AFS to Condemn all Types of Discrimination

Just a few days after the April attacks in the Brussels airport and metro, a group of European AFS volunteers from 15 different countries gathered in this city to help increase the impact of AFS in fighting Islamophobia and to promote interreligious dialogue in European communities. A deeper look into the discussions from the seminar, Islam as a religion in Europe and what AFS can do to further its peace-building mission is brought to us by Stasa Stojkov, a volunteer at AFS Serbia and a member of the European Pool of Trainers of the European Federation for Intercultural Learning. We invite AFSers interested in exploring the topic further to register for the Volunteer Summer Summit in August this year, where similar topics will be explored.

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It is the mission of AFS as an organization to foster intercultural dialogue in order to create a more just and peaceful world. Yes, this is a statement that probably all AFSers can identify with and agree upon. However, the understanding of what constitutes a peaceful world might differ. The same goes for the term responsibility. Reflecting upon the mission of AFS in the times in which the organization was founded, and applying it to the context we live in today, the group of participants and trainers of the “Islam in Europe – between assimilation and rejection” seminar organized by the European Federation for Intercultural Learning (EFIL – the umbrella organization for AFS in Europe), decided it was time for certain thoughts not to be assumed, but rather said more explicitly. The seminar took place in Brussels, in April 2016, and was supported by the European Youth Foundation of the Council of Europe within EFIL’s Annual Theme “Building Peaceful Societies”.

Islam as a religion has been present on the European grounds from a very early age. Already in the 7th century, the Umayyad Empire was established on the territories of what we today know as Spain and Portugal. Furthermore, the Ottoman Empire was present on the Balkan Peninsula and beyond from the 14th century, up until the establishment of the secular Republic of Turkey in early 20th century. In addition, Europe, its conquerors, travelers and representatives have also played their role in the regions where Islam was, and today still is, the predominant religion. Starting in the 11th century with the crusades, through colonialism and up until recent times and wars, such as the ones in Iraq and Afghanistan, Europe has marked its presence outside continent’s boundaries in a certainly significant and often negative manner.

In spite of all these interactions, in times of both peace and war, there is still a very strong line between us and them. Othering, or alienating, is a process of labeling someone as fundamentally different than you, and as a mechanism it can help spread discrimination in all forms. It is strongly present in the process of spreading Islamophobia, and the trainers and participants of the seminar recognized it as a repetitive pattern present in the media, politics and other aspects of their daily lives.  The idea of us, Europeans, representing our values and things we fought for throughout the years in order to become this democratic continent we so proudly claim we are today. And them, the others, with their seemingly backwards mentality representing values such as traditional gender roles that are directly against what we as Europe stand for. With this chain of thoughts, the idea of living together becomes, in the best case scenario, merely, a life next to each other and not with each other. Othering, supported by our school books, media and art influences our perceptions of the society and world we live in. Without fostering critical thought, it is easy for people to fall into the claws of biased media and politicians wanting to create powerful headlines. This is where AFS steps in. This is where AFS helps us understand that what we see is only one of many perspectives and that what we perceive as threatening or old-fashioned is actually an enriching and wonderful element in other people’s lives. This is where AFS confronts prejudice.

The media coverage of Muslims is not only predominantly negative, but often presented in a way which is meant to cause fear. In a reality where the first thing you see in the very morning is a new attack, numbers of lost lives, information about troops entering or withdrawing from a certain area, it is easy to let the fear dominate our lives. However, that irrational fear, whether it is the fear of losing someone or something we cherish in our lives, only helps to support the image of the other being a threat. The word terrorist is immediately attached to the word Muslim, and vice versa. In the state of fear, the fact that there are around 1.6 billion Muslims in the world and that those belonging to the extremist groups constitute maybe 1% of them, never gets mentioned. When a person without a Muslim background commits an act of terrorism, they are seen as lunatics, not as terrorists. However, as soon as we can attach the word Muslim to a person suspected for such an act, all the other labels such as nationality, marital status, or profession get neglected.

