IOU Respect is a program that was established by Hosteling International after 9/11. Representatives from the different HI associations met together to discuss the apparent need for greater cultural understanding between people from Western countries and those of predominantly Muslim countries. And what better way to bridge that gap than by creating an annual program that brings together youth from these countries for a full week of cross-cultural exchange.
The year that I participated it was hosted in Chicago (one of my favorite cities in the world!). Participants from the U.S., France, Germany, Tunisia, and Egypt arrived at the hostel excited and unsure about what they had gotten themselves into. The itinerary went as follows: In the mornings we would attend workshops where we would talk about our different cultures, the perceived differences, and if these differences actually meant something. Then at night we would have free time to explore and even partake in some city excursions.
Engaging in different ice-breaking activities while exploring Chicago as a group turned out to be a lot of fun. We got to go up the Skydeck (previously called the Sears Tower), listen to music in the park, go on a scavenger hunt throughout the city, visit Cedar lake, etc. My favorite among the activities was when we got to go to the Green Mill Lounge, a jazz club that Al Capone used to frequent. The music over there was fabulous as was the swing dancing!
While our outings provided light-hearted fun, the workshops were a more serious time for engaging in discussion. In fact, the workshops were at times really intense. People would get into passionate discussions about politics, stereotypes, and in particular religion. During the religion session, there was a really uncomfortable moment where a participant insinuated that it’s silly that in some people’s tiny little minds there is a man controlling things on Earth, a.k.a. God. However, the instant they said it, they realized that regardless of people’s beliefs it’s not necessary to to refer to them as people with”tiny little minds”. This moment reminded us all that albeit our personal beliefs it’s still important to be respectful of others, and not patronizing.
Throughout the workshops there were definitely some moments of unease like during the religion workshop, but because of the positive environment for discussion that we had created, we left those workshops with a better understanding of ourselves and our peers. By becoming friends and constantly working on maintaining an environment of respect and open-mindedness we were able to get past the things that separated us, and find common ground.
It was a positive life changing experience for me and I highly recommend taking up the opportunity to participate in this incredible program!