It was a steamy 105 degrees when I landed in Cairo for this year’s IOU Respect program visit. Any discomfort quickly vanished with the kind welcome I received from my Egyptian hosts and the easy collegiality evident among IOU Respect participants who two weeks earlier were virtual strangers to each other. Yet my keenest take away relates to those who collaboratively deliver it.
IOU Respect is a partnership of national hostelling associations in Egypt, France, Germany, Lebanon, Tunisia and the USA. College-aged youth from the six countries engage for two weeks in a professionally facilitated program that encourages dialogue and exchange while staying in hostels.
I travelled to Cairo because one IOU Respect tradition is that participants gather on the final day of the program to celebrate their journey together and share their experiences. I was there to represent HI USA, meet the participants and learn about their time together.
Every IOU Respect program seeks to incorporate the unique features of the host country, which this year led to a closing ceremony as part of a dinner cruise along the Nile River. As the boat pushed away from the shore, conversation quickly accelerated. I found this year’s participants to be an engaging group, well-spoken and intelligent 18-23 year olds who had made the decision to spend part of their summer in the exciting but challenging work of intercultural exchange. That in itself distinguished each one of them. But their common energy seemed their defining characteristic. Conversations were animated, laughter easily shared, and insights beyond their years effortlessly expressed.
Yet a cultural exchange program like IOU Respect has many layers of involvement.
Leading up to my visit, the commitment of staff and volunteers across all six countries was front and center. These stalwarts communicate with each other virtually year round, culminating with each year’s program. Afterwards they gather to evaluate program results and plan for the next year. They take on the formidable job of securing visas (an arduous and sometimes quixotic task!). And in joining together on a common program that crosses national boundaries, they build their own cross-cultural strengths for a greater good.
On the river cruise I also met several of this year’s IOU Respect “teamers.” These seasoned volunteers live side by side with program participants and are available for encouragement and support. HI USA recruits outstanding former IOU Respect participants to serve as its teamers, creating an opportunity for leadership and a new level of cultural interaction. In Egypt this multinational group seemed to find their own collective initiative and understanding.
The next morning came slowly as I shook off my jet lag. Yet I was quickly invigorated by an afternoon lunch with Egypt’s national association leaders and joined by a Tunisian colleague. Looking out over the Nile, we shared for several hours our collective aspirations for IOU Respect and the organizational importance of cultural youth exchanges.
In a discordant world, IOU Respect is its own language of teamwork, civility and reflection.