Another word often mentioned in AFS is diversity. We believe we are diverse, we aim to be even more inclusive and we appreciate the differences each individual brings to the group. However, so often we forget that, in order to be truly diverse, we sometimes have to look beyond what is already there. We have to give a chance to someone who seems so different that it is difficult even to imagine we could have something in common. There, on the very edge of our comfort zone, we might take that step which will ensure a better world for all of us. As some voices are not strong enough to express how much they would appreciate being a part of a reality such as the AFS one, embracing them may sometimes not be enough. We should be more proactive in searching for, and including those who might seem different, and who might not have the opportunity to join AFS that easily.

One could discuss whether addressing Islamophobia explicitly is an AFS responsibility or not. However, bearing in mind that AFS is a non-political and non-religious organization, the group of this seminar attendees agreed that condemning all types of discrimination is the least we can do. Standing up for those who need us to speak up and including everyone who shares our vision regardless of race, sexual orientation, religion, nationality or any other label is our duty in order to truly fulfill that mission we’ve been proudly caring for more than 100 years.


5 Reasons to Attend the Summer Institute for Intercultural Communication

The Summer Institute for Intercultural Communication (SIIC) has a 40-year history of providing educational and professional development on intercultural theory, training and facilitation. This year SIIC will take place between 13-29 July with over 50 different offerings of five-day, three-day and one-day workshops.

Take a look at the the top 5 reasons for attending SIIC according to Ana Carolina Cassiano, a 2015 AFS-SIIC scholar and currently the Fellow for the Intercultural Link Learning Program at AFS International:

1. The learning experience: you will be immersed in an intense and stimulating learning environment not only during the workshops, but also over mealtimes, in the corridors and in the evening social events.

2. The people: you will meet and connect with like-minded people – key scholars of the intercultural field and colleagues from different professional, academic and national backgrounds. The SIIC atmosphere is supportive and inclusive.

3. The place: you will be at the beautiful Reed College campus which is filled with Pacific Northwest native plants, wildlife and a lake, in Portland, Oregon, USA. Taking a walk between activities while you reflect on your learning experiences will be revigorating and inspiring!

4. The food: you also need some nutrients in your body in order to enjoy all the food for thought you will be getting. The food served during SIIC is cafeteria-style, but also fresh, made from scratch, with a diverse menu inspired by cuisines from around the world, mostly organic and locally sourced.

5. The social activities: you will also have the chance to relax and have a good time in the evenings. One of the highlights is the AFS-sponsored karaoke night. Either you lead the mic, sing-along to your all-time favorites, hit the dance-floor or just cheer on your colleagues performing – you’re in for a good time!

For more information about SIIC, visit the event website. SIIC is sponsored by the Intercultural Communication Institute (ICI) headed by Janet Bennett, one of the most important players in the intercultural field, editor of the SAGE Encyclopedia of Intercultural Competence, and a longstanding partner of AFS.

AFS Intercultural Programs is pleased to be able to offer special scholarship opportunities for AFS volunteers and staff. If you are interested in this possibility, hurry up – the application deadline for AFS-SIIC Scholarships for AFS volunteers and staff is 25 April. Contact for more information.

All you need is love… and chocolate?

AFS recently asked our social media followers to describe their intercultural experience with 5 emojis – the results we’ve seen have been fascinating! While most responses contained hearts, smiling faces and flags of the countries our students now consider their second home, the thing that was also the staple of these posts is — food.

Meals and drinks are well-known artifacts of cultures, and interculturalists often place them at the top of a cultural iceberg. That means that when you discover a new place or culture, differences and similarities in food will be one of the first and easy elements to spot. Exploring different food and cuisine will make an exciting introduction to the place you are at, and send you off to dig deeper for more meaningful impressions.

A recent article by an international education resource, the ICEF Monitor, claims that food has a signifiant role in the satisfaction and experience of exchange students, which can be a source of differentiation and competitive advantage for hosting organizations. This is not to say that food overshadows educational benefits and opportunities for personal growth, social interactions and global awareness, but food is an important consideration for two reasons.

