Good Ideas in Refugee Integration

June 23rd, 2015

copenhagen-bike-storyThe movement of people in response to necessity, to war, famine or persecution is an ancient history and one without borders. The definition of a refugee is modern, cemented in international law in 1951 by the UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. Human displacement on an unprecedented scale shows no sign of letting up in the 21st century.

International agencies and national governments are keeping track of the source countries, flows and settlement of refugees. But what do we know about refugees themselves? Social media and online journalism have made a huge step towards bringing the reality of the refugee experience into our ordinary lives, sharing their stories and helping us understand who they are. It is heartening that cities around the world are also responding in innovative and spontaneous ways to welcome and protect those most in need.

At best, the word ‘refugee’ brings to mind neat rows of pitched tents.  More often it is a makeshift settlement of people in desperate need of food and medical supplies, or the tragic consequences of trafficked lives.

The reality is that today more than half the refugees that UNHCR serves live in cities. Indeed, journalist Doug Saunders describes Mediterranean boat migrants he has interviewed as urban, educated and determined to travel towards a safer and better life for themselves and their families.

Why cities?

Why cities? Because that’s where an essential level of safety, protection and shelter exits, where a certain anonymity is possible and where opportunity exits at scale.

A growing number of cities have sanctuary policies and access protocols designed to provide services to residents regardless of their status (undocumented or uncounted): Toronto’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policies, or municipal ID programs in New Haven and a growing number of cities across the US, for example.

Unlike migrants who have made a choice to move to a new country, refugees often arrive with significant personal losses and frequently bear scars of traumatic experiences. Local housing authorities in Sheffield work with mental health providers to ensure refugee settlement addresses the anxiety of the displaced and homeless; in Bolton they support refugees with employment training.  In Birmingham and Bilbao, the maternal health of refugee and migrant women in a top priority, with services shaped to respond to their cultural needs and preferences.

In London, the Employability Forum helps connect high-skilled refugees to the labour market while running school-based programs to help children and youth dispel myths and stereotypes about refugees. In Wuppertal, the city’s ‘Partizipation’ network promotes language and job-readiness training to populations formerly isolated by joblessness.  In Bristol and Copenhagen, cycling promotes health and bridges divides by bringing newcomers and locals together around shared city values.

It is heartening that many cities around the world are recognizing that refugees have their own special needs and are stepping up to the challenge of fostering their integration into their new communities, often spontaneously, in innovative ways with warm hearts and open arms. Through work, sport, the arts and ordinary acts of kindness, local communities from Wuppertal  to Auckland are finding ways to ensure that these newcomers who often fall between the cracks are settled, welcomed and integrated.

Here some refugee stories of welcome and success:

Fort Wayne: Welcome to Little Burma

fort-wayne-welcomeWith the largest population of Burmese refugees in the US, Fort Wayne, Indiana is both an old city of migration – founded by 19th century settlers from Europe – and a new “gateway city, ” one of a growing number of mid-size cities, old state capitals and regional hubs across the US and internationally that are becoming target destinations for new immigrants.

Recognizing that the needs of the Burmese were different than the city’s founding immigrant communities, the city worked closely with local faith-based groups and immigrant–serving organizations to tailor services and supports  to meet their needs.

In addition to a three day pre-arrival orientation session given by the U.S. State Department in  the refugee camps, the Burmese arriving in Fort Wayne received additional instruction on health, citizenship, public services, education, employment, laws and other aspects of American life.  The city also made sure its newest residents participated in the US Census Decennial campaign in 2009. To qualify for government assistance, the Burmese population had to meet the threshold for services, including benefits such as Burmese language versions of government forms and tests, translation services, and the ability to qualify for grants, aid and scholarships from foundations and the government. Being counted also has an important symbolic value. Census participation is a form of representation and a good indicator of the civic engagement of newcomer communities.  Fort Wayne’s success in making newcomers count is a strong endorsement of this new gateway city’s openness and accountability to the changing urban landscape.

As Fort Wayne Mayor Tom Henry states: “Our community has been enriched by the talents, skills and cultures of those that call Fort Wayne home. Our city is stronger and more vibrant because of its diversity. It is hallmark of our All-America City and something for which we all should be proud.”

Read the full Good Idea.

Auckland: The Universal Language of Sport

Refugees-as-Survivors1-300x211“Soccer is a universal language and culture. It has its own culture and it doesn’t need [a specific] the language. You can play on a team. It’s a point of integration. It helps refugees get more involved in the community and it helps them with better settlement,” says Dr. Arif Saeid, formerly a medical practitioner in Afghanistan and Community Services Manager for Refugees as Survivors (RAS), an Auckland-based non-profit that provides services that include community development.

