Raphaelle Ayach
Ashoka Fellow since 2015   |   Egypt

Raphaelle Ayach

Raphaelle is humanizing intercultural relationships for children. As a start, she is building an empathetic, culturally sensitive generation. In doing so, Raphaelle is breaking the cycle of elitism…
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This description of Raphaelle Ayach's work was prepared when Raphaelle Ayach was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2015.


Raphaelle is humanizing intercultural relationships for children. As a start, she is building an empathetic, culturally sensitive generation. In doing so, Raphaelle is breaking the cycle of elitism that is associated with opportunities for geographical mobility, exposure, and intercultural experiences.

The New Idea

Raphaelle is popularizing inter-cultural education for Egyptian children and providing a framework for diverse human connections. Instead of positive human-to-human intercultural contact being an opportunity only for the elite, Raphaelle is equalizing the exposure to inter-cultural learning—providing an opportunity for underprivileged children whose families lack the financial ability to travel abroad.
Raphaelle is engaging underprivileged children in “touch-feel” simulated travel adventures that harness their imagination. These simulated travel adventures provide meaningful intercultural interactions with people from other cultures, whom Raphaelle calls the “foreign friends.” Under the name of Safarni, which in Arabic means “Allow Me to Travel,” Raphaelle engages the expatriate community in Egypt, Egyptian university volunteers, facilitators, and local Citizen Sector Organizations (CSOs) in one setting with underprivileged children using a curriculum she developed for meaningful intercultural interactions. Such interactions are held in the children's very own neighborhoods, so that the children do not have to go far to discover the world's cultural diversity.
Raphaelle’s simulated travel adventures presents an unprecedented opportunity for the many Arab children that simply have no opportunity to experience ‘the other’ either due to economic reasons or difficulties in obtaining visas. By creating a framework for intercultural connection, Raphaelle both empowers children and revolutionizes their world-view by teaching them to respect difference, celebrate diversity, be curious, ask questions, increase their empathetic skill set, and allow them to be more socially and globally aware. Hence, Raphaelle, through her educational methodology, contributes significantly to changing xenophobic and intolerant attitudes in the Arab region.

The Problem

Egyptian children from underprivileged backgrounds have little to no opportunities for meaningful, authentic, and intercultural connections with people from different cultures because many people cannot afford to travel abroad and gain direct first-hand experience of other cultures. Additionally, children are raised in a society with an education system that suppresses imaginative learning, research, and curiosity. The current educational policy in Egypt does not include intercultural learning and, in fact, breeds xenophobic attitudes. A British based NGO that monitors peace and cultural tolerance in school education, IMPACT-SE, found that Egyptian schoolbooks before and after the revolution maintain “intolerant attitudes.”
Consequently, gaps in diverse human connections make young Egyptian children in underprivileged communities more prone to develop xenophobic and prejudiced attitudes. These attitudes can easily form into general distrust of ‘the other,’ which subsequently prevents empathetic learning, finally resulting in violence, discrimination, and a vicious circle of hatred.
Other organizations that focus on intercultural learning involve actual travel outside of Egypt. Therefore, access to these other organizations is restricted to upper-class children whose parents can afford to pay. While there are some organizations that provide intercultural activities, the experience they offer lacks authenticity. This is because rather than creating a platform for a “touch-feel” connection that encourages children to go to the source instead of just hearing about it, they mainly use books and information from the internet about a country or culture written by non-natives.

