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Ceres played pivotal role for Ambassador Khalilzad
It's been decades since Zalmay Khalilzad lived in Ceres but Ceres is very much ingrained in the experience of the United States ambassador to the United Nations.

Khalilzad recounted his experience in Ceres and at Ceres High School in his keynote address at the AFS's 60th anniversary gala held in New York City on Nov. 1.

The diplomat was born in Afghanistan and came to Ceres in 1966 as a foreign exchange student with AFS. His experience with host parents were Medrick and Ruth Perra apparently effected the entire trajectory of his life.

Mrs. Perra died Dec. 6 at the age of 88.

Khalilzad told his audience that his "time here in the United States in 1966 and 1967 was an eye-opening experience and really made me start thinking about what I wanted to do in the world."

The Perras, he recalled, "welcomed me into their home and treated me like one of their own. And they were extremely nice to me."

He graduated from CHS in 1967.

"A lot of what has happened to me since then, I attribute to that year in Ceres. When I first came to the United States, I wanted to be Zal, the engineer - a road engineer to be exact.

"One day, I was out in the orchard on the Perra's farm and Medrick -- who I called "Dad" - pointed to a tractor engine and asked me, 'Do you know anything about how that works?' I looked at it and said, 'No.' And he told me 'engineering isn't for you. With all your arguments and your ability to talk, you should go into politics.' He thought that when I returned home after high school, I would start a Republican Party in Afghanistan. Instead, I joined the one here!"

Khalilzad said his experience in California changed the way he viewed the world. He was awed by big factories, skyscrapers, superhighways and the commercial farming that set America apart.

"The U.S. was much more impressive than what I had anticipated," the ambassador said. "However, it was not the wealth and achievement that struck me the most - it was the culture of America and its democratic spirit."

As an Afghan, Khalilzad recalls being a novelty in Central California and made the circuit talking to service club and churches. It was before the Rotary Club, the Lions, and city meetings, "that I saw this unique democratic spirit. I saw a society open to all people ... institutions in which power was based not on birth but merit ... opportunity for all to succeed through hard work and civic society -- neighbor helping neighbor - that was inspiring."

Khalilzad said one of the highlights of his life was in 2003, when the Perras were able to join him at the State Department in Washington when the Secretary of State Colin Powell swore him in as the U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan. Of that visit he said "Medrick hadn't been to Washington since 1937 when he was in the Navy and it was Ruth's first visit to our nation's capital. We were able to spend time together and go visit the White House before I departed for Afghanistan the next day.

"It was a special time for Afghanistan - with the country on the front line of freedom and I was so grateful that I able to share that moment with the Perras.

"They -- and AFS -- gave me the chance to learn that while all of us, all people, are unique and different, we are fundamentally the same."