Festival of Cultures organizer: ‘The lack of diversity in Montana is scary’

Five minutes into a presentation at St. Francis Primary School, a kindergarten student raised her hand to ask if she could count to 10 in her family’s language — Greek.

Evi Saliaris is one of the 3,000 students who took part of Rocky Mountain College’s Peace Institute outreach program at area schools. She happily rattled off the numbers in Greek and was the center of attention for a few minutes in the classroom, the lone student who knew her family’s language.

The lack of diversity in Montana is scary, said Cindy Kunz, director of the Peace Institute. That’s why she and her team of international students from Rocky visit Billings-area schools to share their cultures, showcasing how much we have in common with other cultures. They reach students aged 3 to 18.

The questions aren’t always as innocent as the one from Saliaris was, Kunz said. Older students have asked Benson Koech, a native of Kenya, if he has ever been called the “n” word.

One young girl in another class was so fascinated with the black color of his hands and the lighter brown color of his palms that she asked Koech to marry her, Kunz said.

Koech seems to take it all in stride. He really shines when he talks about his home, but he said he’s happy to be in the U.S. pursuing his education at Rocky. Koech taught students to count to 10 in Swahili, and played a hand drum that was made in Kenya.

Fellow Rocky student Kasra Fasaei, who is from Iran, taught students to count in his native language, Farsi, and he showed them where his country is on a world map.

The students also got a special invite to bring their families to the Festival of Cultures on Peace Sunday, which is June 11, on the Rocky green from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Kunz said the festival is the Peace Institute’s flagship event.

“I see it as an experience. It’s not a lecture. It’s nonstop entertainment featuring nine different groups. You can wander around and sample the LaCucina Italian coffee or some of the other cuisine.”

The festival is free and open to all.

Performers include the Munirah Tribal Dancers from Red Lodge and the Scandinavian Folk Dancers. There are also demonstrations by several groups, including the Peace Corps and NOVA Center for the Performing Arts.

Now in its 24th year, the Festival of Cultures was the brainchild of three visionaries at Rocky who are all gone: Jim Taylor, a registrar at RMC for 34 years; Rocky’s longtime president Arthur DeRosier; and Larry Small, a history professor.

The youngest of Taylor’s seven children, Pete Taylor, is helping keep the tradition of the festival going by serving on the board and as one of the emcees during the festival.

“We feel like it’s important to celebrate the diversity in Billings. We have a lot more in common with other cultures than people sometimes think. It’s important when there is so much trying to divide us. We need to look for ways to bring us together.”

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