Elin Suleymanov walked through the University of Toledo in Ohio 21 years ago with a single suitcase and an empty wallet.
It was Suleymanov’s first night in America, and he had nowhere to stay.
Suleymanov spent many more nights in the country before becoming the ambassador of the Republic of Azerbaijan to the United States.
Azerbaijan is a small country on the western end of central Eurasia, bordering Iran, Russia, Armenia, Turkey and Georgia. Suleymanov is twice the age of his country, which regained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.
He works in Washington, D.C., as ambassador but returned to the Midwest this week to meet with IU President Michael McRobbie, students and faculty in the hopes of strengthening the relationship between IU and Azerbaijan.
McRobbie sat down with Suleymanov to discuss the new School of Global and International Studies. SGIS will enhance the existing focus IU has on central Eurasian
studies, Suleymanov said.
“The focus of the University on central Eurasia is a trademark,” Suleymanov said. “The establishment of the SGIS program here could be an excellent addition. I hope it will be a very successful one.”
Suleymanov hopes to see growth in the cultural study of Azerbaijan and increased interest in study of the language. The Department of Central Eurasian Studies offers language study of 13 different central Eurasian nations, including Azerbaijan.
“The fame of this institution precedes it,” Suleymanov said. “I hope the teaching of the Azeri language will continue. I hope that the focus continues.”
Suleymanov said he would encourage students to travel while they study at IU.
“It is easy to get stuck in a daily routine,” Suleymanov said. “You can learn a lot from the books, but you can’t learn everything.”
American students could particularly benefit from studying the political history of Azerbaijan, Suleymanov said.
The nation has experienced ongoing conflict with western neighbor Armenia regarding Armenian territory that is internationally recognized as Azerbaijan’s.
“We all want to believe in the United Nations,” Suleymanov said. “For the younger students, vision matters.”
The nation is a model for other post-Soviet nations since it is led with an open mind, Suleymanov said.
“The perception of independence is very important to us,” Suleymanov said. “We have very good will towards the West and the U.S. ... We’re ready to be apart of the global community.”
Azerbaijan is predominately Muslim, but the country welcomes all faiths with synagogues and churches.
“Violence should not be the future for Muslim countries,” Suleymanov said. “You have normalcy, which people need to build on.”
Russian culture carried over from former Soviet Union occupation enriches the nation, Suleymanov said.
“Azerbaijan is a confident, independent nation,” Suleymanov said. “We welcome Russian influence and presence in terms of culture and economic relationships.”
He hopes that as IU students learn more about the Azerbaijani language and culture, his own people develop perceptions of America similar to his own in 1992.
On that first night in America, he walked into the country knowing no one and having nothing. The actions of one woman remain as one of Suleymanov’s most vivid memories.
Janice, a volunteer in the international office at the University of Toledo in Ohio, took one look at Suleymanov before offering him a place to stay.
Suleymanov spent that night with a Russian woman and a Bulgarian man at Janice’s home. Janice helped all of the international students arrange housing and bank accounts the next day.
“My first memory of America is a stranger saying to me, come and stay at my home,” Suleymanov said. “She basically exemplified the kindness of people.”
He said he hopes Azerbaijani will visit the Midwest and experience its welcoming spirit.
“I hope people come to places like Indiana and Ohio,” Suleymanov said. “That is what people need to know more about America, how kind people are.”
Follow reporter Hannah Alani on Twitter @hannahalani.