I have just completed four weeks of lock down. From the looks of it, there are at least another four more to go. I try to keep myself busy and more importantly, useful. I am quite good at the former, not a minute wasted. One may say, I’m working more during the lock down than I did before. However, I’m struggling with the latter.

Never in my life, would I have imagined that my biggest contribution to the society in times of a crisis would be to sit at home and do nothing. I’m really struggling with this idea, leading sometimes to frustration and despair. There are many days during the last four weeks that I wished I had studied medicine – not many people need civil engineers these days. I am grossly overqualified to collect garbage from the streets or stack up shelves in a supermarket – makes one think, doesn’t it? It’s not that I’m not doing anything, but whatever I do, it feels utterly insignificant. Which leads me into thinking, a lot of thinking…

Hence, the reason I’m writing. Our roles today might require sitting at home, but this is only the first act of a very long play. It will take a very long time to get back to normal, and come to think of it, humanity’s greatest loss from this crisis would probably be returning back to “normal”. What will define us, as individuals, but more importantly – and since I’m writing to you – as an organisation, will be what we do in the upcoming acts of this play.

I guess that many among you are familiar with Yuval Noah Harari’s best-seller, Sapiens. In his book, the Israeli historian defines two human traits as the key factors that separate our kind from other living beings. The first of these is our ability to create and believe in stories. Humankind is indeed capable of imagining incredible stories like justice, equality, liberty – concepts that do not exist outside the boundaries of our species. The other gift we possess is our ability to cooperate in great numbers – in thousands, millions even – to make all these stories we imagine become real.

We, the AFSers, are the products of a similarly incredible story. One that features courage and idealism, one that revolves around the idea of creating a more just and peaceful world. And for over a century, we have cooperated in tens of thousands to make our story real. We have built a truly unbelievable global organisation. We work with passion and dedication. But I worry that slowly, we are lagging on our imagination.

Even long before this crisis, I was worrying that we were focusing more and more on what we do and less on why we do it. Most of what we discuss is our hosting and sending numbers, diversifying our product range, publicity materials, statistics, competition… We pride ourselves on the number of our participants, quality of our customers service or today, how well we respond to this crisis. And that’s all fine and we should all be proud. But is that enough?

There is a well accustomed discourse in our circles, that we are designing programs based on the wants and needs of students and their parents, that we provide them the competencies to succeed in our globalised world. This is what people want from us, not something else. This is what we are able to provide, nothing more. We have spent 70 years to build this up, it’s too risky to try something new.

I struggle to go along with this line of thinking. Today, we are roughly 7.2 billion people living on this planet of ours. About 8% of those, more than 576 million are at high school age. Considering that approximately 12,000 students benefit from our programs each year, it makes 1 in 48,000. For each student and family we satisfy their want, there are 47,999 outside our range. And I would bet my full pay-check on it that most of those 47,999 are in more urgent need of a more just and peaceful world than the one that participates in AFS. As for the risks – I guess the days of a risk-free world is long gone, isn’t it?

I do not imply that we are not doing a lot of good. We are. AFS is a wonderful organisation that changed the lives of all that are reading this. But it can be more.

AFS was once an ambulance service. A club for adventurers to do something exciting and good. It then became something completely different, world’s leading student exchange program. A massive organisation. But it would be a pity if we allowed our success to take our imagination away. Our story revolves around the ideal of a more just and peaceful world. Ambulance drivers and exchange students are all secondary in this story.

The transformation from ambulance service to exchange organisation came with one of the greatest rupture points of history, WWII. Today, we are living through another rupture point. The COVID-19 crisis is, in many ways, the world war of our generation. And even if we are amongst the lucky ones that are weathering this part of the crisis by sitting in the comfort of our homes, most of us will not be able to do so in the difficult years that will follow.

When the world needed ambulance drivers, we gave them ambulance drivers. When it needed student exchanges, we gave the very best of it. What does the world need tomorrow? Our greatest skill as AFSers is to know how to adapt in to new and difficult situations. What do we need to do now?

I am not suggesting that we should forget our daily problems and current responsibilities, nor am I saying that we should stop all student exchanges tomorrow and do something completely different. But, let’s use this great opportunity – and all the time we save from commuting – to start imagining how we can re-focus on our story, on why we do what we do and what else we can do. Shall we start a discussion? Shall we get together this year not to promote ourselves, but to push our boundaries? Harari says that imagination and cooperation are the two biggest traits of humankind. We are great cooperators. Shall we brush up our imagination skills as well?

Tolga Dorken
Board Chair
TKV / AFS Turkey

tw: @DorkenTolga