The Strategy

Annoyed with the lack of intercultural exposure available to children with a lack of financial capacities and resources, Raphaelle decided to create her own way of empowering children through a new methodology of intercultural education that overcomes binding obstacles of international borders, including space, money, and resources. After a long deliberation process, market research and conversations with stakeholders, she decided that innovation—creating simulated travel experiences for underprivileged children—would be in the core of her methodology. Raphaelle created a travel-like environment where children ages 5 – 12 could experience another culture authentically without even having to leave their neighborhood. By doing so, Raphaelle harnesses the power of a child’s imagination to create a diversity of experiences that otherwise could not be lived, compressing the magic of real-life travel into a profound educational adventure.
To equip herself with facilitation and mediation techniques in culturally sensitive matters, Raphaelle joined the Art of Hosting community in Egypt—a community dedicated to developing tools and methodologies of creating constructive, meaningful conversations where participants are at the center of bringing the content through their diverse experiences.
Raphaelle’s pilot Safarni day was carried out in an informal area of Cairo in Fall 2012 in collaboration with a CSO. This first day, there were 8 child participants from the local area and their ‘destination’ was Colombia. In order to foster the crucial authentic human connection, it was imperative for the experience that actual Colombians participated.
Following the same strategy, Raphaelle started partnering with more organizations based in local underprivileged communities in order to access the kids of the neighborhood. She began by recruiting “foreign friends” who could represent their cultures on the Sararni days. She then began recruiting university students who could voluntarily organize and facilitate the Sararni sessions
In 2015, after several refining attempts, Raphaelle’s model now consists of Safarni seasons, where every season is spread out over 3 months for every cohort of children. These seasons include a weekly or bi-weekly simulated travel adventure each to a different destination. Raphaelle developed a detailed curriculum for these intercultural encounters. In addition to the curriculum, Raphaelle created a manual for intercultural training and facilitation, and designed capacity building workshops for local Egyptian volunteers who would manage the Safarni sessions. At the end of every Safarni season, ‘Open Space" days are held. The Open Space Graduation days are a time for children to have more intimate conversations with Safarni’s volunteers about their feedback, go over their experiences and learnings from their "travels," and showcase to their parents and community the dances, songs, and information they have learned from their trips around the world during the season. Raphaelle closes the loop and incorporates the feedback from the Open Space days into the continuous refinement of her approach.
A single Safarni “trip” or day has several features. First and foremost, there is a strict non-judgment rule at all times. At the beginning of each trip the children pass around a toy globe and have to point where Egypt is as well as the destination country. Then, the children “board” the plane. To form an experience as close to the real experience of traveling as possible, the venue’s walls are decorated with plane windows made out of paper and the children are given simulative passports and boarding cards. Two “captains” fly the plane (both from the volunteers community) and are responsible for about 10-15 children each. Upon arrival in the new country, the foreign friends greet the children from the plane in their local language, and show them projected photos of their home country. In smaller groups and with the help of the foreign friends, the children draw the landscape that they see in the photos, then each group posts a mural of the drawings on the plane window.
After this introduction, comes the more hands-on part of the day. Children learn to dance a local dance, play a local game, taste local food, and discuss a local social cause and brainstorm solutions. At the end of the trip, the children can ask questions about the new country and culture in a closing circle. Children are then handed a card to write their memories, words they learned, and drawings of what they saw. The children can keep this card in their passports to serve as a physical reminder of the day, and reaffirm the positive association with the friend and the culture. To empower the children to practice changemaking skills, prove that no country is void of social problems and prevent polished presentations of cultures, Raphaelle incorporates a piece to her curriculum where the foreign friend must highlight a pressing local social issue during the Safarni day and invite the children to support a cause working on that issue by identifying potential solutions accomplishing a ‘local’ mission during their simulated travel day. This is a chance for children to practice empathy, changemaking, and problem solving by putting themselves in the shoes of the visited country’s locals and identifying solutions to local problems.
Raphaelle makes sure that on each day there is more than one “foreign friend” who represents the country in attendance, and that at least one highlight of diversity within the culture is discussed so the children understand that cultures are not homogenous and that differences can exist within cultures.
For the older children who might not be attracted by simulated travel adventures, Raphaelle is piloting two initiatives for authentic intercultural connections. The first is Anthropology-based activities for adults; the second is a mentor-mentee program where a non-Egyptian mentor is paired with an Egyptian mentee for life coaching and intercultural connections.
By the winter of 2013, Raphaelle did not only partner with local organizations who share similar values, but she also started training the staff of such organizations to conduct the Safarni 3- months program in their local communities. In 2014, Raphaelle partnered with large international organizations, like Save the Children and UNHCR, through which she hosted Safarni seasons. Partnerships proved effective and strategic in decentralizing the workload.
To date in 2015, Raphaelle has collectively worked with over 200 children. She has one full-time member of staff and a network of 50 volunteers who act as the foreign friends and 30 active volunteers for operational support.
For the first 7 months of the initiative, Raphaelle bootstrapped all the initiative’s expenses and her first fundraising endeavor was to mobilize the crowd in supporting the cause. She launched a successful crowd-funding campaign through the online platform Indiegogo with which she was able to ensure Safarni had enough resources to remain operational for the upcoming two years. Later in 2013, Raphaelle and Safarni became incubated under Nahdet el Mahrousa, an Egyptian incubator for social enterprises
In the short-term, Raphaelle plans to collaborate with local Citizen Sector Organizations (CSOs) to create different hubs across Egyptian governments that are centrally connected to an online platform for sharing the curriculum. Raphaelle developed as well resources and access to the signed-up expatriates community and volunteer facilitators.
On the longer term, Raphaelle envisions the introduction of intercultural connections and discovery to Egyptian public schools curriculum.

