An Interview with Helga Smith: Servas Traveller, Marathon Runner and Conqueror of Mount Kilimanjaro
I had a chance to meet Helga recently at the Servas Conference that I covered in Vancouver. Once you read Helga’s story you’ll realize why she has been included in a recent book called “Women Who Rock”, featuring the stories of women who have made outstanding contributions to business, sports or community endeavours.
Originally from East Germany, Helga escaped to the West in 1963 and came to New York City a few years later. Without much help, she raised three children, completed a university degree and successfully established herself in the United States.
Helga has volunteered for a variety of non-profit organizations, inspired others to get active by running marathon races and climbed Mount Kilimanjaro to raise funds to help African women start their own small businesses. Here is Helga’s fascinating story:
1. Please tell us about your background. Where are you from, where did you grow up?
I grew up in a country that does not exist anymore, East Germany. Life was not much fun after WWII and it did not improve when the communists took over in 1948. Since I lived close to West Berlin, there was the constant reminder that life can be different. In those of us, who were not willing to resign ourselves to the limitations of the communist regime, it fostered a rebellion and the urge to throw off the chains.
2. You left East Germany in 1963, 2 years after the Berlin Wall was erected. Please tell us about your escape from East Germany.
When the Wall was built it became nearly impossible to leave the country. If caught, the penalty for escaping from East Germany at the time was 6 years in prison. But I was single with no binding obligations, so I was willing to take a chance. I scouted out several possibilities and finally got onto a train which passed locked thru East Germany, stopped in East Berlin to let on foreigners and went to West Berlin before being locked again for the second passage thru East Germany to West Germany. I hid in the train and saw the border police passing by inches away from me. Destiny must have been on my side because the police did not detect me and I made it to West Berlin.
The beginning in West Berlin was not easy since I had nothing, knew nobody and the official help offered was barely enough to get one outfit to go on a job search. Well, I did get a job, found an apartment and basically was on my way.
3. A few years after you left East Germany you came to the United States, to New York City. Please tell us about the first few years in the United States.
Now that I was free to make my own decisions, the opportunity arose to come to the United States. The fact that I did not speak any English did not deter me. Indeed, it did make it a bit more difficult, but challenges are there to make us grow.
I took a job as a domestic, learned English as quickly as I could, made friends and a year later started working in an office. Soon after, I married an American and we had three children during the next five years. By that time my husband decided he did not want a family after all and I was single again. Life became challenging once more. To feed the children, I had to go on welfare for a while. But I also attended school, and as soon as I had an associate degree I started to work again. This time I took a job at a major financial institution and stayed with them for more than 20 years in a variety of positions. Along the way I acquired specialized computer skills that allowed me to support my children thru college. My daughter graduated from Harvard Law School and works for International Development. My son attended Fordham University and lives in New York with his Ecuadorian wife. Both of them are recognized and respected graffiti artists, famous for murals in their neighborhood, the City and around the world.
Israeli-Palestinian peace quilt
4. How and when did you hear about Servas? What countries have you traveled to through Servas? How many people from what countries have you hosted? In your opinion, what is special about traveling through Servas?
My children were still teenagers when on a Sunday afternoon hike I met a “little old lady traveling with a knapsack”* who told me about Servas. It sounded interesting, but I did not have the time or money to travel myself, so I decided to become a host and let travelers come to me. Several years later, having hosted dozens of people from many different countries, I became really eager to travel myself.
If it had not been for Servas, I do not know whether I ever would have had the courage to visit other countries on my own. But once I started, it quickly became a fascination and my urge to travel was dampened only by financial constraints and the brief annual vacation employees receive in the US. During the 20 years I have been a Servas member I have hosted hundreds of people and traveled to more than 50 countries, visiting Servas people whenever possible.
There are 15000 Servas hosts in 135 countries, and even though it may not always be feasible to stay with them or they may not be available at the time, every visit is enriching in some way. Every traveler coming into my home has something special about him or her and I will always make an effort to have a meaningful encounter.
Vice versa, when I visit people in other countries, I like to find out what their life is like, what are their concerns, what do we have in common and how can we relate and help each other. In doing so, I believe that we are fostering understanding and tolerance. Often we are inspired and motivated to take actions in peace building on the grassroots level. A network of Servas members worldwide helps in that effort.
* (Sandy Cherry was listed in the host list with that quote. She lived in California, and I met her years later at one of our national Servas meetings in Boston.)
5. Please tell us about your 3 favorite or most memorable hosting experiences with Servas.
One of my earliest encounters began in California where I met a lovely young woman from Australia who was somewhat reluctant to come to 1980s crime-ridden New York, or so it was perceived as in those days. I encouraged her to visit me and of course she loved it. Short after, she wrote to me that her parents also wanted to come to New York and asked to find a place for them to stay. Naturally I invited them into my home, even though they were not with Servas. They were in the States for the first time and instead of doing the usual sightseeing in New York, they visited a relative of a friend of theirs in the hospital, because he had nobody else who cared about him. I was very impressed by their humanitarian action and selflessness.
During the first year as a host I was not sure of what precisely hosting entailed. An elderly gentleman came to visit who had just discovered Servas and thought it was a marvelous invention. He obviously had his own agenda that had nothing to do with the Servas spirit. After smoking up my apartment for three days, I asked him whether he was going to stay with anyone else in New York. His answer was, that he liked it here and that he felt just like at home. I did not have the courage to tell him it was time to leave and he stayed another three days.
Israeli-Palestinian peace quilt