September 8, 2004

Flying the Flags of Global Citizenship

By Doug McGill
The McGill Report


ROCHESTER, MN -- Gwen Vilen, a nurse at Mayo Clinic, flew the American flag from her front porch on the Labor Day holiday. On a separate 25-foot-flagpole standing smack in her front yard she hoisted another flag -- the red, white, and blue horizontal cross of the flag of Norway.

"So many Minnesotans and Midwesterners come from Norway," Vilen explained. "And if ever there was a hardworking people with a strong work ethic, it's the Norwegians. It fits right into Labor Day."

Vilen's neighbors in southeast Rochester glance up each morning to see which flag from around the globe is flying that day. They've seen plenty, such as the Indian flag on Aug. 15 for India's Independence Day; the Spanish flag on Aug. 19 to mark Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca's death; and the Canadian flag on July 1 for Canada Day, in honor of Canada's founding as a nation.

Vilen's passion and hobby as a global citizen is to fly the flag of every nation in the world on the days of their national holidays and on days when simple respect for our fellow human beings is due -- no matter their home address. Tuesday, she lowered the flag of Norway and raised the Russian flag in remembrance of the victims, many of them children, of the Beslan school siege.

Long-Ago Days

"I've always been interested in what's going on in the world, in history and politics," Vilen said. Her interest was relatively bookish until last spring, when the United States invaded Iraq and she found herself overwhelmed with feelings of "alarm and sadness. I was especially shocked by our unilateral decision to go it alone and to ignore so many of our allies."

A Vietnam War protester, Vilen turned to studying to become a nurse life after the 1960s, then worked as a nurse and a mother. After the Iraq War started, Vilen decided to make her first political protest since those long-ago days by visiting the Herold Flag shop on Second Street Southwest, buying the blue-and-white flag of the United Nations and hoisting it over her home.

It flew there for more than a year. "The U.N. is a forum for nations to come together to talk," she said. "It's a place to get things on the table and talk about them, even if they are offensive. It's our obligation to talk about our problems peacefully to resolve them rather than go to war."

In May, she bought and planted the 25-foot flagpole in her front yard and started the regular rotation of flags of the world. The response was immediate and, thus far, positive -- even when she flew the flag of Iraq, which drew not a single protest or raised eyebrow.

Busy Lives

"We are in that country now, and we say we've liberated it, so Iraq is now an ally," Vilen explains. "We shouldn't hesitate to fly their flag any more than we'd hesitate to fly the flag of any of our nation's allies."

When she flew the Saudi flag, the result was even more wondrous. Christine Livingston-Alzarqa and her husband, Saleh Alzarqa, a Saudi, were moving to Rochester and looking for a good neighborhood to live when by pure chance they noticed the Saudi flag in Vilen's front yard. "We felt like it would be a welcoming neighborhood," Christine said.

They rented the home directly across the street from Vilen's, and since then the two women have become best friends.

"It's hard to put into words my feelings for Gwen," Christine said. "Arabs are not real popular in the U.S. right now, and we were concerned about moving here. To see someone so courageous is really inspiring."

Yet Vilen says she acts not out of courage but self-interest. Many people, understandably, say they know the world is full of terrible problems and would like to help, but are busy with their lives and just don't know how.

How, I asked Vilen, had she been able to bypass this rationalization and find so active a channel for her compassion?

"It brings so many interesting people into my life," she answered. "So I feel a kind of fullness. As a nurse, you know, you see so many people who are so lonely, so afraid and so alone. It's the result of a society that emphasizes individualism. I like to focus on community.

"Also, every flag is beautiful," she added. "I just love the way they look when they fly."

Copyright @ 2004 The McGill Report