Students are becoming more interested in healthy, local, organic food choices, and for many there is a more profound emotional need for food that is familiar. If this basic need is not satisfied, this negativity can overshadow other aspects of the study abroad experience.

While exploring foreign food can be exciting, it can also be stressful and a contributing factor to culture shock: deciding how and what to eat, newly on your own, with overwhelming choices. This is where the support of host families and local volunteers is crucial – their role as cultural informants, insiders in a culture willing to provide more information and explanations to newcomers, keeps the students away from entering the panic zone, while comfortably learning new things from their experiences.

Finally, last week, the World Health Day was marked around the world. Here are some AFS advice on staying healthy – with all other cultural considerations, food place an important role here.

1. Eat local with locals! Food brings people together and as an exchange student experiencing traditional foods is one of the best ways to become familiar with the culture. Try everything and enjoy every bite, just remember to balance what you eat. Also, always finish your veggies!

2. Get moving! Joining a sports team or club can be one of the best experiences of your time abroad. Not only will you make tons of friends, but all that exercise will give you energy for your intercultural adventure.

3. Happy is healthy! Being abroad can put you under a lot of pressure, but it is very important to remember that being healthy is not about how you look, but about how you feel.

What else would you add to these?

Creating Significant Learning Experiences: From Ideas to Implications

Designing engaging and impactful learning environments has never been easy. Formal education settings – classrooms – have struggled with teacher-centered and learner-centered designs for a while, group work and individual tasks have been rolled out, but students somehow seem to easily disengage and find learning boring. Our experienced blogger from AFS Turkey, Omer Ongun, addresses this important issue in his latest post – and brings you tips and advice from experts in enhancing course design and delivery, along with ideas for integration and collaboration between formal and non-formal education settings.

Today more and more students are are looking for an added value to attending colleges. How do the high tuition fees and time and effort invested in classrooms measure up to the often poor design and delivery of courses? Can faculty address what students and the society expect?

Among many, one of the biggest aspects of students’ concern comes from the design of the courses. L. Dee Fink, author of  Creating Significant Learning Experiences, offers responses to the questions of what makes a good course ‘good’, and how can we create significant learning experiences? Mr Fink is not alone in questioning, assessing and criticizing the conventional college courses, but he has been influential in spreading the word and addressing the challenges with concrete ideas and possibilities for implications.

Conventional college courses have a few things in common: their syllabus is usually predesigned, generally ‘copied and pasted’ overtime and the instructor heavily relies on lecturing and PowerPoint slides when delivering the target content. On the other hand, according to Fink’s Five Principles of Teaching, good courses are those that:

  • Challenge students to make a significant progress in learning,
  • Use active learning methods,
  • Have teachers who care about the subject, their students and about teaching and learning,
  • Have teachers who interact well with students,
  • Have a good system of feedback, assessment and grading.

These points require a mindset which is usually very different from what is common today across schools.

Fink recommends that learning goals should go beyond mastering the content of a subject. While designing the learning experience the main question should be What do we expect participants to be able to do in the future as the result of having learned about x, y, z? This shift in perspective should provide a foundation in terms of designing and assessing the courses.

Active Learning is an essential component in education and it involves participants doing things and thinking about the things they are doing. This way, experiences and reflection are integrated into the learning process. Students go through experiences, reflect about them and plan to apply what they learned from the experience. It is crucial to learn in groups, in a synergy with others, in order to reflect and make meaning of our experiences.

Looking into Fink’s discussions, this ideal ‘significant learning’ made me think – yes,  this is exactly what we have been looking for in non-formal learning environments, in seminars, study sessions, academies, training and workshops where intercultural learning and non-formal methodologies are present!

Now is the time to take this amazing opportunity and develop more cross-sectorial and cross-disciplinary collaborations between formal universities and non-formal organizations, NGOs, learning centers etc. Colleges are looking for ways of improving and updating their offers by making classrooms more flexible, interactive, hybrid and inclusive while organizations such as AFS are looking into the possibilities for institutionalizing the learning opportunities they offer. If our overall aim is to create significant learning experiences, then we need to be more courageous to go out there and start collaborating.

