"I didn’t know refugees were like this…"

Today is the International Day of Migrants, which gives us an opportunity to reflect on what Intercultural Dialogue and Peace mean in a world with 232 million migrants. Within that huge group, the notions of Peace and ICL seem even more relevant to the around 60 million forcibly displaced people (refugees and internally displaced persons). Yet, their voices and presence within AFS have been very limited - which is hopefully about to change.


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 neighbouring 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?



Scene from Wonderland

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 neighbouring 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 our mission, this is a great opportunity for AFS. 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 ICL to people in vulnerable situations.


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


In October 2015, AFS Switzerland organized an ICL 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 ICL 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 organisations running the asylum camps. “We could give you a theoretical talk about the refugee crisis”, we were 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.

Screen Shot 2015-12-18 at 16.13.17.pngSolidarity activities offered by Solinetz

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” ICL 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 ICL 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 ICL even more to help refugees and migrants and to create unlikely human connections between people. Happy International Migrants Day.


*Rahel (28) is a Swiss currently living in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Having been an AFS volunteer for many years, she is currently part of #VolunteerVoices, the Swiss Global Education Task Force AGGL and other AFS groups.