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YFU Blog - Recent stories about Youth for Understanding

Filtering by Tag: Tunisia

Several Nights in Tunisia: Taking YFU's Presence Virtual in North Africa and the Middle East

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We sent our Director of Virtual Exchanges, Erin Helland, to Tunisia to explore how we might increase YFU activities in the MENA Region. Here's what she found:

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Pre-departure: “Tunisia?” It seemed nearly half the people I told about my trip asked this one word question with raised eyebrows and an uncertainty that translated to both “I think I know where that is,” and “is it safe for you there?” I routinely responded, “Yes! Picture Africa. From left to right it goes: Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt – I’ll be fine.” And, then for a brief moment, when stepping out of the airport and into the dry heat of this small, yet influential coastal country, this tiny voice in my head asked, “what are you doing here?”

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First Impressions: I felt genuinely welcomed and comfortable in Tunisia. Everything was both less and more exotic than I imagined. There was an approachable-ness to the people and the culture – which much like here at home, consists of a large middle class. As a woman traveling solo I braced myself for the conservatism that might be visible in a predominantly Muslim country.  I found instead a rather progressive climate where head and arm covering is optional based on personal choice, where it is perfectly acceptable to dine in public or conduct business in mixed company, and where women are strong and vocal community influencers.

Perhaps you'll recall the Arab Spring protests that spread across North Africa started in Tunisia.  Considered the “success story” of the region, Tunisia formed a democracy after the revolution and has not experienced the same severe levels of divide, armed conflict and displacement as its neighbors. There is an overarching sense that though some are challenged by change, many are open to experiment with the latest ideas and opportunities. It is hard to describe the essence of this combined tentativeness and enthusiastic energy – it resembles the “possibilities” felt with the fall of the Berlin Wall, or the hope and anticipation following the historic 2008 US election. My general impression is that youth and adults alike exude a cautious hope for the future...and yet, according to multiple multinational government intelligence sources, this is the same country that sends—percentage-wise and in sheer numbers—the highest number of jihadists to ISIS.

Day One:  The first day I was welcomed to the country by Yassine, the high schooler and YFU alum to Texas who introduced the concept of a virtual program to his teacher. We met in the courtyard of a traditional Arabic guesthouse in Sidi Bou Said, the infamous blue-and-white costal suburb where I was staying. In his exceptional English, he shared that his brother is now on exchange with his former host family, who put previous plans to visit Tunisia on hold due in-part to the terrorist incidents of 2015. We “nerded out” about the current state of affairs within and between our countries; like how, despite challenges and the long road ahead, he is proud of the strides Tunisia is making, and how he aspires to study abroad again and pursue a career path that will allow him to serve his people. 

00157330Youth For Understanding USA2138614.0Normal0falsefalsefalseEN-USJAX-NONE/* Style Definitions */table.MsoNormalTable{mso-style-name:"Table Normal";mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0;mso-tstyle-colband-size:0;mso-style-noshow:yes;mso-style-priority:99;mso-style-parent:"";mso-padding-alt:0in 5.4pt 0in 5.4pt;mso-para-margin:0in;mso-para-margin-bottom:.0001pt;mso-pagination:widow-orphan;font-size:10.0pt;font-family:Futura;mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-theme-font:minor-bidi;}My conversation with YFU Alumnus Yassine started at the guesthouse and continued for several hours at a picturesque café overlooking the bay. Along our walk, he made sure I tried a local “donut” of sorts, and got a jasmine flower from a street vendor. He explained how locals try to be supportive of vendors in light of declining tourism, due in part to the terrorist attacks of 2015.