Honoring the Past & Looking to the Future: New School Curriculum Available!

The Volunteers: Americans Join WWI, 1914-1919 Curriculum

AFS is proud to share our exciting new secondary school curriculum The Volunteers: Americans Join WWI, 1914-1919. This unique curriculum honors the past – notably the important role of U.S. American volunteers in World War I – and speaks to the future by highlighting how volunteerism is a key component of intercultural competence and global citizenship education. The curriculum, and the related exhibition set to open at the National World War I Museum and Memorial in April, will help students across the globe learn more about the volunteer efforts of young people during World War I, and inspire them to become active global citizens today.

The Curriculum contains six topic areas and 22 lesson plans which are free for anyone to use and aligned with both UNESCO Global Learning and U.S. Common Core educational standards, making it easy for teachers to assess learning objectives and lesson plan goals. The lessons explore engaging and relevant questions such as What motivates people to engage in volunteer service? What are the characteristics of a humanitarian organization? How did women’s volunteer service in World War I connect to women’s campaigns for political equality? How were humanitarian relief efforts organized and sustained during World War I? What role have young people played in world affairs through their volunteerism, historically and today?

The Volunteers Curriculum offers opportunities for students to analyze the history of World War I through the lens of volunteer service, both before and after the period of U.S. American neutrality. Since AFS began as the American Ambulance Field Service (later to be known as the “American Field Service” or “AFS”) founded in April 1915, the important humanitarian work of our founders is put in the context of U.S. American volunteerism during the war, emphasizing the significant contributions made by these volunteers and placing them within the broader historical perspective.

Many of the lesson plans were created to be adapted to different national contexts, outside of the U.S. They also aim to continue the legacy of volunteerism established during World War I and encourage students to engage in local, regional, and international service. The lesson plans can be used in courses about U.S. History, World History, European History, American Literature, Global Literature, Economics, Global Issues, and Global Leadership and Social Change.

The Volunteers: Americans Join World War I, 1914-1919 Curriculum was created by AFS Intercultural Programs, together with a distinguished Curriculum Development Committee of historians, educators, and archivists in celebration of the AFS Centennial largely through external funding. The lesson plans were developed in partnership with the (U.S.) National World War I Museum and Memorial and Primary Source, a non-profit resource center dedicated to advancing global education. We are honored to have received endorsement for the project from the United States World War I Centennial Commission.

The Volunteers: Americans Join World War I, 1914-1919 Curriculum can be printed for classroom and educational use. All photographs and documents are used with permission from the lending individual or organization, and cannot be reproduced or translated outside the curriculum or the guidelines of United States Fair Use (17 U.S.C., Section 107) without their explicit permission. Contact us for more information.

Educational and Professional Development Opportunity This Summer

Are you enthusiastic about building bridges among cultural differences, softening barriers to living life with cultural others, and probing the mysteries of unknown places and peoples? Would you like to develop your knowledge and skills as trainer, manager or educator working in the intercultural field? If the answer is yes, the Summer Institute for Intercultural Communication (SIIC) is right for you!

The 40th annual Summer Institute for Intercultural Communication, scheduled to take place from 13 to 29 July 2016 at Reed College in Portland, OR, USA, offers educational and professional development opportunities for people working in education, training, business, and consulting, in different intercultural contexts. Register now to take advantage of this unique opportunity to explore the field and network with other interculturalists in a stimulating and supportive environment.

SIIC is a very engaging, motivating, positive and inclusive environment for learning about different topics within the field of intercultural communication. Fran Baxter, a participant at the 2015 SIIC, a Learning Services Manager at AFS Australia and manager of the AFS Educational Impact Assessment Pilot as a consultant for AFS International shares these impressions:

“I would recommend SIIC to anyone who wants to expand his or her intercultural competence, and to individuals who recognise that the learning journey continues for life. Come to network with like-minded individuals who recognise the value of shared knowledge. Come to interact with the teachers and students who were happy to share their experience and are open to new learning. Come for the many “a-ha!” moments, and to transfer what you learn to your context within AFS or beyond.”

