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Dear readers,

The AFS Intercultural Learning Blog has moved! We invite you to continue reading and following us on our new page here, where we will continue to share new and exciting blog posts about intercultural learning and global citizenship education, events, theories and practices. To get in touch with us, don’t hesitate to e-mail us at icl@afs.org.

Happy reading,
AFS Intercultural Programs


Bringing Refugees and Their Adopted Communities Together Through Intercultural Learning

For refugee students and the communities they are moving into, intercultural understanding and integration are critical. Over the past 69 years, AFS Intercultural Programs has helped people from different cultures learn how to live together and become global citizens through a worldwide network of more than 40,000 volunteers. Working with schools and education experts around the globe through our study abroad and other programs, AFS has developed educational strategies and activities to help on the path to integration. Today, on World Refugee Day, Melissa Liles, Chief Education Officer for AFS Intercultural Programs, shares some of these tools with you.

This story is reprinted with permission from the Asia Society EdWeek Blog, and Connect: Intercultural Insights for Global Citizens posted on 20 June 2016.

Classrooms can be the ideal safe space for children to build community beyond their homes and neighborhoods. So, for many refugee families, after security, housing, and health concerns are addressed, enrolling children into local schools is their top priority. Schools not only ground students in a supported daily routine, they can also play a crucial role in successfully integrating children from recently immigrated families into a new, unfamiliar culture.

The presence of refugees in the classroom also provides a learning opportunity for all people connected to it: not only the displaced students, but also the students from the local host community and the teachers themselves can use this as a unique chance to practice being a global citizen “in real time.” This approach recognizes the positive aspects of, and growth potential in, a very complex and challenging situation.

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Creating the Environment

To achieve this, schools must first be welcoming, supportive and caring places where differences are embraced. From the outset, administrators and teachers must try to create an environment where cultural missteps can be transformed into teachable moments for everyone, and where respect and open communication are core values.

Easier said than done: No matter how empathetic, open, and tolerant we may want to be, accepting people who are different from us can be difficult. In the case of refugees, this challenge is only compounded when stereotypes and media coverage fuel prejudices, and discrimination generates distrust.

Intercultural understanding is a powerful tool to help individuals, families, and schools “learn to live together,” one of the four pillars of 21st century learning. Using non-formal learning methods to help people make sense of and cope with real-life experiences in new environments has helped individuals, families, and diverse classrooms and schools move beyond fear and suspicion to respect and appreciate one another.

We are not naïve. Unlike the trauma experienced by many refugees, students on exchange programs (like those facilitated by AFS) willingly choose to temporarily relocate into unfamiliar communities and cultures. Sometimes these transitions are easy; sometimes bigotry prevails. If all else fails, they can always return home. Refugees do not have the same privileges. Many need specialized support from trauma counselors to process the tremendous changes they are undergoing. And, ideally, they will have globally competent guides who can help them translate not only the new languages they are encountering, but also the new values and ways those are expressed in everyday actions and behaviors.

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Educational Strategies and Activities

Nonetheless, some fundamental intercultural learning exercises can be readily and effectively applied in the classroom to foster global citizenship and help all parties grow. Intercultural understanding and integration (where newcomers introduce their own cultural values into a community and enrich a greater, multicultural society) should be the focus of educational activities, not assimilation (trying to force others to conform to our own dominant values, attitudes, ways of being).

I’d like to share activities and ideas that, with some simple adjustments for your grade level and community circumstances, can work in classrooms for students of all ages:

1. Define the history of “us.”

Discuss the history of both indigenous peoples and refugees in your country, weaving in current events and refugee stories. Remember that everyone has a role to play in intercultural learning, as well as new things to share and learn. To facilitate this dialogue, devote some class time to help students get to know their classmates, where they come from, and why and how they landed in your country, even if centuries or millennia ago. The stories of refugee students may be more complicated than those of others, so consider assigning homework about the topic, watch and analyze a short video about refugees in class and integrate activities in your coursework to help students understand the basic terms and events related to refugees.