00157330Youth For Understanding USA2138614.0Normal0falsefalsefalseEN-USJAX-NONE/* Style Definitions */table.MsoNormalTable{mso-style-name:"Table Normal";mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0;mso-tstyle-colband-size:0;mso-style-noshow:yes;mso-style-priority:99;mso-style-parent:"";mso-padding-alt:0in 5.4pt 0in 5.4pt;mso-para-margin:0in;mso-para-margin-bottom:.0001pt;mso-pagination:widow-orphan;font-size:10.0pt;font-family:Futura;mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-theme-font:minor-bidi;}My conversation with YFU Alumnus Yassine started at the guesthouse and continued for several hours at a picturesque café overlooking the bay. Along our walk, he made sure I tried a local “donut” of sorts, and got a jasmine flower from a street vendor. He explained how locals try to be supportive of vendors in light of declining tourism, due in part to the terrorist attacks of 2015.

00139224Youth For Understanding USA1126214.0Normal0falsefalsefalseEN-USJAX-NONE/* Style Definitions */table.MsoNormalTable{mso-style-name:"Table Normal";mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0;mso-tstyle-colband-size:0;mso-style-noshow:yes;mso-style-priority:99;mso-style-parent:"";mso-padding-alt:0in 5.4pt 0in 5.4pt;mso-para-margin:0in;mso-para-margin-bottom:.0001pt;mso-pagination:widow-orphan;font-size:10.0pt;font-family:Futura;mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-theme-font:minor-bidi;}Yassine was presented with a Certificate of Global Citizenship for his dedication to the growth of intercultural understanding among students of Tunisia and the United States through virtual exchanges. We talked about a typical school day, his debate team and the virtual exchange pilot program. After we talked for nearly three hours, he pulled out a notebook to be sure he’d asked all he had intended. Together we dreamed of all the ways we could make YFU’s virtual exchanges accessible across the MENA region.

00139224Youth For Understanding USA1126214.0Normal0falsefalsefalseEN-USJAX-NONE/* Style Definitions */table.MsoNormalTable{mso-style-name:"Table Normal";mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0;mso-tstyle-colband-size:0;mso-style-noshow:yes;mso-style-priority:99;mso-style-parent:"";mso-padding-alt:0in 5.4pt 0in 5.4pt;mso-para-margin:0in;mso-para-margin-bottom:.0001pt;mso-pagination:widow-orphan;font-size:10.0pt;font-family:Futura;mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-theme-font:minor-bidi;}Yassine was presented with a Certificate of Global Citizenship for his dedication to the growth of intercultural understanding among students of Tunisia and the United States through virtual exchanges. We talked about a typical school day, his debate team and the virtual exchange pilot program. After we talked for nearly three hours, he pulled out a notebook to be sure he’d asked all he had intended. Together we dreamed of all the ways we could make YFU’s virtual exchanges accessible across the MENA region.

001144826Youth For Understanding USA6196914.0Normal0falsefalsefalseEN-USJAX-NONE/* Style Definitions */table.MsoNormalTable{mso-style-name:"Table Normal";mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0;mso-tstyle-colband-size:0;mso-style-noshow:yes;mso-style-priority:99;mso-style-parent:"";mso-padding-alt:0in 5.4pt 0in 5.4pt;mso-para-margin:0in;mso-para-margin-bottom:.0001pt;mso-pagination:widow-orphan;font-size:10.0pt;font-family:Futura;mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-theme-font:minor-bidi;}On the Road Again:Meeting the Change-Makers:  My adventures took me from my base in Sidi Bou Said across the lake into Tunis and its sister city Ariana, four hours south to the city of Sfax, and 90 minutes north to Bizerte, where our pilot program initiated. Not only did I get to meet tremendously driven teachers for a deep-dive about the program (and say hello to a few eager students), but I got to also talk to entrepreneurs and association leaders who are curious about YFU. In addition, a new collaboration for 2017 is now underway after a dynamic discussion with a youth organization that prompts high schoolers across the country to examine civil society in a post-democracy Tunisia, simulate elections, approach ways to counter violent extremism, and discover potential career paths. It was perhaps most rewarding to meet face-to-face with the teacher who sponsored the initial spring pilot and who inspired our continued pursuit of programming in Tunisia. 

