In the late 1960s, a visiting international researcher committed suicide on the Emory campus due to his loneliness and difficulty in adjusting to the new culture. In search of a way to better accommodate visiting international researchers and scientists, the U.S. State Department called together seven denominations and encouraged them to "make international guests feel more at home," according to Darren Segura. Segura is business manager for Villa International Atlanta (VIA), a housing ministry for international visitors that resulted from those conversations.
Located near the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), VIA became affiliated with Emory last fall at the request of the University Chaplain and the Religious Life Office. "What we intended [with the affiliation] was to include VIA in the Emory communications loop a little better, as VIA houses Emory guests of one sort or another," said Secretary of the University Gary Hauk.
Since 1972, VIA has hosted more than 14,000 persons from 140 different nations with clean, safe and low-cost accommodations. More than 1,000 people from more than 100 countries stay at VIA each year. "We're easing the culture shock for people who have never been to the United States," said Segura.
Most guests at VIA are doctors, nurses and scientists who share their medical competence at the CDC, in addition to Emory's medical complex and other educational and church-related institutions. They then return to their countries with new skills. According to Segura, VIA has had a marked global impact; some of those who helped eradicate smallpox lived at VIA while studying at the CDC. Currently, many international medical personnel stay at VIA while searching for a cure for AIDS.
Offering a community-based environment, VIA has 33 guest rooms where visitors stay an average of one month. Guests prepare their own meals in VIA's large community kitchen and share meals together in the dining and living areas. VIA also has a large library/lounge, a game area, patios, a conference room and a chapel.
"There's a lot of hospitality," Segura said. "You see people eating together who are from different counties whose governments won't even talk to each other."
Much of this hospitality results from the strong Christian mission VIA supports. "We open our home to all religions and races, but there's a lot that's based on Christian values," Segura said.
Independently run, VIA's staff and programs are funded by an ecumenical board of seven denominations. Sixty percent of operating expenses are secured through rent fees; the remainder comes from personal donations and grants from supporting churches. VIA currently is in the midst of a capital funds campaign to raise $1.5 million and will be approaching churches, friends and foundations during the next few years.