One of the highlights of this year’s SIIC will be a 1-day workshop facilitated by two AFS International representatives, with the topic Inspiring Curiosity: Fostering Intercultural and Global Competence for Students, Faculty and Staff. On top of that, SIIC will be an opportunity to attend workshops facilitated by the members of the AFS Educational Advisory Council and long-term supporters of our work, such as When Our Students Learn Away From Home: Training for Transformation, by Mick Vande Berg, Intercultural Competence on Campus: Educating Global-Ready Graduates, by Darla Deardorff or Training Design for Intercultural Learning, by Janet Bennett and Michael Page.

SIIC is organized by the Intercultural Communication Institute (ICI) based in Portland, Oregon, USA. The ICI is headed by Janet Bennett, one of the most important players in the intercultural field, editor of the SAGE Encyclopedia of Intercultural Competence, and a longstanding partner of AFS. More information about scholarship opportunities, obtaining academic credit for attending SIIC and testimonials of former participants can be found at the event website. AFS volunteers and staff interested in attending will again have the chance to be AFS-SIIC scholars supported by special scholarships and conditions. For more information, contact your national AFS office.

Three Ways to Break Down Intercultural Myths

What are the myths and sayings we often hear about the diversity of the world and intercultural competence? How much do they help us learn about and navigate the interconnected world around us, and how much do they keep us from developing intercultural competencies? Janet Bennett, the famous interculturalist, explored these topics in a highly engaging and inspiring talk at the AFS Academy, a cross-disciplinary learning and training event which helps AFS volunteers and staff develop personally and professionally and be better able to work towards our mission of creating a more just and peaceful world.

This talk has given us food for thought by exploring three frequently used myths, and offering remedies for them. These myths fall into the category of minimizing cultural difference and incorrectly assuming too much similarity among people, while holding back our explorative spirits.

In a desire to focus on similarities all of humanity shares and to avoid having to interact with difference, people often say, “It’s a small world after all”. However, it is precisely the diversity of the world that we need to engage with. Instead of assuming that our way is “normal” and assigning negative labels to anything outside of it, showing cultural humility and suspending judgement when faced with difference is the way to go.

The Golden Rule tells us to treat others the way we would like to be treated. This sounds pretty straightforward, right? The assumption is that we are all humans, so the way I do things must be the right way for you too. This rule actually does not apply in intercultural contexts, simply because it lacks the understanding and compassion for difference. Instead of assuming that your way is the best and only way to treat others, take a step back and be empathic to the other person. A very useful tool for empathy is the Platinum Rule: treat others the way THEY want to be treated.

For true interculturalists, curiosity did not really kill the cat – actually, curiosity is a key means for enhancing intercultural competence. Being curious means not only asking a lot of questions about the world around you, but actually moving beyond that and fostering a sense of wonder and exploration for the unknown.

What’s next?

If today’s world is rife with safety concerns, inequalities and environmental degradation, we asked Janet for advice on where to go from here. The advice is clear: global competence has such long-term effects, especially for AFSers who participate in our intercultural exchange programs, that the work of interculturalists is more important than ever. While there is a crisis of intercultural cooperation today and the people seem to be less willing to work together and interact, intercultural competence remains and will be most needed in the next 5 or 10 years.

Janet Bennett is one of the most important players in the intercultural field – the director of the Intercultural Communication Institute and the person behind its famous Summer Institute for Intercultural Communication (SIIC), an engaging and inclusive learning environment for hundreds of people working in education, training, business and consulting within the field of intercultural communication. Among other contributions to the field, Janet has edited the SAGE Encyclopedia of Intercultural Competence, the ultimate resource on cultural competence, cultural sensitivity, transcultural skills, diversity competence and much more.

