. This was the scene Sunday afternoon at the Ronald Reagan Building in downtown Washington, where hundreds gathered for the sixth annual International Children’s Festival.

Coinciding with the start of Passport D.C., a three-weekend-long event that allows adults to pop in and out of mansions on Embassy Row, the International Children’s Festival is an opportunity to introduce kids to world geography, traditions, foods, dress and song. Each child received a paper “passport” to collect stamps from 22 participating embassies.

“We want to promote U.S. engagement in the world,” said Sharon Wilkinson of Meridian International Center, which helped organize the festival. “Global awareness should start at a young age.”

The United States led off a parade to start the festival, with children dressed as cowgirls and cowboys marching across a stage to the tune of “It’s a Small World.” Cameras flashed, children screamed and handfuls of cereal streamed across the auditorium. Other countries followed, displaying traditional garb from Kenya, Egypt, El Salvador and Norway.

After the parade, children watched dance and musical performances, made Australian boomerangs and Afghan kites, and sampled Bahraini pastries.

“I think it’s a great opportunity to expand their horizons,” said Shazia Kanani of Vienna, who attended the festival with her husband and two children.

Although her boys — a 5-month-old and a 2-year-old — were too young to participate in many of the activities, Kanani said she was excited to expose them to sounds, colors and flavors from around the world.

“I am Pakistani and my husband is Indian, so it’s important to us to teach our children about tolerance,” Kanani said, noting that her family includes two cultures with strained historical and political relationships.

While there was no lack of tolerance at the upbeat festival, there was, at times, a lack of comprehension.

One embassy volunteer attempting to transliterate American names into Japanese script was stymied by the name “Izzie.”

“Easy?” he asked the mother repeatedly.

And when Jenny McCarthy of Springfield demonstrated to her family that she can speak a bit of Arabic, her 5-, 7-, and 8-year-old kids responded with blank stares. A volunteer from the Saudi Arabian Embassy giggled nearby.

“Events like this help to bring the world closer,” McCarthy said. “It shows them how similar we all are.”

Overall, parents emphasized the importance of exposing their children to diversity.

“Kids need to have a balanced life and they need to have a feel for different cultures,” said Darone Robinson of Upper Marlboro as his wife adjusted the paper crowns provided by the Liechtenstein Embassy on their sons’ heads.

The kids, on the other hand, were more interested in participating than in contemplating the activities’ importance.

“It’s cool,” 12-year-old Amir Kalantary said.

“It’s invaluable,” added his mother, Mojgan Zare.

Talk of world politics and conflicts was decidedly absent from the event. There was no mention of Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng or the United States abandoning plans to open a consulate in Afghanistan. Israel was described as “a fun place to visit.”

The mission of the event, according to organizers, was to show the varied human connections — not the political differences — among cultures.

That, and it gave parents an opportunity to plan their next vacation.

“Fiji,” said Robinson, the dad from Upper Marlboro. His voice was nearly drowned out by the sound of a wailing child across the atrium. “Definitely Fiji.”

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