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"Connecting starts with language", "Salam", a waving hand emoji, "Hello"

A Q&A with Dr. Netta Avineri about building intercultural partnerships.

Refugees to any new country arrive with hopes and aspirations for a better life—even as they must manage the inevitable challenges that such change can bring. As tens of thousands of Afghan refugees embark upon new beginnings across the United States, people in these communities have an opportunity to be more than a friendly face to their new neighbors. Each of them can help build strong intercultural relationships, the foundation of effective community building and social change. 

To that end, the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey (MIIS) recently launched the Afghan Greetings Project, which shares key phrases in Dari that Americans can learn to welcome Afghan refugees to the United States. These simple but important tools can help cultivate relationships and create a shared understanding with incoming refugees.

To gain a better appreciation for the important role that language can play in intercultural communication and partnership-building, we spoke with Dr. Netta Avineri, TESOL and Teaching Foreign Language Associate Professor and Intercultural Competence Committee Chair at MIIS.

Q: What is the relationship between language and intercultural communication?

Language is a symbol for how to build strong intercultural communication. Developing interculturality, as it relates to language, is about cultivating dispositions for humility, critical empathy, and partnerships. One can develop these dispositions in a lot of different ways—telling and listening to stories, engaging in common activities with one another, and providing meaningful support to each other along the way. All of these actions will help to build a partnership over time. Language is central to this entire process. When you’re learning someone else’s language, you’re saying, “I don’t know yet, and I want to know.”

This is part of what’s compelling about the Afghan Greetings Project. It is not focused on Afghan refugees coming to America and learning English, as valuable as those projects are. Instead, this project is about Americans welcoming Afghan refugees in their language and taking intentional steps to understand them as a step towards partnership. This project sees language as the key to developing intercultural relationships.

Developing interculturality, as it relates to language, is about cultivating dispositions for humility, critical empathy, and partnerships.
— Dr. Netta Avineri

Q: Why is intercultural community building an important pillar of the U.S. refugee admissions program?

The metaphor I use for partnerships and community building is a seesaw—one must get on and constantly calibrate the partnership to ensure it’s working for both sides. Intercultural community building with incoming refugees requires an understanding of a person’s history and the context from which they’re arriving. It requires consideration of their experiences and perspectives on a macro level, as well as engagement with them on a micro level. It also involves engaging in critical inquiry to identify concrete steps to address systemic inequities, in partnership with others.

Through the Afghan Greetings Project, we are providing individuals with the tools to engage with people on the micro level and begin to build those partnerships that can, in turn, lead to effective community building and social change at broader levels. Ultimately, intercultural community building is an ongoing, dynamic, and negotiated process—one must stay on the seesaw for the partnership to work well. I believe strongly that aspirations can be explored and hopefully realized when deep relationships are cultivated first.

Q: How do Middlebury Institute programs, expertise, and resources fit into these greater efforts? What can current or prospective students expect to learn and take away from them?

MIIS has a great deal to offer students in terms of the knowledge, skills, and dispositions necessary for community and partnership building, as well as for enacting social change. We integrate students’ deep knowledge of particular issues through their degree programs with language learning and intercultural communication across degree programs. We provide a multifaceted approach to tackling the world’s challenges. At MIIS, we have faculty, staff, and students not just working at this in their own classes and departments, but also working collectively across the institution to engage with particular local and global issues using these various lenses. Students learn about and put into action a range of interdisciplinary toolkits for addressing complex problems, including climate change, housing insecurity, and language access in health care settings. They identify their professional commitments and practice balancing humility with their developing expertise across contexts.

Importantly, we train students to navigate the inherent tensions involved in this balancing act—reflecting on whether they are (or are not) the ones with the relevant expertise. This sustained process means acting in solidarity with individuals and communities with an eye towards systemic social change. Building relationships is the first step—and then concrete actions can be taken in partnership with one another. Ultimately, we teach that justice is both relational and aspirational—that is, it’s about building relationships and working collectively to envision a new world.

For More Information

Language Studies

Intercultural Competence