The Person

Raphaelle was born in France to a "pied noir" (French born in Algeria) Diaspora filmmaker father who passed on to her a passion for film from an early age. Raphaelle’s former movie projects focued on documenting people’s lives and cultures. For example, she produced a documentary of one Columbian family’s daily life in Columbia, in addition to another movie that documented the journey of a traveler around the world.
Raphaelle's mother did intercultural studies and founded a museum which focused on alternative educational approaches. Hence, Raphaelle's connection since a young to the world of social innovation, play-based education and inter-cultural connections.
Between the ages of 7 and 14, Raphaelle lived in the USA during which she experienced her first entrepreneurial endeavor, creating a bracelets business and raising money for different causes. Upon moving back to France at the age of 14, Raphaelle attended an international school where she was able to interact with, and learn about, many different cultures. One abiding memory of her school experience was a conversation between two of her friends, one Lebanese and the other Israeli, on the conflict between Israel and Palestine. The content of the conversation was not necessarily important for Raphaelle, more so the fact that her two friends had the opportunity to share passionate perspectives in a respectful manner, seeing diversity of perspectives as normal.
At the age of 19, Raphaelle had an exchange year in Spain. The experience was an affirmation of her love for discovering new cultures. She not only immersed herself in the Spanish language and culture, but she also started learning the Arabic language—something she had long yearned to do for her Arabic heritage and upbringing.
Her Arabic teacher was an Egyptian man living in Spain who she developed a close relationship with. He suffered from a significant amount of racism and general prejudice while living in Spain, which was an eye-opening moment to Raphaelle. Encouraged and supported by her Arabic teacher, Raphaelle eventually moved to Egypt in 2009. She chose Egypt because she wanted to experience the Arab world, improve her Egyptian dialect, and be in the cultural hub of the Arab region to continue her interest in filmmaking. During this time, she became increasingly aware of inter-cultural tensions on all sides.
Raphaelle concluded that much of the fear of the other, found on all sides, was born from a lack of truly authentic human connections with people from different cultures, limiting opportunities to recognize our shared humanity. During this period of her life, Raphaelle fleshed out earlier ideas she had on implementing inter-cultural education for children while concentrating on creating the necessary conditions that would allow underprivileged Egyptian children to experience different cultures authentically, despite not being able to afford to travel. She was convinced that authentic “touch-feel” human experiences with different cultures would alter the perspective of these children and their education and would de-escalate intercultural tensions.

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