- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 28, 2000

Ben's Chili Bowl, a legendary slice of Americana on U Street NW, took on a distinctly international flavor yesterday when 16 French visitors joined the eatery's regular lunchtime crowd to wolf down hot dogs and fries smothered by mounds of spicy, steaming chili.

The French a group of young volunteers visiting Washington to learn about social activism were a bit cautious at first, faced with the "huge" portions served up at one of the city's most beloved "greasy spoons."

Paulo Guerrnier, 26, carefully studied his chili-covered french fries before attacking them with a fork, while his fellow travelers gingerly made their own attempts at downing the famous chili dogs.

The 16 youths, ages 18 to 30, are all active volunteers with the Forum for the International Development of Democracy a group that focuses on citizenship and volunteerism. By coming to the United States, the group including students and social workers hopes to learn how to solve problems such as poverty and racism in their own communities.

The visit to Ben's Chili Bowl started in 1958 by Ben and Virginia Ali during a time when segregated Washington left black people with few restaurants was one of many stops on the youths' two-week tour of the District and Baltimore.

Despite the language barrier, the smiles and a chorus of "tres biens" were enough to let Mrs. Ali know she'd won over some new customers.

As the youth dirtied their fingers with the brown sauce, longtime D.C. resident John C. Snipes, 65, told them the history of the neighborhood.

"I want to welcome you to the real Washington," Mr. Snipes, affectionately known as the "Mayor of U Street," told them. "This is where people come to live. This is what's been called the 'hood."

"You know, neighborhood," Mr. Snipes said, seeing translator Daniel L. Racine stumble trying to find a way to put the idea into French.

The French appreciated the authentic taste of the District's history.

"You must know that in France we see the United States through the prism of the media," Fokad Dogga, 27, said through a translator. The stereotype of the rich, uncaring American is a strong one in France, but it does not reflect the reality of what they've seen, he said.

"There are people who do things here on a humanitarian basis," Mr. Dogga said.

The group has been especially impressed with Project 2000 which helps educate black males in Southeast and the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Northwest, which develops artistic talent in students through mentors.

Back home they have helped refugees integrate into French society, taught students at failing schools and helped young people escape poor neighborhoods.

"We want to see how Americans approach these problems and what solutions they have to them," Mr. Dogga said.

The exchange is the first of many planned by the U.S.-based Village Foundation, a group that strives to help at-risk black youths. Several boys will travel to France sometime next year, including some D.C. youths, said Bobby Austin, the CEO and president of Village Foundation.

"We want them to see how they fit into the rest of the world," he said.

If anything, the visit to Ben's Chili Bowl gave the visitors a better perspective on the city, Mr. Austin said.

"It's kind of an old-fashioned fun place that has good food and a lot of sentiment," Mrs. Ali said.

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