In the city of Auckland, soccer helps reduce the social isolation of young refugees and provides a sense of connection and belonging – both with each other and to the wider community.

The Refugees in Sport Initiative was started in 2006 by RAS after conducting a series of community consultations pointed to a service gap in their work with refugee youth. Programs were needed to give refugee kids better accessto mainstream sports and a safe place to meet with others who  shared and understood their experience. Youth who participate in the program show better integration into the wider society, reduced social isolation as well as improved self-esteem and cultural pride. Today, participation levels are high and the program has diversified to include a coaching clinics for refugee players.

Read the full Good Idea.

Leicester: Telling Stories through Theatre Performances

Theatre and performance arts appeal to wide audiences and are powerful storytelling tools. Theatre group audiences can be larger and more diverse than traditional campaigning organizations, potentially reaching members of the public who might be unaware or apathetic to refugee and asylum issues.

Iceandfire is a theatre company that explores human rights stories through performance across four work strands: production, outreach, education and participation. Asylum Dialogues, one of the performances by the theatre company in the city of Leicester, UK, tells stories that show acts of solidarity between British people towards asylum seekers. The dialogues incorporate real conversations and document the positive transformations created by their encounters.

The outreach arm of iceandfire is their Actors for Human Rights, which began as a handful of actors, someone with no initial knowledge of the asylum system who then became ambassadors.  A poll indicated that the performances encouraged audience members to become more actively involved in asylum and refugee issues. Likewise,  the response from those  who  shared their stories of asylum has been universally positive.

Read the full Good Idea.

Wellington: Bridging More than the Digital Divide

Computers in HomesIn the age of Facebook, Youtube and Skype, living without access to the Internet, let alone basic word processing software, can mean barriers to services and exclusion from an important aspect of mainstream culture. For refugee families with limited resources and language skills, this divide is even greater. Addressing this challenge, New Zealand not-for-profit Computers in Homes (CIH) took an existing program providing low income families with computers and training and modified it to cater specifically to refugee families and their unique needs.  CIH recognized an opportunity to make Internet access and basic computer technology a passport to improved integration outcomes for immigrant children and their parents.

Originally established in Wellington, the program has provided training and computers to thousands of New Zealand families across the country. The positive outcomes reported by this innovative program have been many. Families have been thrilled with being able to be connected with the communities they’ve left behind, keeping in touch with friends and family abroad easily and economically, children use the Internet for homework, schools have reported increased communication between refugee parents and teachers, and parents are able to not only connect with their children’s education but also access the wider community.

Read the full Good Idea.

Read interview with founder Di Daniels.

London: Breaking down cultural misconceptions

In celebration of Refugee Week in 2010, the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in London offered visitors unique tours of Museum galleries guided by refugees from around the world. Refugees from Rwanda, Burma, Iraq, Somalia, Darfur, and Uganda presented collections from the Museum’s galleries as springboards for their own personal stories and experiences.

V&A’s Clare Paul created these tours to engage refugee communities and help break down cultural misconceptions.  How? By inviting refugees to act as cultural interpreters and tell their own stories.“People are very engaged. They’re connecting with the refugees… and that’s changing attitudes. The tours are an opportunity to see the world through someone else’s eyes” says Paul.

The successes of the V&A’s Refugee Week highlight the important role museums can play in recognizing the contribution of different communities to a city’s cultural heart

Read the full Good Idea.

Wuppertal: From Asylum to Employment

In 2007, changes to the federal Asylum Seekers Benefits Act in Germany resulted in new opportunities for a population formerly denied access to both employment and training. Earning wages sufficient to be independent of social services became a mandatory requirement to qualify for residency and the right to stay in the Germany.

Enter a project like Partizipation, the Wuppertal Network for the promotion of labour market integration of “abode claimants and refugees.” The City of Wuppertal responded by introducing this intensive job readiness project to help asylum seekers find long-term employment – specifically to help them find either training or a job placement.

Within six months of launching the program, city social workers started receiving calls about how to sign on. Over the next few years, successful outcomes reported included changes in attitudes, participants finding employment, improved integration and cost savings for the government.

Essential to the success of the labour market integration program is the scale of support offered to a client group marginalized by lack of opportunity. The city social workers rolled up their sleeves and offered intensive hands-on coaching and counselling to the participants. Appointments, reminders, counseling, guidance and support for the participants are as important as the interactions of project managers with employers and other stakeholders.

Read the full Good Idea.

For more…

You can view more good ideas in refugee integration by typing in the word ‘refugees’ in the search box at the top of the page on the Cities of Migration website.

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