Changing the World, One Step at a Time: A New Volunteer Initiative in Turkey

AFSers take pride in being changemakers and global citizens committed to improving the lives of others. This is no different for the members of the AFS Volunteers Association in Turkey (AFS Gonulluleri Dernegi, AFSGD) who recently started a new initiative called KArE to address local and global problems while advancing the AFS mission of intercultural understanding and peace.

This new initiative evolved from a project in Hakkari, a province at the east of Turkey where a short exchange program was organized to Izmir, one of the biggest cities on the west coast of Turkey. Hakkari high-school students and Izmir host families and volunteers got to know each other better, and developed a cross-cultural understanding, affecting their families, neighbors and societies too. The impact of this exchange went far beyond the immediate exchange – today, Turkish volunteers are launching a new initiative aimed at expanding their reach.

Tolga Dorken, vice-chairperson of AFS Volunteers Association, shares more about this exciting development:


What is the role of intercultural learning and global citizenship in the KArE project?

KArE is an acronym for Kulturlerarasi Etkilesim – Intercultural Interaction. It will be all about intercultural learning and global citizenship beyond cultural exchange programs. There are regional differences within countries, differences between neighborhoods in cities. Yet, there tends to be very little engagement with difference and people often don’t get to know each other. We have decided to say, enough with that!

Bringing diverse people together is what AFSers are best at. Give us two different communities and we will help people collaborate and enjoy their differences – we will establish intercultural interaction. That’s what we know and what we have been doing for decades. Our strength is that we know very well how to deal with, accept and respect differences. And that is exactly what is missing in the world today. We believe that not doing anything with that strength is just not an option.


What inspired you to start the KArE initiative?

It’s a combination of several things, both positive and negative. We have been involved in different projects community service projects before, but the impact of our actions in Hakkari was a game-changer. The effects of this project and the positive reactions we got from around the world, including the AFS ChangeMaker Award, made us realize our power to change things for the better.

The geographical position of Turkey and current state we are in was another trigger. Thousands of people come to seek refuge within our borders from our neighboring countries of Iraq and Syria every day. The distressing images of this refugee crisis, combined with the clashes within Turkey that claimed 500 lives within the last year, made it impossible for us not to react. Finally, the June 2013 Gezi Park protests are an important factor and an empowering moment for the youth of our country. That is when we realized that together we can create change.

Our volunteers have long had an urge to do more, make a bigger impact on our society. Now, it’s our time to do that. This is how we see it: it’s not that wanting to do something is humane, but not doing anything is rather inhumane.


Why do you think this initiative is needed and what can AFS volunteers do to address this need?

Perhaps we are naïve, but we never imagined that in the 21st century, we would be surrounded with so much pain. But here we are, and we need to do better. AFS was born out of two world wars. Our founders are volunteer ambulance drivers who carried the wounded from battlefields. Their activities evolved into cultural exchange programs, enabling different people to get to know each other.

Volunteers in Turkey have been yearning to revisit the AFS mission and find more ways to work on fostering intercultural understanding and peace. KArE is not only about doing more, but also about calling more people to our side. We will be opening KArE clubs in schools, communities, around the country and we will be calling all those who believe that we can make a significant contribution to peace through intercultural interaction to come and join us.


What impact do you want to make by this initiative? Who will be affected by it and how?

It’s simple, we want to change the world! That may not sound very realistic, but there’s no harm setting the goal as high as possible. Of course, we will go one step at a time. We will try to impact whomever we can, as many people as possible. Our focus will be on young people; they are the ones who will design the better world we want achieve. We will also target women, as they are the real changemakers of any society.


Which projects do you already have planned and in the making? 

We have several projects in focus this year. Building on our actions in Hakkari is certainly one of them. We want to continue what we have started there and make it even bigger. We will have exchanges, youth camps, trainings for the students, teachers and women of the city.

Another project we deeply care about is partnering up with an Armenian youth NGO, Youth Initiative Centre, to build a joint project team. This year, we will have two workshops to train volunteers who will later work on several projects a year to connect the youth of these two countries.

