I’ve been connected in some way to Rotary International, the global service organization, for more than a decade now. Often, at Rotary events and in the meetings or conferences I’ve attended, we discuss our “Rotary moment”—when we understood ourselves to be part of one big human family. (If Rotary has taught me anything, it is that we are not just citizens of one country; we are also citizens of the world.) It’s hard for me to pinpoint just one Rotary moment, but I like the idea because finding a moment is often how a story begins.
I first heard about Rotary in 2008. I was at a choir performance at an old church in Glasgow. (That’s where I lived just before coming to the United States.) My friend’s mother, who also happened to be the city commissioner, told me about an opportunity that had come through her inbox: a project that was being led by a Rotary district in Scotland. They were looking for four professionals who could attend a 2009 group study exchange initiative in Colombia. I knew my friend’s mom professionally, in my work for the city museums, where I had already become interested in peacebuilding and storytelling projects with my colleagues on the European continent and in the Middle East. I had an obvious interest in international projects, so it seemed like a good fit.
My work on social inclusion, refugee support, diversifying communities, and arts and culture caught Rotary’s interest, and I was chosen to participate. I met Ian Geddes, a local schoolteacher who had been the district governor for the Rotary district. I immediately recognized Ian as a quintessential Scot who loved drinking Scotch whisky and playing golf. He was older than me, white, with children about my age. As a high school language teacher, he spoke fluent Spanish, which is why he had been assigned to lead the group. Having lived in Spain previously, I could speak some Spanish as well. But never as well as Ian.
As my friendship with Ian developed, we met regularly to plan the Colombia trip. There were five of us. One of our tasks was to ready presentations, and Ian helped us translate them all into Spanish, which we practiced out loud in our living rooms on weekends, either at my top floor tenement flat in Glasgow or in his house just outside of Edinburgh. During our month-long trip, we were going to be presenting almost every day and at large conferences. It was sure to be intense.
The five of us met at Edinburgh airport and were off to Bogotá, via New York City, for what I can only describe as a series of Rotary moments.
When we arrived, we were met by host families who would offer their hospitality over the course of the trip. Almost every day we had a meeting with Rotarian or Colombian officials. We had dinner on the lawn of the army barracks to meet government officials and people from nonprofit educational groups that were working to help minimize the recent conflicts in Colombia. We visited a very remote village positioned within a mountain forest region, where Rotarians delivered a mini-library of books by backpack. (Their school, a hut, reminded me of the hut that my mother went to school in as a little girl, in a town called Tororo on the Kenya/Uganda border.) In another village, I remember watching some kids dance to a Punjabi song on the radio; it’s amazing how music (and stories, for that matter) can travel to different corners of the world! On one occasion I’ll never forget, we had just presented in Spanish at a Rotary district conference in a region called Ibague. They had found a Scottish flag and played the Scottish national anthem for us. Ian and I, the two men in the group wearing kilts, became like rockstars for the day! There was so much camaraderie, and it was so much fun. We were on tour, so to speak, giving talks, meeting people, going to Rotary groups, exchanging ideas, and spreading goodwill. It was a fascinating and beautiful experience.
We learned a lot about the political situation in Colombia, which has one of the highest internally displaced people (IDP) rates in the world. (An IDP is someone who is forced to flee their home, but technically remains within his or her country’s borders—so a form of refugee practically, if not legally.) According to the UN refugees agency at that time, there were nearly 3 million. These were everyday people: farmers from rural communities who were looking for a better life in the city, or sometimes people who were running from paramilitary conflicts. With Rotarians as our guides, we were able to better understand the complexities of the situation for each individual and family. We visited the homes of many makeshift communities that dotted the hills around the capital city. We were invited to drink delicious coffee in some of these makeshift settlement homes in the hills surrounding Bogota, which is one of the highest mountain capital cities in Latin America. We listened to their stories, and they listened to ours. They were interested not just in Scotland, but in my family’s story, and how my parents had once fled persecution and become refugees.
About three weeks into our trip, we were travelling on a hired minibus through rural Colombia—just the five of us and our driver. Ian started to complain of stomach pains. It was starting to dawn on us how removed we were from our contacts in the city, and just how remote our location really was. Eventually we found a village with a small hospital. I used my broken Spanish, and luckily another team member was a nurse practitioner. She and I worked together to communicate to the medical staff—and also to Ian, who was by then in agony. (The other two team members tracked down food since none of us had eaten all day.) We discovered that the hospital was short-staffed, and they didn’t have the appropriate facilities anyway. It quickly became obvious that we needed to get Ian to a larger hospital.