00198563Youth For Understanding USA4166014.0Normal0falsefalsefalseEN-USJAX-NONE/* Style Definitions */table.MsoNormalTable{mso-style-name:"Table Normal";mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0;mso-tstyle-colband-size:0;mso-style-noshow:yes;mso-style-priority:99;mso-style-parent:"";mso-padding-alt:0in 5.4pt 0in 5.4pt;mso-para-margin:0in;mso-para-margin-bottom:.0001pt;mso-pagination:widow-orphan;font-size:10.0pt;font-family:Futura;mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-theme-font:minor-bidi;}It was my pleasure to hand deliver a Certificate of Global Citizenship to Sonia (center left), the 22-year veteran English teacher in Bizerte who helped get the first program off the ground. Encouraged by her efforts, we were able to expand the fall pilot to include two more countries (Thailand and Indonesia) where now more than 500 students are active in six virtual classrooms. She and I spent a lot of time back-and-forthing through the spring pilot and over the summer break to assess the project and prepare for my visit. In many ways, it felt like I was going to visit a long-lost friend. Sonia is a true YFU advocate and pioneer of the Virtual Exchange Initiative.

00198563Youth For Understanding USA4166014.0Normal0falsefalsefalseEN-USJAX-NONE/* Style Definitions */table.MsoNormalTable{mso-style-name:"Table Normal";mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0;mso-tstyle-colband-size:0;mso-style-noshow:yes;mso-style-priority:99;mso-style-parent:"";mso-padding-alt:0in 5.4pt 0in 5.4pt;mso-para-margin:0in;mso-para-margin-bottom:.0001pt;mso-pagination:widow-orphan;font-size:10.0pt;font-family:Futura;mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-theme-font:minor-bidi;}It was my pleasure to hand deliver a Certificate of Global Citizenship to Sonia (center left), the 22-year veteran English teacher in Bizerte who helped get the first program off the ground. Encouraged by her efforts, we were able to expand the fall pilot to include two more countries (Thailand and Indonesia) where now more than 500 students are active in six virtual classrooms. She and I spent a lot of time back-and-forthing through the spring pilot and over the summer break to assess the project and prepare for my visit. In many ways, it felt like I was going to visit a long-lost friend. Sonia is a true YFU advocate and pioneer of the Virtual Exchange Initiative.

00195543Youth For Understanding USA4163714.0Normal0falsefalsefalseEN-USJAX-NONE/* Style Definitions */table.MsoNormalTable{mso-style-name:"Table Normal";mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0;mso-tstyle-colband-size:0;mso-style-noshow:yes;mso-style-priority:99;mso-style-parent:"";mso-padding-alt:0in 5.4pt 0in 5.4pt;mso-para-margin:0in;mso-para-margin-bottom:.0001pt;mso-pagination:widow-orphan;font-size:10.0pt;font-family:Futura;mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-theme-font:minor-bidi;}In Sfax we went to lunch with Imen, an IT teacher at a high-achieving middle school. She’d reserved seating in the back room of a restaurant where, while talking at high speeds, we’d managed to stuff ourselves with traditional Tunisian food like tomato salad and baguette, shrimp puree soup, grilled dorade fish, and pasta. Several of Imen’s colleagues continued to join us throughout the lunch and the afternoon, and with great enthusiasm, we broke down all aspects of the program – including both the benefits to their students and the potential challenges that come with sharing personal perspectives that differ from those of others.

