by Noemie Pagan, Education and Intercultural Learning Coordinator, AFS France

More than 180 students and teachers from over 40 countries gathered in Strasbourg, France, from 9 to 11 November at the Forum titled “Engaging for Peace in Europe”. 100 years after the end of World War I, Strasbourg – and more specifically the Alsace region – that hosts many of the European institutions, was a very symbolic place to celebrate the French-German friendship and empower youth to act on new challenges for peace in Europe like the rise of populism and racism, environmental issues, gender inequalities etc.

This Forum was organized by AFS Germany and AFS France to inspire students to actively contribute to positive change in their communities and continue the legacy of peace building started by the founders of AFS (American Field Service) more than 100 years ago. Creating a song about racism and discrimination, organizing an event with homeless people around their high school, having a clean-up walk in their city are some examples of how the students want to have an impact in their local communities.

“Our class from Offenburg would like to fight against sexism by performing a theatre play at school.With a heavy heart, we said goodbye to our new friends from France and all over the world but agreed that we would like to exchange our ideas again through the projects and possibly even work across borders.” –Jörg S., teacher from Germany

The Forum started in the European Parliament by inviting students to reflect on what peace means to them, mapping the problems in their communities. The workshops were widely inspired and based on AFS’s Effect+ manual, that puts the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals in the local context and empowers students to advance them. Matching their passions with the most pressing local challenges, the students then set off to design projects to tackle these issues. Around 10 of their teachers also received training from AFS to improve their intercultural and mentoring skills, and be able to guide the students throughout the implementation of their projects. During the school year, students, teachers and AFS volunteers will work together in putting these projects in practice. You can find out more about how these develop here.

Experts from international organizations like the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Mouvement de la paix, Graines de Paix, SINGA (an organization developing cooperation between refugees and their hosting society), IRNC (Research Institute on Non-Violence Conflict Resolution) and Amnesty International gave lectures about peace, non-violent communication and theories of change, as well as making connections between peace and education, environment, human rights and migrations. The students especially enjoyed the presentation of Mirela Hrnjic from AFS Bosnia & Herzegovina, who told her personal story from the war in the Balkans in the 1990s, and why it is crucial to prevent similar wars from reoccurring.

The students participated in field trips in Colmar, France, where the main battlefields of World War I were, and connected the legacy of World War I with issues concerning present-day Europe, such as xenophobia, migration, the rise of populism, racism, and extremist politics.

“My favorite moment was when I was in a group with Bolivian, Italian, Egyptian, Russian, American, and French girls. We explained the political situations of our countries to each other. It was very interesting.”– Marie S., high school student

Some participants were hosted by the local French families, which created more opportunities for intercultural exchange. The students also enjoyed leisure activities and got to know the local culture better.

The Forum concluded with the official commemorations to celebrate peace, including poems and speeches written by soldiers that recall memories of war and reinforce the value and urgency of peace building.

Read more in AFS Now