Churches, donors help fund Atlanta’s ‘Little U.N.’ born from tragedy

Mathilde Gondard (left) from France and Samer Bou Karroum from Lebanon prepares their own food in the community kitchen at Villa International where researchers and medical students from around the world who want to tap into the expertise of the CDC and Emory’s Rollins School of Medicine can stay. Photo by Phil Skinner

Along Atlanta’s busy Clifton Road sits what looks like a quaint, two-story hotel, the kind one might see in Italy, with a red tile roof, inviting outdoor seating and greenery galore.

Staying here are doctors, researchers and medical students who have traveled from around the world to tap into expertise that’s just down the road at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health.

Some of these people come from third-world countries, where their annual salaries may only be a few hundred dollars a year. They can’t pay big-city hotel prices, and they don’t.

For nearly 50 years, church organizations, civic groups, foundations and private donors have been helping to fund the nonprofit, 33-room Villa International, sometimes referred to by guests as the “Little U.N.”

“We are Christian, but we practice friendship evangelism,” said Camille Gaffron, executive director. “We do that by creating a safe community built on mutual respect and hospitality — one that encourages friendship and global understanding and promotes the health and wellness of the world.”

Sad circumstances were the initial inspiration for Villa International, which has welcomed more than 26,000 visitors from 179 countries.

An African scientist, visiting a very segregated Atlanta in 1966 and working at the CDC, committed suicide while staying alone in a downtown motel, the closest place open to a person of color to rent, according to published accounts.

The woman’s death prompted an official with the U.S. State Department to reach out to the national Presbyterian Church, then headquartered in Atlanta. His message: something must change if Atlanta is to realize its dream of being an international city, Gaffron said.

Within months, a task force of five Christian denominations was meeting to investigate the possibility of a housing and hospitality ministry to serve international guests of the CDC.

It took more than five years – and $300,000 raised by the Women of the Presbyterian Church – to make it happen. But in 1972, Villa International opened as a sparsely furnished, then 19-bedroom guest house that was exempt from the existing housing laws as an “institution.”

Dr. Ken Herrmann, a 31-year veteran of the CDC, said Villa International became increasingly important over the years as the CDC became more involved in global health.

“A lot of what [the medical professionals staying at Villa] took back home helped eradicate smallpox,” Herrmann said. ‘There was certainly evidence the training they got at the CDC was used and quite effectively.”

Guests at Villa rent a bed, not a room, and pay a fraction of what most Atlanta hotels and motels charge (as little as $17 a night bunking two to a room). The average stay was 56 days in 2019.

The place comes alive at night, with lively conversation, pingpong and billiards, sometimes between guests from feuding, if not warring, nations. Dinner, which starts at 4:30 p.m. and runs until after midnight, can be an epicurean delight, with guests cooking and sharing dishes from their homelands.

Especially on holidays, “you can have 30 different countries on your plate, and it’s all authentic, and it’s all incredibly good,” Gaffron said.

The staff of two full-time and six part-time workers, who run the place on $450,000 a year, is backed by an army of about 100 volunteers, including Marcia Bansley, former director of Trees Atlanta.

On weeknights, Bansley and other volunteers take turns driving guests to buy food, check out the local Target, or find some reasonably priced clothes at Goodwill.

“What I get out of it is meeting these charming people,” Bansley said. “I love hearing their stories and sharing the hospitality of Atlanta.”

On a recent Monday, guests from Pakistan, Lebanon, India, and West Africa’s Burkina Faso spoke of how the homey and welcoming atmosphere of Villa International — with loaner umbrellas and hair dryers, house cats, and homemade cinnamon crumb cake served weekly — kept them from being waylaid by homesickness and the strangeness of being in a foreign land. It’s also opened the door, they said, to some unexpected friendships and a better understanding of other cultures.

“We are living as family, peacefully,” said Rahmat Wali, a Pakistani on a six-month fellowship, who plans to talk to his country’s leaders about Villa International as a potential model for the world. “If we are not living in peace, we are creating trouble for each other.”

Tony Callaway, a Villa board member, volunteer, and part-time fundraiser, said Villa is showing guests “we’re not the ugly Americans.

“We’re here to let them know that what happens to them in our country makes a difference to us.”

CAMILLE GAFFRON, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF VILLA INTERNATIONAL

What inspires staff and volunteers at Villa International? "I think for both volunteers and staff, the inspiration is the guests. A chance to meet and get to know interesting young scientists, researchers, and doctors from all over the world — to make them feel welcome and at home — is as fascinating and varied as the stories they live and share."

How can readers help? "In addition to financial gifts, Villa welcomes volunteers to take our guests shopping in the evenings, on outings to local points of interest, to share their holiday traditions, to their favorite sporting or cultural events, or to welcome dinners for big classes, pot luck dinners or just a game of pool or pingpong."

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