Anne Marie Weiss is technically an American, but her life is more like an exotic tale from Arabian Nights. She radiates courtliness, carrying the folklore and wisdom of each land she's lived in. Weiss is the founder and president of DFW International, a non-profit which, for the past 25 years, produced the International Festival, Latin Festival and other multi-cultural events in Dallas.
It all started with her children's school, where she began doing monthly programs, including Chinese character workshops or putting henna on children's hands through the PTA. "To give children values, and to see their cultures represented," she says, "It made it cool to have another culture. It's just common sense." Her love of foreign cultures has since evolved into $100,000-a-year productions put on entirely through the support of community groups and sponsors. Last year alone, the International Festival had 25,000 attendees. "It's my gift to the city," Weiss says, "where else would you find Argentinians and Ukrainians ... with African drums?" she laughs.
When Weiss was 13 she fell in love with other nations, "It was through the music," she recalls. She and her mother made the drive from Missouri to Mexico in a car with no air conditioning, and when she won the Fullbright Scholarship in 1968 she returned there to study Spanish Literature. She remembers those times as "Full of student protests and massacres, and I was just an innocent girl from Missouri." Her love for Spanish literature remains. One of her most successful events, celebrating a hundred years since poet Pablo Neruda's birth, resulted in a record-breaking 14 months of Neruda Celebration, spread out over 30 events including theater, music and Chilean food.
After marrying a Syrian in America, her husband's job took them to Saudi Arabia in 1976. "It was the new frontier. They needed telephones, hospitals, airports. There were lots of opportunities to work." She learned fluent Arabic. "And other things ... Everything forbidden you have to do, but you have to know how." Since Weiss couldn't legally work, she opened a boutique at home, wrote books and became a journalist. "All forbidden," she states, "You learn to survive. It's the life of a woman there: You don't go out, don't drive, didn't have a phone. There are no movie theaters or malls. You go to the zouk (market) downtown. You put all your energy into your family, learn to make fruitcakes and a Christmas tree, because you can't buy one." After learning crafts and exchanging recipes with the local women, she took seven years to work on and publish her first cookbook, which was the first Arabic cookbook published in the Middle East.
Returning to Dallas 11 years later as an ex-pat, she says, "I was in re-entry shock, I had changed," explaining that her new neighbors looked at her like she was a stranger — a traitor. "We listened to weird music and spoke other languages. We were the first non-white family in the kids' Richardson school. Now it's 50 percent minorities." She describes her windows being shot at three times, having paint thrown over the fence into their swimming pool, and countless frightening instances of intimidation. This treatment made her wonder how much worse it was for those who didn't even speak English.
"Language opens the world," Weiss says. And so it did when she found a group of women speaking Arabic in a corner north of LBJ Highway and learned that 1,200 Kurd refugees had settled in the area over a period of three months. "They were dumped in a rat-infested, drug-ridden area." She was teaching Spanish then, and became involved in aiding immigrants from many countries. "Part of my mission is to celebrate the culture, but also to share the demographics, which change the pocketbook."
Recalling the census of year 2000, which revealed that 35 percent of Texans and their children are foreigners, "To me, it's a huge positive for the metroplex," she says, but that data didn't cause much local change, "They didn't hire more bilingual teachers or add ESL classes ... instead they were passing laws preventing people from parking their work vans on their property, to push immigrant workers out."
As a former board-member of the Refugee Services of North Texas (now Refugee Services of Texas), she's remained devoted to helping families not merely assimilate, but succeed, in Dallas. "The refugees are dropped off in apartments, the father of the family is given work and they have three month's rent." Sometimes single mothers have children who are the result of rape, and are often illiterate in their own language. Weiss serves as the ultimate welcoming guide. Her committee sets them up with English classes, enrolls their children in school, and mentors them all the way up to, and through, the home-buying process. "A good community leader listens to the voices of the people and tries to make the right decisions," Weiss continues, half in English, half in Spanish, before she's off again to pick up furniture — a gift for Syrian refugees.
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