Exactly four months ago, on May 1st 2015, a group of 500 people gathered together in Trento, a small city in Northern Italy, to celebrate the centennial of the American Field Service (AFS). During those days, the population of Trento also saw a particular group of people of different ages walking, actually most of the time running, around town with very bright orange sweatshirt: those were the volunteers now also known as the Orange Team.
But let’s rewind and start from the very beginning.
In the spring of 1915 in Paris, a young American gentleman named Abram Piatt Andrew, created the American Field Service, that provided an ambulance service for the injured soldiers from all nationalities during WWI. The most amazing thing, as the Secretary General of AFS Italy (Intercultura in Italian) Roberto Ruffino says, is that these ambulance drivers and stretcher-bearers were, for the most part, young and wealthy American college students who signed up to go help total strangers in Europe at a time where their country was not even belligerent. At the end of WWI, the extremely valuable work of the volunteers could not be stopped, therefore funds were raised and it was decided that the collaboration between France and United States must have been carried on through a the Fellowships for French Universities program, that lasted during the twenties and thirties.
On the outbreak of WW2 the ambulance service was resumed and it brought help in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, North Africa and Europe, saving hundreds of thousands of soldiers at the price of several losses among ambulance drivers. Those volunteers had lived in different countries and spoke different languages for years, learning about different cultures and becoming part of different societies. It was only a matter of time for the creation of AFS programs for high school students whom were hosted in several countries by local families for an entire school year. Today AFS is a worldwide organization and more than 12,000 students each year are engaged in such a program in more than 60 countries.
It may not come as a surprise, the fact that the celebration held last may was in Trento, a city (sadly) very well known for its role during WWI, and this was a very big deal for all the people gravitating around AFS, both from Italy and from abroad. AFS founds its principles on the great work and support of thousands of volunteers, so again it does not surprise that the majority of the convention’s participants were volunteers who could not miss this once in a lifetime event.
It was the love for, and the sense of belonging to the association that pushed 42 Italian volunteers to sign up to be part of the logistic team for the entire duration of the event, which held a conference by the title “Learning to Live Together. Humanitarianism, Reconciliation and Education for Plural Societies.” The programme included a “series of testimonies of individuals and organizations working today to in the field of humanitarian relief, post-conflict reconciliation and education of young people to live peacefully together amongst people of different cultures, languages and traditions.” The opening ceremonies took place in the wonderful setting of the gardens of Castello del Buoconsiglio, while the workshops took place at the Teatro Sociale and the speakers included important personalities from all around the world such as the Italian Undersecretary for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Mario Giro, Roberto Ruffino, the President of Intercultura Foundation Roberto Toscano, the Genaral Director of Amnesty International Italy Gianni Rufini, the founders of the only Israeli-Palestinian peaceful coexistence experiment Neve Shalom/Wahat al Salam Eyas Shbeta and Evi Guggenheim Shbeta, the Director of Programmes at the Center for Democracy and Reconciliation in Southeast Europe Corinna Noack-Aetopulos, the designer and curator of many projects including exhibitions for the Nelson Mandela Foundation Clive Van Den Berg, and many more.
The ultimate goal of AFS is to bring peace one person at a time, supporting intercultural learning experiences for young students, that are so open minded and represent the future of our multicultural society, and the purpose of the centennial celebration was to reflect on and discuss about the power, and the responsibility, that we have as singular individuals for the well being of ourselves and future generations. Learning to live together does not only mean to accept the other, but to embrace the difference and use it to improve our lives. That is something that AFS does very well, the Orange Team is an example of it.
May 1st is labour day, national holiday in Italy, so that weekend all the volunteers, members of the Orange Team, could have been relaxing, not working or studying, enjoying the wonderful Italian spring weather, going for a picnic in the mountains, taking a walk in the quiet countryside or going to the beach for the first swim of the year, instead they decided to dedicate their time to go help for the perfect success of this event, becoming a great team and supporting the hard work of Intercultura headquarter for planning everything down to the smallest details. From the transfer to the various locations, namely the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MART) in Rovereto, the Peacebell with its touching one hundred bell tolls to remember the fallen, the Cantine Rotari in Mezzocorona, to the planning of acting shows and choir performances, to the arrival of an original 1915 ambulance from Paris.
The peculiarity of the Orange Team is in the extremely different backgrounds of their members, in age, studies or jobs. In just a few days, they bonded and created an incredible group, among which you could hear all different Italian dialects and notice different customs and traditions, all mixed together in laughing, singing, helping each other and sharing. This is what living together means.
‘These new borders are around us – in Italy, in the Mediterranean and in the world –and overcoming them we’re betting the optimism and hope that come from the 100 years of our Association. The American Field Service came at a time of great darkness of our continent and lit a small light. “Better to light a candle than curse the darkness,” said Arthur Howe, ambulance driver and dear departed president of our association. “Better to light a candle than curse the darkness”: this is the humble and courageous message that comes to us from our history, to which we devote the conference.’ (Roberto Ruffino)
Being an AFS volunteer, or having done an AFS experience, as a student or as a host family, is a lifestyle choice; it gives you the possibility of thinking outside the box, open your home to the world, stepping out from your little world and actually go see other realities, realising that there is so much more in the world to know and consider. That shows how differences are so embodied in our societies and it is nowadays impossible to fight them, we can only embrace them to make the world a better place.
Word of an Orange Team member.