00195543Youth For Understanding USA4163714.0Normal0falsefalsefalseEN-USJAX-NONE/* Style Definitions */table.MsoNormalTable{mso-style-name:"Table Normal";mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0;mso-tstyle-colband-size:0;mso-style-noshow:yes;mso-style-priority:99;mso-style-parent:"";mso-padding-alt:0in 5.4pt 0in 5.4pt;mso-para-margin:0in;mso-para-margin-bottom:.0001pt;mso-pagination:widow-orphan;font-size:10.0pt;font-family:Futura;mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-theme-font:minor-bidi;}In Sfax we went to lunch with Imen, an IT teacher at a high-achieving middle school. She’d reserved seating in the back room of a restaurant where, while talking at high speeds, we’d managed to stuff ourselves with traditional Tunisian food like tomato salad and baguette, shrimp puree soup, grilled dorade fish, and pasta. Several of Imen’s colleagues continued to join us throughout the lunch and the afternoon, and with great enthusiasm, we broke down all aspects of the program – including both the benefits to their students and the potential challenges that come with sharing personal perspectives that differ from those of others.

00189509Youth For Understanding USA4159714.0Normal0falsefalsefalseEN-USJAX-NONE/* Style Definitions */table.MsoNormalTable{mso-style-name:"Table Normal";mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0;mso-tstyle-colband-size:0;mso-style-noshow:yes;mso-style-priority:99;mso-style-parent:"";mso-padding-alt:0in 5.4pt 0in 5.4pt;mso-para-margin:0in;mso-para-margin-bottom:.0001pt;mso-pagination:widow-orphan;font-size:10.0pt;font-family:Futura;mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-theme-font:minor-bidi;}In Ariana we had coffee with Aicha, a middle school English teacher at the oldest school in the city. Though she already earned her Master’s in English and International Relations, she is also pursuing a degree in Cyber Security/Counter Cyber Terrorism. A member of several civil society programs that focus on internet governance, economic, social and educational policies, Aicha met with us because she is genuinely intrigued by the prospect of exposing her students to other cultures through virtual exchanges and wanted to be able to introduce the concept to her principal and fellow teachers.

00189509Youth For Understanding USA4159714.0Normal0falsefalsefalseEN-USJAX-NONE/* Style Definitions */table.MsoNormalTable{mso-style-name:"Table Normal";mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0;mso-tstyle-colband-size:0;mso-style-noshow:yes;mso-style-priority:99;mso-style-parent:"";mso-padding-alt:0in 5.4pt 0in 5.4pt;mso-para-margin:0in;mso-para-margin-bottom:.0001pt;mso-pagination:widow-orphan;font-size:10.0pt;font-family:Futura;mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-theme-font:minor-bidi;}In Ariana we had coffee with Aicha, a middle school English teacher at the oldest school in the city. Though she already earned her Master’s in English and International Relations, she is also pursuing a degree in Cyber Security/Counter Cyber Terrorism. A member of several civil society programs that focus on internet governance, economic, social and educational policies, Aicha met with us because she is genuinely intrigued by the prospect of exposing her students to other cultures through virtual exchanges and wanted to be able to introduce the concept to her principal and fellow teachers.

0012671523Youth For Understanding USA123178714.0Normal0falsefalsefalseEN-USJAX-NONE/* Style Definitions */table.MsoNormalTable{mso-style-name:"Table Normal";mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0;mso-tstyle-colband-size:0;mso-style-noshow:yes;mso-style-priority:99;mso-style-parent:"";mso-padding-alt:0in 5.4pt 0in 5.4pt;mso-para-margin:0in;mso-para-margin-bottom:.0001pt;mso-pagination:widow-orphan;font-size:10.0pt;font-family:Futura;mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-theme-font:minor-bidi;}The YFU Ripple Effect:  I watched the strength of the YFU exchanges come alive when the experiences of a few alumni rippled across continents and generations to make great strides in Tunisia in a turnaround of less than six months. Our pilot launched there because one student, who went to Texas on a YFU exchange, introduced us to his teacher upon returning home. She then sponsored a “virtual exchange” club of 20 students, which in-turn, set the stage for the fall pilot that now extends to 500 students in several countries. I’m sometimes taken aback when I imagine the impact the "YFU Ripple Effect" has had and can have when multiplied by the 260,000 alumni who have studied abroad through our traditional exchange programs.  