We located one within an hour’s drive, and then took a moment to evaluate our situation. It was going to get dark very soon. Colombia was much safer than it used to be, but there was still some paramilitary activity in these remote regions. Our environment was totally unfamiliar to us. We had nowhere to stay, but we certainly couldn’t leave Ian behind. He was our team leader. Since he was sick, we each had to assume our own leadership role. Mine was to make phone calls while two members of the team stayed with the van. Eventually we managed to get in touch with a Rotarian from a neighboring district. She was clearly someone important, because as soon as she turned up, the hospital opened its doors to her. She was someone influential who could thankfully negotiate with doctors and the hospital staff.
Finally, a diagnosis came in: Ian had appendicitis. Bogotá was three hours away by car, and that was the only place where Ian could get the emergency treatment he needed. We organized a taxi that could transport him safely along the bumpy roads to Bogotá. While he had surgery, we made our way to the next stop, a small village community where we planned to stay the night. All through our presentations and talks and meetings, we stayed abreast of Ian’s progress by phone. And we continued to do so over the next week, as we finished the rest of the planned tour without our leader. (I kept in touch with Olive, Ian’s wife, who was back in Scotland. She was, understandably, worried sick.) By the time we made our way back to Bogotá, Ian was in good spirits—and his appendix was in a jar! After we returned to Scotland he presented me with a special pin named in honor of the founder of Rotary, given in honor of humanitarian service. In this case, it was for being part of the team that had saved Ian’s life.
Over time, my personal relationship with Ian and his wife Olive grew stronger. We met when we could for lunch or coffee, or I would stop by if I was passing near their home. Ian was the one who suggested that I apply for the Rotary Peace Fellowship. It would require serious commitment—moving to another country and dedicating myself fully to the peace community. The process took almost a year, but eventually I was ready to leave for North Carolina. I was accepted into the folklore program at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, with a combined program of study on peace and conflict resolution at Duke. At the time, I hadn’t yet learned that when you’re studying at rival schools, travelling between both campuses would be a sort of peace initiative in itself—especially once I became a Tar Heel!
In Scotland, it was a series of emotional goodbyes to friends. I planted a tree for my goddaughters, and made a toast to Scotland for serving as my home. I still remember something that a poet friend of mine said when I left: “You came to Scotland on a whim, but now you leave as a Son of Scotland. Do us proud.” I traveled to North Carolina, where I stayed with a host family—Rotarians, of course.
Through my time studying in North Carolina until I moved to Tennessee to work at the International Storytelling Center, I stayed in touch with Ian and Olive. We continued to meet up at Rotary conferences, and I would visit anytime I was back in Scotland.
Olive, who once served as District Governor in Rotary, was instrumental in nominating me for a Champion of Peace award. I was recognized as one of six of Rotary’s 1.2 million members at the United Nation’s Geneva office on Rotary Day, 2017, which was part of Geneva Peace Week—the world’s largest humanitarian gathering. There were more than 1,000 organizations represented in the audience when I presented on storytelling, but as I was speaking, I was still able to spot Ian and Olive, who were sitting near the front. I hadn’t been sure they would be able to attend. By that time Ian had been diagnosed with cancer and had retired from teaching high school. He was giving foreign language tours of his local whisky distillery—meeting new people, speaking their language, inviting them into his home. He was a Rotarian through and through.
We met up for the last time about a week later, at a café. It was a short visit to see friends and family in the UK. Ian died about eight weeks later. I booked a last-minute flight to the funeral in a daze.
Ian had always been the storyteller, but this time we were the ones sharing stories about his life. After the funeral, we headed to a local hotel. Over crispy Edinburgh Rolls filled with link sausages and brown sauce and big pots of tea, we exchanged even more stories about Ian. By now everyone had heard about my adventure with Ian in Colombia.
Ian made such an impact on my life, as a friend, a mentor, and Rotarian. He wholeheartedly embodied the values of the organization, spreading goodwill, peace, and understanding wherever he went. And on a more personal level, he encouraged me to follow my dreams. Recently I joined my local Rotarian chapter in Tennessee in his honor. On reflection, I think my Rotary moment gave me more than just a story; it has also given me my life’s work.
Read more about when Kiran Singh Sirah was honored as a “Champion of Peace” by Rotary International at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland.