AFS to Condemn all Types of Discrimination

Just a few days after the March 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.

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.

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