YFU On Ground: I was introduced via our global network to Pedro, a YFU alumnus from Spain whose exchange brought him to a farm in South Dakota in the early '80s.  Now residing in Tunisia, he graciously stepped into the role of lead on-ground YFU volunteer and served as my guardian for the week. He conducted his own outreach to associations and educators—sharing about YFU, and arranging additional appointments in advance of my arrival.  He acted as translator when necessary, drove everywhere so I wouldn’t have to bother with transportation, and even handed me a mobile phone pre-programmed with local contacts. Pedro is a world traveler, linguist, cultural enthusiast and family man, whose career has spanned from working for the UN in Yemen, to freelancing as an NGO consultant. He told me that he volunteers for YFU because it was one of the most influential experiences in the course of his life. I appreciate his friendship, and gained much from his insights before my arrival and during. YFU is fortunate to have him in our corner, passionately advocating for and representing us in country.  

Pedro, YFU Alum and lead volunteer for Tunisia, contacts the Ministry of Education from our "mobile office." We'd just wrapped a strategic planning lunch session with YFU Alum Yassine, Sonia our pioneering teacher, and her daughter. 00126151Youth For Understanding USA1117614.0Normal0falsefalsefalseEN-USJAX-NONE/* Style Definitions */table.MsoNormalTable{mso-style-name:"Table Normal";mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0;mso-tstyle-colband-size:0;mso-style-noshow:yes;mso-style-priority:99;mso-style-parent:"";mso-padding-alt:0in 5.4pt 0in 5.4pt;mso-para-margin:0in;mso-para-margin-bottom:.0001pt;mso-pagination:widow-orphan;font-size:10.0pt;font-family:Futura;mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-theme-font:minor-bidi;}It was incredibly rewarding to be in the company of these two YFU program alumni, knowing that we were working together to build something important to an organization we love.

Pedro, YFU Alum and lead volunteer for Tunisia, contacts the Ministry of Education from our "mobile office." We'd just wrapped a strategic planning lunch session with YFU Alum Yassine, Sonia our pioneering teacher, and her daughter. 00126151Youth For Understanding USA1117614.0Normal0falsefalsefalseEN-USJAX-NONE/* Style Definitions */table.MsoNormalTable{mso-style-name:"Table Normal";mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0;mso-tstyle-colband-size:0;mso-style-noshow:yes;mso-style-priority:99;mso-style-parent:"";mso-padding-alt:0in 5.4pt 0in 5.4pt;mso-para-margin:0in;mso-para-margin-bottom:.0001pt;mso-pagination:widow-orphan;font-size:10.0pt;font-family:Futura;mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-theme-font:minor-bidi;}It was incredibly rewarding to be in the company of these two YFU program alumni, knowing that we were working together to build something important to an organization we love.

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Right Where We Want to Be: It was a rewarding and fruitful visit, and I’m so grateful to those who made it so. Indeed, along the way, this island of democracy proved that it is well positioned to act as our “home base” as we strategically develop a YFU presence across the MENA region.  Our volunteer alumni, the teachers, and even the new friends I met on this trip have proven they stand ready to support our development within the country and beyond. 

From what I can tell, the country’s stability lies in the continued creation of opportunities for the people—especially in providing a tangible, optimistic future for its youth—and perhaps our programming provides one avenue to supporting just that. YFU’s exchanges are beyond academic, more than fun pictures about food or holidays—they function as a means of engaging with “the other,” or that which is unfamiliar to us, helping to combat extremist views, and get youth engaged with the world.  While sharing their own experiences openly, students have the opportunity to increase self-awareness, develop intercultural communications competencies, and learn for themselves that when you get right down to it, our similarities are greater than our differences.

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 Learn more about the Virtual Exchange Initiative at yfuusa.org/virtual-exchanges