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The Warsaw Voice » Other » November 5, 2008
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A Passion for Cultural Exchange
November 5, 2008   
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The moment she first set eyes on the elegant grounds of the Belgian embassy two years ago, Raka Singh, wife of the Belgian ambassador, says her head began swimming with ideas.

Earlier this year she managed to fulfill her dream of creating an enormous fresh-flower carpet on Senatorska Street in Warsaw, a Brussels tradition that dates back nearly 40 years.

But for the ebullient Singh, this project was just the tip of the iceberg. "To get to know a country, you have to really involve yourself, to throw yourself in completely," she says.

Ever since her husband took up his post in Warsaw in August 2006, she has spent most of her time doing just that.

Born and educated in India, Singh was amazed when she first arrived at how isolated Polish people seemed to be from different cultures. "It's very similar to India-if you look different, like me, people stare," she observes. "It's not meant to be rude, it's just what they do. But I just say Dzień dobry and smile, and they always smile back. . . Many Polish people have not been exposed to different cultures, and they are very curious. People just can't get enough."

Coming to Warsaw from an intense public relations job in Washington, D.C., Singh was determined to stay busy and dynamic in her new home. She poured her energy into philanthropic projects that would foster both social improvement and cultural exchange, both in her work with the International Women's Group, and later through her role as advisor to the Warta Credit Bank Foundation.

Last spring Singh worked with charity organization Nasz Dom (Our House) to organize an encounter between children in the American School of Warsaw and Polish children in an orphanage in Koło. Her eyes sparkle as she describes how much fun the children had together, playing soccer and learning from one another.

Then in August, Singh's beautiful Belgian carpet of 120,000 begonias, 400 square meters in size and patterned from traditional Polish folk costumes, attracted the attention of the entire city. "It was a bigger success than I ever thought," she marvels. "People in the streets stop to tell me, 'This was such a good thing that you did.' They had never seen anything like it."

When asked if she'll be doing another carpet next year, she just rolls her eyes. "Do you know how much work that was?" she exclaims. "But actually, there are other cities in Poland that want to have their own flower carpets now."

Singh has supported a number of other charities, both big and small, over the past two years. One is Chleb Życia (Bread for Life), a Catholic organization established to help the homeless. Another is a men's shelter that offers a night's food and board to any man, no questions asked, in exchange for a little bit of work in the morning. In Singh's eyes, men in need are a group too often neglected by charities in Poland.

But one cause, child abuse, is particularly close to her heart. Through her work with an organization called Dzieci Niczyje (Nobody's Children), she fights to raise awareness in Poland of child abuse over the internet.

"I realized how important it is here, because there's a whole generation of people my age who have no clue about the internet," Singh points out. "I think this is one crime of our generation that we can really nip in the bud."

This winter, as president of the Spouses of Heads of Mission group, Singh will be organizing Warsaw's first International Bazaar-something like the traditional Christmas Bazaar, but with a multicultural twist. In a stark departure from the standard Western European holiday tradition, tables representing 40 different countries will be taking over two floors of the Marriott Hotel on Dec. 7 in a joyful riot of international food, drink and crafts.

"This year, I'm emphasizing the fun aspect," she smiles. "We really want to show off these different countries."

Singh's upcoming projects include tapping into Belgium's rich tradition of graphic novels in order to produce a comic book to teach Polish people about environmental awareness. Even when it comes to basic things like turning off lights or turning off the tap when brushing your teeth, she says, there's a lot of work to be done here.

When asked how she manages to drum up so much support for such a wide variety of projects, Singh has a simple explanation. "I'm passionate. I'm able to get people excited because I'm very excited about [these things]."

Since she and her husband still have two years left in Poland, time will tell where else her passion will lead her.

Hilary Heuler
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