2. Encourage students to share their cultural stories.

Start by running a “What is culture?” workshop to explore what culture is and how all of us are profoundly shaped by it. Be sure to emphasize how culture is much more than nationality. Then, once the new students in your class master the local language sufficiently and are ready to share, invite them to give a short presentation about their family, school and friends in the country of origin — or other dimensions of their cultural identities that are important to them. At the same time, ask your other students to trace their roots, too. Sharing personal stories and self-identities reinforces a sense of pride and achievement in students, while helping schoolmates relate and empathize with newcomers. You can use social media, storytelling, or role-plays to bring to life even more elements of cultures.

3. Confront stereotypes and prejudice with empathy.

Recognizing, challenging, and reframing stereotypes and misrepresentationsis more important now than ever before. In unfamiliar situations, with biased media reports and without support, many young students may turn to stereotyping their new peers, developing prejudice for a lifetime. Classroom activities should help the students understand what stereotypes are, how they are created, and what better ways there are to deal with the unknown.

Build on the students’ self-presentations and explorations of personal roots to hold a discussion about stereotypes and prejudice. After discussing what everyone has in common, help the students understand the diversity that exists within the same age or gender group, demonstrated through their personal stories. The key takeaways for students should be to suspend judgment when they meet new people, that “one size doesn’t fit all,” and to understand how limiting prejudice and stereotypes are.

4. Foster action that appreciates difference to solve problems.

Empowering students to connect, empathize, and collaborate are 21st century skills that all young people need to successfully live and navigate increasingly diverse communities in an interconnected global world. Solving complex, real-world challenges and implementing sustainable solutions requires that students act in ways that acknowledge and embrace differences.

One way to increase the awareness of diverse people in your own backyard — and the issues affecting them — is to do a community mapping activity with all of your students. With this activity the students will explore and better understand needs and opportunities in their neighborhood. Explore how these local groups and their needs are related to others in other areas of your country, your region or beyond. Compare the maps of the new students with those who have grown up locally: How do these perceptions differ? What are different ideas to act on these issues?

Even better, beyond discussing and thinking, take action: Get your class involved in a local volunteer activity that involves different cultures. Collaborating on small yet meaningful projects — and pointing out how these extend to the world beyond — helps everyone gain new perspectives about living in a multicultural world and gain the skills they need as active global citizens.

Get Help and Give Help

If it seems overwhelming to do all of the above, know that you are not alone. The greater Global Citizenship Education movement, including AFS, is ready, willing, and equipped to support your efforts globally. Working with educators to teach students about diversity, respect and critical thinking is key in creating open-minded global citizens who are curious and proactive in accepting new members and adapting to unfamiliar circumstances… and it’s what we do every day.

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Additional resources:



Educating for Peace — New Issue of Connect: Intercultural Insights for Global Citizens

Educating and empowering global and active citizens to build more just and peaceful societies has been the mission of AFS for decades. Launched on World Refugee Day, this issue of Connect: Intercultural Insights for Global Citizens explores how intercultural learning works as a foundation of peace. When peace-building and humanitarian work call for conflict resolution, intercultural competence is required to develop culturally sensitive and appropriate solutions.

You can access the new issue of Connect: Intercultural Insights for Global Citizens here: medium.com/connect-intercultural-insights-for-global-citizens or check out the individual articles below.

Educating for Peace

Although many peace-building organizations include intercultural education as an important aspect of global citizenship education, exactly how does this type of learning help foster peace? Learn why we dedicated this issue of Connect to exploring how intercultural learning works as a building block to peace in Educating for Peace: The Role of Intercultural Learning.

Take a closer look at what educating for peace means in schools today and how AFS and other global education organizations can foster it. Our Chief Education Officer, Melissa Liles, explores how we can tap the power of intercultural learning in the classroom to help transform refugees and all students into young global citizensClick here to read her concrete suggestions for activities and discussions to be used in schools to foster intercultural understanding and personal growth.

Learn about the importance of providing psychosocial support and education to different types of migrants. Guglielmo Schinina of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) advises that viable solutions require both the host communities and new members to make a conscious effort to learn to live together. To read about the concrete recommendations about respect and humanity, as well as the role of education for migrants, click here.

Learn more about how the European Federation for Intercultural Learning (EFIL) is putting intercultural learning to work. Throughout the year, EFIL – the umbrella organization for AFS in Europe – is sponsoring seminars and other activities to teach AFS volunteers and others how to use intercultural learning in their communities, especially in European countries where refugees and other migrants are a priority.

