New Families, New City
Direcció de Serveis d'Immigració i Interculturalitat de l'Ajuntament de Barcelona
Helping immigrants meet the joys and challenges of family reunification
“When an immigrant decides it’s time to reunite with his or her family,” says Ramon Sanahuja, Director of Immigration and Interculturality, Barcelona City Council, it means “they have reached a certain stability. It is a very important moment in their migrant life.”
The path to successful immigrant integration depends on successful employment, a welcoming community, creating social networks, and more. But, where family is concerned, the process and time it takes to be reunited with loved ones can mean the difference between a constant yearning or feeling whole again in a new land.
Recognizing this, in 2007, Barcelona City Council’s Immigration and Interculturality office started the New Families in Barcelona program. It provides orientation and support to families before, during and after the process of family reunification.
“It is important for the cities to develop new welcome strategies considering the diversity of origins of newcomers, and the specific needs considering the difficulties that have to face regrouped families. We think that focusing policy efforts at the moment of family regrouping is key and it is much more profitable than in an earlier stage. Family regrouping is the turning point for migrants. When they decide to bring their families, they will invest their efforts in the hosting society rather than in the country of origin.” Ramon Sanahuja, Director of Immigration and Interculturality, Barcelona City Council
Supporting families wherever they need it
Like many immigration processes, family reunification is complex, takes time, and there is no guarantee that an application will be accepted. This makes the individual support, in particular, the pre-reunification services offered by New Families in Barcelona essential.
Key components of the New Families program include:
- Pre-arrival / reunification assistance. A team of multidisciplinary professionals provides individual support to applicants to prepare and plan for their family reunification. Each family receives specific attention and support before and after the arrival of family members.
- Navigating the system. Having an approved application is only the beginning of the process. “The family reunification process is an obstacle course,” says Gloria Rendon, past Coordinator of the Family Reunification Support Program. “It’s a long process in terms of requirements and time. It can take anywhere from one year to as long as four or five years for citizens from some countries, such as Pakistan.” As one parent, Carmen, comments, “It’s very helpful, because often we don’t even know how to take the first step for reunification, and we think it’s easy, but it’s actually quite difficult.”
It’s a true community network effort. According to program consultant Marta Rovira Martínez, it’s important to “provide welcome and support in a process through which immigrants gradually acquire social resources necessary to develop independently and with equal opportunities in the host society, in all areas of the city. The aim is to promote social inclusion and coexistence in the city.”
Strategies for Happy Families
Reunification is a joy and celebration. But it’s also a challenge for families who have experienced years of separation. Recognizing this, New Families provides specialized support to prepare families to deal with challenges that will arise in the reunification process.
A Parents’ Workshop helps parents to understand how to reconnect and re-establish relationships with teenage children they haven’t seen since for years. As one parent, Carmen, discovered, “After everything I’d had to go through for the reunification process, then I had to face the worst moment, when your kid gets here and everything’s unfamiliar. It’s very hard.” Youth feel the same way. Milagros says, “The best thing that happened when I got here was seeing my mother again. The worst was her not recognizing me.”
The Reunified Women Workshop arose because women can often be isolated in the reunification process. Rendon: “We designed these group sessions to help them become more autonomous and self-confident, and participate in city life in Barcelona.” At the same time, women are sometimes the first family members to immigrate, and reunification with spouses can be difficult. Sanahuja: “Very often husbands experience unemployment when they initially arrive, and are dependent in their wives income. This can create some tensions in the family. Therefore, we can prepare women for all this and other potentially difficult scenarios.”
Integrating youth into schools is also an important focus. According to Sanahuja, “the program is focused on successful school integration, because we noticed that without this help, they tend to leave school at15 or 16, and have many problems,” including achieving higher education, finding employment and connecting with their families and new city.
Getting the timing right matters, according to Rendon: “If we didn’t reach them the first month they got here and gave them a sense of belonging to the city, later on it was much harder to get through to a depressed teenager who felt rejected by the new environment.”
Barcelona’s integration master plan
Barcelona’s 2010 Anti-Rumour Campaign is part of Barcelona City Council’s long-term strategy to improve coexistence among local and new immigrants. For Sanahuja, there’s a clear connection with the New Families program. “We really see both programmes as a complementary projects working on integration of all newcomers in Barcelona. The anti-rumour campaign is focusing on the consciousness of all residents of the city to respect cultural diversity. On the other side, the New Families program is focusing on new residents and their specific needs.”
In their 2012-2015 Immigration Plan, Council continues this work: “This new plan, in the Barcelona tradition of working on immigration based on political and social consensus, makes a firm commitment to the intercultural perspective. Interculturality aims to establish the conditions for positive interaction, contact, dialogue and mutual knowledge by summing up the contributions of diversity in the common reference framework that is our city.”
A Spanish economic crisis, austerity policies and increase of unemployment in south Europe have all contributed to falling family reunification applications. However, that hasn’t stymied Barcelona City’s efforts to build on and create and welcoming city and ensure the integration of newcomers.
On the contrary, Council is harnessing the opportunity to shift efforts from initial reception policies to integration, inclusion and community cohesion. Mirrored in the New Families in Barcelona project, Sanahuja says the city’s goal is to “make people of immigrant origin genuine protagonists of the common construction of the city, from a perspective of full equality… The main objective of this program is to work in favour of integration and wellness of new residents of Barcelona.”
It is a goal all cities should aspire to.
Making it Work for You:
- Make the service responsive and accountable to the people being served. This allows for constant change and modifications to ensure that needs are being met.
- Don't assume you have all the answers when constructing a program. Like families themselves, wants, needs and challenges will grow, change and present themselves when least expected. A flexible program built on constant evaluation is essential to success.
- Immigrant integration success requires activity and success across many areas and domains for the newcomer. A program that seeks to meet their needs also needs to be multi-dimensional, bringing expertise from a variety of community and government supports.