We are already running workshops under the name “Discrimination Studio” in universities and different communities, focusing on discrimination of different minorities within the society. These workshops will spread in the next year.

“Turkiye Kardesleri” is a project we co-developed with AFS Turkey (Turk Kultur Vakfi) which contains several short-term exchanges between cities from around the. We will continue developing that project this year. We are also seeking partnerships with other NGOs to tackle the refugee crisis and the first KArE clubs in high schools should be open this year.

Our volunteers are quickly coming up with new project ideas, to create an impact beyond our local communities. Globalization has made the world problems our own and we are ready to tackle them head on. We invite everyone to join us!


For more information, and to find out how you can get involved in the KArE initiative, contact AFSGD at or



“I didn’t know refugees were like this…”

What do intercultural dialogue and peace mean in a world with 232 million migrants? Within that huge group, the notions of peace and intercultural learning seem even more relevant to the around 60 million forcibly displaced people (refugees and internally displaced persons). Rahel Aschwanden, a long-term AFS volunteer and a part of #VolunteerVoices, puts these questions into perspective in her latest blog post which was originally published here.

In Switzerland, a currently released film is creating waves: Wonderland (Heimatland) tells the imaginary story of a big storm hitting Switzerland and turning the country upside down. Unrest, hunger, violence… soon the Swiss residents are leaving and seeking asylum in the neighboring countries – only to be turned down at the border. What if we were the refugees…? This is a thought experiment that works for any nation on this planet. What if?

For most nations, we don’t need to use imagination to get a glimpse of what this would look like. In the Swiss case, poverty and hunger has driven thousands of Helvetians to seek a better future in the 19th century. Chile, Argentina and the United States are just some of the countries which bear witness to that immigration through city names, local dialects and family names.

We can also look at it from another perspective: some of the groups which emigrated to the USA, and which are an integral part of the country’s culture, were, for example, the Irish affected by severe famines in the 18th and 19th centuries or the Jewish diaspora who fled the pogroms in Russia and later persecution by the Nazi regime.

Today it’s usually not European citizens who seek a better life. We read every day about the thousands of Syrians, Afghans and Eritreans who are trying to escape the horrendous situation in their own countries and reach safety in Europe. And many have found a new home in neighboring countries – according the UN, more than two million Syrians in Turkey, more than one million in Lebanon and more than 600’000 in Jordan. Compared to that, the 700 000 asylum requests European countries have received from Syrians look like a small number.

Most Europeans know about these refugees from the news. For many, they’re perceived as a threat, as uncontrollable and foreign presence. There is very little effort to apply intercultural learning to this relevant and local situation. From the point of view of the AFS mission to provide intercultural learning opportunities to help people develop the competencies needed for a more just and peaceful world, this is a great opportunity. And some great things are already starting to happen within our organization. I’m wondering, however, how come that my short research has not lead to any results in other parts of the world: at the same time that there is a refugee crisis in Europe, there’s also the Rohingya migrant crisis in Southeast Asia, the Haiti refugee crisis, the rising migration of unaccompanied minors to the USA and many other chances to apply intercultural learning to people in vulnerable situations.

There are many ways in which AFS can include refugees. A very small but powerful personal experience inspired this article:

In October 2015, AFS Switzerland organized an intercultural learning workshop for trainees at a big multinational company. “How can we make this workshop tangible?” was one of the questions my co-facilitator and I had. “How can we show that intercultural learning is not just fun but also links with global citizenship and responsibility?” The idea to create space for an encounter with refugees was an answer to both questions and highly encouraged by our contact person at the company. We set out to find a partner to make this happen. ”We’re totally overwhelmed with work right now and can’t organize any visits,” we heard from the local organizations running the asylum camps. “We could give you a theoretical talk about the refugee crisis”, they offered.