Test out our learning session outline that offers practical tools and activities (including students’ videos) to explore the topics of migration and education. Based on a Plural+ Youth Video Contest submission and discussion guides, this activity will help young people develop more empathy and improve their critical thinking skills.

Now is the time to learn more about and register for Fostering Global Competency and Creating Pathways to Study Abroad”, AFS workshop which will precede the 2016 IIE Generation Study Abroad Summit in October 2016 in Washington DC, USA. Explore what other educational events took place during the past few months and which topics AFS explored through meaningful partnerships around the world.

Discover an exciting new way AFS is inspiring young people and others to volunteer through a new secondary school curriculum and museum exhibition. The Volunteers: Americans Join World War I, 1914–1919 provides a unique approach to volunteerism, intercultural competence and global citizenship education. By honoring the past and speaking to the future, this project raises awareness about the volunteer efforts during World War I, and inspires young people to become active global citizens today.

We would love to hear your thoughts, reactions and input about education for peace. Leave a comment below, like, share or tweet @AFS!

Relevance of Interfaith Dialogue in a Diverse Society

What is the role of interfaith dialogue for creating diverse societies and organizations, like AFS? The seminar “Islam in Europe – between Assimilation and Rejection” organized by the European Federation for Intercultural Learning (EFIL) earlier this year addressed this challenging topic and inspired many AFSers to continue thinking and analyzing this topic. You can read more in our previous blog post, and today Jeroen Vandenbempt, an EVS (European Voluntary Service) volunteer in AFS Noway, ponders the origins and reasons for Islamophobia and challenges us to stand against it.

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You might have seen it on TV or heard it while listening to people talking on the bus: “Islam is the reason for all our problems. Muslims are terrorists, they don’t adapt to our culture, steal our jobs and take advantage of our social welfare system. They are all rapists”.

If by now you are nodding your head in agreement, we have a problem. If you disagree, but don’t know how to react, we have a problem as well. In this article, I will try to prove you that Islam isn’t a bad thing, and I will give you possibilities to reflect on how to combat islamophobia. But foremost, I want to start a debate on the role we as human beings, as AFSers, as an intercultural organization have in fighting islamophobia, racism and discrimination in general.

But what is the real reason people are scared, and is this fear justified? Fear always comes from somewhere, whether we realize it or not. With Islamophobia it is no different. One of the biggest reasons we are scared now, is terrorism.  Extremists attacking us, attacking our values, hurting our society with the aim of influencing and changing it, is a scary thing. But it is not a “Muslim thing”. Most Islamic scholars and believers say violence is not acceptable within their faith. And there are just as well extremists in other religions and among non-believers (but there is, for example, no Christianophobia). The thing is that when a non-Muslim does something wrong, we just see a bad person, but when a Muslim extremist does the same thing, it is the whole Muslim community who is to blame.  ‘The economist’ published an interesting chart about it.

Source: http://www.economist.com/blogs/graphicdetail/2016/03/daily-chart-15 (25 April 2016)

A painful example is the comparison between the bombings in Belgium, right before the seminar, and the attack of Anders Breivik in Norway in 2011. If we were to believe the media, the Belgian perpetrators were only Muslim (and nothing beside that) and they spoke for all Muslims. Breivik, on the other hand, was portrayed as a crazy extremist individual. No one asked Norwegians to defend themselves for the behavior of the individual, whereas Muslims are often questioned about the attacks, as if they had something to do with it.

“And what about the Muslims taking over our world?” Another myth! A survey in 2014 asked Belgians about the perception of the Muslim community in the country. Respondents thought on average that 29% of the population was Muslim, where the number in reality is only 6%.

Source: http://carrieonadventures.com/inspiration/graphics/worldreligions-detailed.png (25 April 2016)

Important for the chart: Islam in one country is not the same as it is in another, and looking at countries as “Muslim countries” (making them all to be the same) is not only wrong, it is dangerous as well. It is in this way we start creating stereotypes and prejudices.

