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Embracing the Whole World

Off the Cuff with Holiday Folk Fair’s Al Durtka

Nov. 9, 2016
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It may be evolutionarily advantageous to fear the unknown, but it can be socially disastrous. For the past 72 years, the Holiday Folk Fair International has packed an overwhelming number of events into a three-day multi-cultural festival meant to combat xenophobia-enabling ignorance and to celebrate the cultural commonalities that unite us. Off the Cuff spoke with Al Durtka, President of the International Institute of Wisconsin, about the Holiday Folk Fair International’s past, present and hopes for the future.

What is the history of the Holiday Folk Fair International?

The event started in 1943, during World War II. At that time there was a lot of concern about Germans, Japanese and Italian neighbors in the community. It was decided that we needed to get a better sense of one another by bringing individuals from various groups together as a sort of mini United Nations. The Holiday Folk Fair International is organized by the International Institute of Wisconsin, which helps immigrants and refugees transition into the community. Since the 1940s, new groups have arrived in the community and so our efforts have continued to bring them in and to foster understanding and cooperation between cultural communities in Wisconsin. 

There are striking similarities between the world crisis at the inception of the Holiday Folk Fair International and our present day situation. The same sort of suspicion directed towards foreigners still exists. It’s still important to shed light on these individuals who have made every effort to not only be a part of our community but also to contribute to our community. On account of the refugee crisis, we have an expansive, newly designed exhibit on who these refugees are, where they come from and their cultures.

What is the theme of this year’s fair?

We’re always on the look out for what is being celebrated around the world and that becomes the theme of the year. This year we are celebrating the culture of water as well as pulses – dried beans, peas, chickpeas and lentils. Pulses are a hearty and healthy food that has been used in just about every culture. It is a food that unites people.

To celebrate the culture of water we’ll be looking at different cultural perceptions of water and it shapes group identities. Water reveals a great deal about a culture, through stories about ancestors arriving on waterways, traditions concerning the use of water in greeting people and performing religious ceremonies. We have a display that examines how people have stored water in ancient and modern times. 

How does the Holiday Folk Fair International approach education?

More than 3,000 fourth through eighth graders will take part in our Cultural Awareness Program. The idea is to get young people to experience other cultures and to learn more about their own. This involves presentations by youth to other youth. Other special events include language and genealogy classes, music and dance performances and food sampling. They go away seeing things very differently.

Every culture has its own way of looking at an issue, which produces different solutions to the same problem. By getting to know your neighbor and what they bring to the table, we can discover new ways forward.

What is the international component of the fair? 

The fair has an international following. People from around the world want to come. This year we have a guest group from Germany, Croatia, Kenya and Canada. We’ve invited groups from around the world to join us in our Around the World 5K Run/Walk. The international collaboration creates a synergy for a common purpose. In the past, there were 1,200 people in Cyprus who participated in a run/walk that was held in conjunction with ours. This year we are working with the Salvation Army to help homeless children.

This year’s Holiday Folk Fair takes place Nov. 18-20 at State Fair Park.

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