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Making a Difference Through Intercultural Dialogue

by Hiba B. Ibrahim

“When you meet your friend on the roadside or in the market place, let the spirit in you move your lips and direct your tongue. Let the voice within your voice speak to the ear of his ear; for his soul will keep the truth of your heart as the taste of the wine is remembered. When the colour is forgotten and the vessel is no more”.

The Prophet, Gibran Kahlil Gibran

As education practitioners, there are always critical moments in our profession that make us reflect on our work impact and why we do what we do in the first place. One of the most unforgettable moments of mine was back in 2016, when I was still working as a program coordinator for virtual exchange programs at an intercultural education organization. I was on a field visit to the local learning center for Syrian refugee learners participating from Jordan in a short-term virtual exchange program on the Syrian refugee crisis. When it was time to talk to potential student participants, and after sharing a bit about the program, I faced the class with this question: “So I shared a bit about the program guys, I am curious to know why you think you might want to participate! What benefits do you think you could obtain from this experience?” The first answer came from 13-year-old Ahmad. With his eyes meeting mine he said: “I want people to know that I am more than just a refugee.” I scanned other faces across the room to see Ahmad’s peers nodding in agreement.

On the ride back to the office I couldn’t but think about Ahmad’s statement. When describing intercultural communication, Byram et al. (2002) clarify that when people talk they don’t just exchange information, but rather see each other as individuals who belong to certain social groups in their community. While my colleagues and I seemed to identify participants as refugees and non-refugees, one student succeeded in reminding us that knowledge about one’s self and others and how social groups function and interact in a society is a key dimension of intercultural competence. Intercultural dialogue, in that sense, expands to include opportunities to make choices and develop creative abilities that convert challenges and stereotypes into new forms of expression (Kochoska, 2014). The short encounter I had with the Syrian youth inspired me to reflect on the curricular activities developed for the exchange and invest in encounters which help students see their own struggles in light of others’ (Byram, 1997); to realize that issues such as displacement, loss, and trauma can be experienced differently by us all, yet can’t define who we are or what we are capable of achieving. Our new goal with the classroom activities and the facilitated asynchronous discussion forums was to enrich critical reflection on life challenges and the positive opportunities they bring to the participants’ lives every day.

One good example is the activity: A Day of Our Lives, through which participants were encouraged to deepen dialogue on sociocultural issues they face and opportunities for positive change in their local community. The suggested questions established intercultural interpretation and relating skills by having students interpret and reflect on the multimodal texts of their stories. Through the asynchronous dialogue, they managed to speak more confidently about their struggles and critically reflect on experiences of hardship and opportunity. In fact, some participants managed to work creatively with their peers’ stories by creating new digital texts, reflecting on the topic discussed. One of the most memorable comments made was an animated digital story shared by a student in the United States of America in response to a story created by a Syrian student in Jordan, imagining the latter’s future as a successful engineer. His caption was: “It seems that the crisis in Syria made you strong and confident. I could see you pursue your dream as a successful engineer already.”

Throughout my career in intercultural education, I have taken on various roles as a language instructor, dialogue facilitator, curriculum developer, and teacher trainer. As much as I have observed dedication and passion among teachers for intercultural competence, I have also seen hesitation and, in some cases, refusal to discuss sensitive and critical issues, including politics, religion and gender. Some of the arguments teachers make include: “this is a controversial issue that might cause problems”; “it is hard to make them understand”; and “we don’t focus on these topics in class.” Research in the IC field shows that as much as dialogue has great impact on deepening participants’ understanding of diverse perspectives and practices, it also comes with challenges and miscommunications that can be turned into critical learning opportunities in intercultural interaction (Li, 2012; MacInnis & Portelli, 2002; O’Dowd, 2007). Thus, an important question that we all need to constantly reflect on as intercultural practitioners is: why dialogue? Remembering the fact that dialogue is an opportunity to embrace difference with confidence encourages us, and learners alike, to reflect critically on who we are and how we communicate ourselves to others. As educators who care about students’ personal growth, we want to help them learn how to be critical and respectful, curious and open-minded, reasonable and empathetic. As 13-year-old Ahmad would put it: we all are more than what others think we are. The more we practice dialogue, the more we challenge ourselves to reflect deeply on who we are and how we perceive others around us as well.

            While we are all busy preparing for the intercultural competence experiences for our upcoming academic year, we should equally prepare ourselves to see opportunities born in uncertainties, and this needs practice. If we seize every conversation we have as an opportunity for committing to knowing other human beings and learning more about ourselves and the world around us, we could do the world a huge favor.

Figure 1: One of the Creating Positive Change activities which students work on asynchronously before the videoconference

References

Byram, M. (1997). Teaching and assessing intercultural communicative competence. Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.

Byram, M., Gribkova, B. & Starkey, H. (2002). Developing the Intercultural Dimension in Language Teaching: A Practical Introduction for Teachers. Council of Europe: Strasbourg.

Kochoska, J. (2014). Intercultural dialogue as powerful instrument for development of the student’s intercultural competence. Издание, 6(3). DOI: 10.15547/PF.2015.029.

Lee, L. (2012). Engaging study abroad students in intercultural learning through blogging and ethnographic interviews. Foreign Language Annals, 45(1), 7–21.

MacInnis, C. & Portelli, J. P. (2002). Dialogue as research. Journal of Thought, 37(2), 33-44.

O ’Dowd, R. (2007). The Use of Videoconferencing and E-mail as Mediators of Intercultural Student  Ethnography. In Belz, J. A. & Thorne, S. L. (Eds.). Internet-mediated Intercultural Foreign Language Education (pp.86-120). Heinle & Heinle.


Hiba Ibrahim is a PhD student in Applied Linguistics at York University in Canada. She also serves as the WCIGC Resource Team Co-Leader. She can be contacted at hibabasibrahim@gmail.com.

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