Are there religions that are more prone to violence than others (for example Islam)? Violence in religion has always existed in order to convey opinions, change lifestyles or to battle oppressors. But it depends more on where and on the situation people are in than on the religion. And although some religions are portrayed as more peaceful than others, there is no actual evidence to support this.

What if fear turns into hate? It is a natural reaction for people to fight to protect what they believe is theirs. The “pyramid of hate” (source: Jewish Contribution to an Inclusive Europe (CEJI) [1]) shows that the bigger or more outspoken your hate is, the worst it gets. But it all starts small.

As (volunteer) youth workers, we don’t have to address people operating in the two top layers. However, every time a participant in our programs discriminates, or even just tells a racist joke, we have to act. And even before that, we need to make them aware that people say such things that aren’t ok, and what effect it has on others.

So when was the last time you made a discriminatory comment or joke, without actually meaning anything with it? And when was the last time you stood up against such a comment? Or if you didn’t stand up to it, what stopped you? Should we in fact stand up to others?

A story of a member of the Forum of European Muslim Youth and Student Organisations (FEMYSO) [2] might not answer the question, but will definitely make you think:

A Muslim woman, wearing a hijab (head scarf) while going to university, is asked, in front of about 400 students, by her professor to either uncover her head, or to leave. In the lecture hall, two fellow students stand up and challenge the professor. When the woman later goes to a meeting of FEMYSO, and talks about the event, the message she has, is that it felt great to know she was not alone in that moment. That if somebody tries to harm her, others will stand beside her. The feeling of togetherness was a good feeling. She didn’t feel patronized, or more humiliated because of people standing up for her. In order to create change, we need to stand together.

Important here is, that it wasn’t two people taking action for her, but with her. That “togetherness”, instead of “them and us”, also referred to as “othering” is very important. In order to tackle Islamophobia, we need to tackle all forms of phobia (related to minorities). In order to tackle discrimination of Muslims, we need to tackle all forms of discrimination. You can bring focus to one problem more than others in your work. But when you are talking about Islamophobia you need to see it in the bigger picture as well. That holistic view of the problem in all its forms is what will in the end make a better world.

So should we address Islamophobia as a singular thing? Or see interfaith dialogue as an independent concept? It seems hard to do so, as it is linked to migration, the refugee crisis and terrorism, and to gender issues and homophobia, and to general human rights, and so on and so forth.

Who is responsible for creating that change we desire? Is it something we as individuals should work on? Does AFS, as an organization that strives for peace through understanding and intercultural learning, have a role in it? And if so, what is that role? What is it, we as AFSers can bring to the table?

If we want to create change through AFS, we need to stand as one. And so I write this article in the hopes that you, readers, start thinking, that you start discussing. And if you think this is a topic that should be addressed, as a singular thing or as part of a bigger picture, you are the ones that need to make AFS take action. Because it is the members of AFS, that decide in the end.

I would be lying if I said that unlike other media and writers, I wasn’t trying to influence you. This piece is filled with bias and very much so my opinions. And though I used credible information, as much as possible, I am the one who decided what to mention and what not to mention. So, dear reader, please be aware of this fact, see through it and form your own opinion. Try to answer my questions yourself. Talk to others about this with an open mind. And in the end, take a stand, be the change you want to see, and let us make this world better, one person at a time.


Jeroen Vandenbempt is a Belgian (Flemish) AFS volunteer with a passion for diversity. He is active as trainer in AFS BFL, NOR and EFIL, as well as in WJNH (an organisation for LGBT youth in Flanders). He has participated in several seminars on diversity and minorities, the last being the EFIL study session on Islam in Europe. He is currently working at the AFS Norway office as an EVS volunteer with support of ‘Erasmus+’ of the European Union through ‘Aktiv Ungdom’.

[1] An international non-profit organization established in 1991, CEJI stands with individuals and organizations of all religions, cultures and backgrounds to promote a diverse and inclusive Europe. For more information: visit http://www.ceji.org/

[2] FEMYSO’s mission is to facilitate development, networking and cooperation between European Muslim youth and student organizations and to be their representative voice within all European institutions. For more information: visit http://www.femyso.org/

Understanding Culture Using Metaphors

What is the image that first pops in your mind when you want to explain what culture is? Is it a tree, an onion or an iceberg? Or is it something completely different? Najmuzzaman Mohammad, a board member of AFS India and a Qualified Trainer for the AFS Intercultural Link Learning Program, shares different metaphors and models of culture to help shed a light on this complex term.

