Good practices: Ambassador Project Ghent

September 24th, 2013

“Hearing the life story of someone who has overcome a lot of difficulties, and who has become successful in the labour market despite all difficulties, is very captivating. A life story makes broader social problems more concrete and personal. For many people it’s a real eye-opener.”

The City of Ghent has found success with its initiative to dispel stereotypes about immigrant youth through the Ambassador Project. Employed young people with a North African and Turkish background share their stories about their path to success and the challenges they have overcome.  Cities of Migration asked Ghent’s Integration Office to discuss how the Ambassador Project opens minds to the lives of migrants.

The Ambassador Project is a youth-based, peer-to-peer project, focused on second and third generation of immigrants. How has the project impacted their lives?

Ilse Neyrinck, Policy Advisor on Participation: The people who participate in this project really believe in it and are idealists. Nevertheless, it’s not easy to tell your life story to a group of strangers. Therefore we provide training to help them develop different skills: speaking in groups, how to make a presentation, how to build your own story. They also get information about the labour market and unemployment.

It is an enriching experience that enhances their social skills. They get to know a lot of interesting people and partners. Their social network is extended. The volunteers get individual coaching and we organize group meetings for them where experiences are shared and can be discussed.

How have those communities embraced the project?

Ilse Neyrinck: We appeal to the migrant communities and associations for volunteer recruitment. They help us find volunteers because they highly value the project. Every day they experience the problems migrants face at work and at school. They’re convinced that the ambassador project can help improve the situation of young migrants in the labour market and in education.

How has the broader community reacted to the project?

Ilse Neyrinck: It’s difficult to measure the broader “impact” on society, but wherever we present the project we receive very positive responses. Hearing the life story of someone who has overcome a lot of obstacles and who has become successful in the labour market despite all the difficulties is very captivating. A life story makes broader social problems more concrete and personal. For many people it’s a real eye-opener.

This project targets many groups – youth, parents, teachers, and employers. Why is it important to include all these groups?

Ilse Neyrinck: The reason for this is complex. We call it “statistic differentiation.” There is a negative image of migrant groups in society. The majority of migrants don’t have a post-secondary education diploma. This negative image of the group reflects on every individual. Employers and recruiters therefore have a tendency to ignore them for job interviews.

The individuals in these groups are important for improving the situation of young migrants in the labour market. Young people need to be motivated not to give up, but to go to school and get at least a high school diploma. Meeting a role model from their own community – someone who is successful – is important. In their own immediate environment they do not always meet positive examples, they often don’t know anyone who has a high school or post-secondary diploma.

In 2011, the Ambassador project became part of the Integration Department of the City of Ghent, a sign of the commitment of the city to the project. Why did the city adopt this initiative?

Marc Van Acker, Communications Officer: The Ambassador project is important on different levels. It tackles the still widespread prejudices and misconceptions about migrants that linger among some of society’s important leading persons such as teachers or employers. At the same time it is a motivator for young migrants who all too often seem to become unmotivated and disappointed. Ambassadors make a plea to society to offer opportunities to migrants and to the latter to seize these opportunities. They are a constant reminder of the hard work that still has to be done. Paying lip service to the fight against racism is not enough.

Why is it important for the city of Ghent to be recognized as a welcoming city?

Marc Van Acker: Being recognized as a welcoming city is crucial for the development of any city. An open climate has been proven throughout history to attract investors and innovators – be it social, cultural or economical. Ghent has always tried to promote itself as a welcoming city, offering opportunities to migrants who find themselves here. This city policy is both a translation of and a catalyst for a very vivid civil society that supports this idea of Ghent being a warm and welcoming city. So there is this kind of almost historical inclination to being an inclusive city.

How important is it for you to look outside of Ghent for ideas and inspiration?

Marc Van Acker: Cities all over the world face similar problems and challenges in the field of integration. That’s why Ghent is a strong advocate for exchanging ideas and inspiration. Ghent is an active participant in European networks such as EUROCITIES and ECCAR (European Coalition of Cities against Racism). We are also involved in several projects that bring cities together to cooperate on issues of migration, integration and anti-racism. In some cases, Ghent initiated the collaboration, such as the Roma Inclusion Task Force of the EUROCITIES Working Group Migration & Integration.

You offer the Ambassador curriculum and videos to teachers outside of Ghent. Has the Ambassador project travelled to other cities in Belgium, or outside of Belgium?

Anja Van den Durpel, Head of Integration Office: The Ambassadors tell their stories in Ghent schools, organizations and companies. They are not embedded outside the territory of the city. On special requests, to promote the project (the design, experience, outcome for the individual Ambassador) an Ambassador can participate in conferences outside Ghent. One example is the promotion of the Ambassadors Project during the ECCAR’s (European Coalition of Cities Against Racism) General Conference in Uppsala in 2010. An Ambassador was invited to tell his personal experience within the frame of a working group on “building local partnerships.”

Your 2013 Day Against Racism campaign video is brilliant. You appear to have gotten the participation of high level politicians, religious leaders, pop culture performers, sports celebrities and others. How has this work been received?

Marc Van Acker: The Day against Racism campaign and the Ambassador project are both part of the city’s strategy and action plan against racism. It was produced for the 2013 International Day Against Racism in response to a call of the European Coalition of Cities against Racism (ECCAR) of which Ghent is a member. Famous Ghent citizens from the fields of music, theatre, literature, film, religion, sports and politics show Ghent and the world their dedication to a society free of discrimination and racism. The Day against Racism campaign did enjoy extensive media coverage both on the local and the national level – the video clip only needed one weekend to rise above 100,000 views!

Anja Van den Durpel is the Head of the Ghent Integration Office; Ilse Neyrinck is the Policy Advisor on Participation; and  Marc Van Acker is the Communications Officer.

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