Then, we decided to ask around in volunteer structures. The Solinetz, a community-based organization in Zurich supporting refugees since 2009, was open to our ideas. “You can join us as volunteers at one of our lunch-tables.” And so we did. Their lunch tables are not just free lunch with no questions asked. They follow two hours of German class offered by volunteers who teach an average of 150 students every week. We joined them as kitchen helpers and teaching assistants. Initially, both the 15 trainees in our group and ourselves were quite tense entering this new world. However, the Solinetz lunch-table is such an open and welcoming environment that we soon loosened up.

My co-facilitator and I were very aware of the importance of reflecting about this experience. We talked about power, stereotypes and personal biases both in the preparation and in the debriefing of the experience. Yet it was only after the Solinetz experience that our participants started engaging in passionate discussions. “I didn’t know refugees were like this… open and friendly,” one person admitted, giving room for a great reflection on how refugees are portrayed in the media. “I liked the experience but I don’t have time to volunteer for such an organization,” said another one – leading us to think about how we can contribute to a better experience for refugees in Switzerland starting with the political parties we vote for. We didn’t get as far as doing the thought experiment of “what if it were us”, yet we managed to make the distance between our trainee’s lives and the ones of the refugees smaller.

The workshops with the trainees lasted 3 days, but the two days of “classic” intercultural training will probably not be remembered as much as the half day we spent with wonderful people from Afghanistan, Eritrea, Tibet, Syria, and many more countries. And it’s this experience of humanity that I hope to have small positive impacts in the lives of our participants.

My co-facilitator and I are already thinking about next steps: from people who are unlikely to visit refugees to the people who definitely won’t – we’re dreaming about taking intercultural learning to right wing parties. At the same time, other AFS friends are starting a project helping refugees integrate in Switzerland through an intercultural guide to the Swiss-German language.

With this, I invite all of you to think of ways that we can use intercultural learning even more to help refugees and migrants and to create unlikely human connections between people.

Register Now for The Necessity of Global Competence in the 21st Century Conference

Join us for the second Asia Pacific international forum Intercultural and Global Citizenship Education – The Necessity of Global Competence in the 21st Century, 16-18 March 2016 in Perth, Australia. The forum is organized by AFS Intercultural Programs, SIETAR Australasia, and Asia Society, supported by the University of Western Australia and the Perth Convention Bureau, and it will gather practitioners and international thought leaders for an in-depth, Asia Pacific focused and globally relevant exploration of the importance of intercultural learning and Global Citizenship Education.

This conference builds on a series of events tackling the topic of global citizenship around the world. The series started in 2014 with the AFS Centennial Global Education Symposium, and continued with the first AFS-AAI-SIETAR Intercultural Conference in Indonesia and the Regional Education Forum in Costa Rica in 2015.

Register for the forum here.

The Necessity of Global Competence in the 21st Century is an opportunity to learn how intercultural competence and global citizenship equip individuals and the society to meet the needs of education, business and communities in the 21st century. It is important to consider how this can help us in understanding and addressing the big issues that threaten civil society and community cohesion in many parts of the globe. The participants of the forum will be looking at the big picture, exchanging ideas and learning about the practicalities related to business and education.

The forum has six key thematic areas:

  • Defining Global Citizenship Education and why it is urgently needed
  • Addressing intercultural issues for indigenous communities
  • Improving the profile of intercultural learning and global competence in modern educational practice
  • Understanding and measuring effects of educational mobility
  • Exploring the diverse, innovative pedagogies and assessment approaches to Global Citizenship Education
  • Recommended Global Citizenship Education goals and strategies to achieve them.

Keynote speakers at the Forum include two members of the AFS Educational Advisory Council, Dr. Milton Bennett, director of the Intercultural Development Research Institute (IDRI), and Dr. Nagesh Rao, president and director of the Mudra Institute of Communications, Ahmedabad (MICA), as well as Robert Randall CEO of the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA).

The forum aims to strengthen the collaboration among diverse communities of practice interested in intercultural learning, Global Citizenship Education and global competence in the Asia Pacific Region and beyond. It is a perfect opportunity to advocate for Global Citizenship Education to policy makers and the corporate sector, as well as to form alliances with other educators and academics.