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Over the years, numerous scholars have come up various definitions of culture and because of the complex definitions, it has become difficult to give a simple explanation of culture. This is where metaphors come in to aid the understanding of culture. Merriam Webster’s dictionary defines metaphor as “a figure of speech in which a word or phrase literally denoting one kind of object or idea is used in place of another to suggest a likeness or analogy between them”.

There are various well-known metaphors like the tree model, onion model and iceberg model which have been used in AFS extensively. Similarly, I will introduce some more models and metaphors to aid the understanding of culture.

Geert Hofstede, a Dutch social psychologist, defines culture as the “software of the mind”. It is the collective programming of the mind which distinguishes the members of one group or category of people from another. Culture is a collective phenomenon, because it is at least partly shared with people who live or lived within the same social environment, which is where it was learned. Culture is learned, not inherited. It derives from one’s social environment, not from one’s genes.

Culture should be distinguished from human nature on one side, and from an individual’s personality on the other:

An interesting modification of this concept by Christian Höferle, a cultural business consultant, is that our body, our physical being is like the hardware of a computer. Culture is its operating system. If you take a baby from, let’s say, China and you raise it in Brazil by a Brazilian family with Brazilian cultural values, it will always look like a Chinese child and it will grow up to look like a Chinese adult – but it will very likely speak Brazilian Portuguese and it will display mainly those behavioral preferences that are generally associated with Brazilian culture.

Milton Bennett
, the founding director and CEO of the Intercultural Development Research Institute (IDRInstitute), defines culture as a “river” both carved and constrained by its banks. However, he criticizes his own definition by saying, “The seemingly related idea of a river with tributaries flowing into it strikes me as being another paradigmatically confused metaphor, since it implies that cultural diversity (relativism) disappears into a transcendent unity (positivism).”

Culture can also be likened to a “city map”. According to this metaphor, culture provides its members with a representations of how to do things. Keep in mind that there is more than one road leading to Rome! A city map shows us how to get from one place to the other, using the best way to get there in the least amount of time and with the least amount of effort. Culture functions similarly: it is a map that contains information we need so that we know how to interpret behaviors, whether linguistic or non-verbal. For example: if someone says “I hate to bother you, but…”, some people will recognize that a request is about to be made because it is a cultural pattern typical to many English speaking communities. However, you wouldn’t use the same linguistic pattern in German because the word “hate” is considered to be too strong. Instead, a request would begin with background information concerning a situation that needs action, and then end with a request formula. (Naturally these are not the only ways to make a request). Our map is learned over the many years that we are socialized when we were children, youngsters and young adults.

Roosevelt Thomas, a well-known diversity leader, defines culture as “jelly beans”. All jelly beans in the jar are “diverse” not just the red ones or purples ones. Thomas also presents culture as a house – an elephant can invite a friend giraffe to live together, but the giraffe will not be able to stay long in the elephant’s low ceilinged house.

A very popular metaphor for culture is the “melting pot”, often used in the United States. It is a metaphor for a heterogeneous society becoming more homogeneous, the different elements “melting together” into a harmonious whole with a common culture. It is particularly used to describe the assimilation of immigrants to the United States. However, this metaphor has been criticized and an alternative metaphor of the salad bowl has taken its place. In the salad bowl metaphor, immigrant cultures maintain their original integrity in the new national salad.

The last metaphor that I would introduce is the metaphor of an “organism”. Culture, like an organism, uses the environment (other cultures) to grow but maintains boundaries so its uniqueness is not destroyed. Within a culture there will be different functions and roles, yet there is a common being.

Sometimes, metaphors tend to oversimplify culture and may ignore some diverse parts but they provide a good starting point to understand the basic essence of culture. Also, not one metaphor can completely and exclusively define all features of culture and therefore, we need to use multiple metaphors to understand the different aspects of culture.

Read more about this topic in our earlier post Is culture like an onion, an iceberg, or some kind of computer software? by Dunja Zivanovic or in the Concepts and Theories of Culture for AFS & Friends document.