Ghent, Belgium

The Youth Ambassador Project

Integratiedienst, Stad Gent

September 25, 2013

Young people with a migrant background share their stories about their paths to success and the challenges they have overcome

A mayor, a boxer and a bishop walk into a hip-hop video…. It sounds like the beginning of a joke. But, in the Belgian city of Ghent, it’s the culmination of the city’s exceptional efforts to create a welcoming and inclusive city. Launched in celebration of Ghent’s Day against Racism campaign, the video is only one part of the city’s 10-point action plan to eliminate racism and discrimination. An innovative Youth Ambassador project is also helping move the city strategy forward.

A history of integration

Ghent’s modern-day prosperity owes much to its industrial past and the waves of immigrants that have helped fuel the city’s growth. According to Marc Van Acker, of Ghent’s Integration Office, “Ghent has always tried to promote itself as a hospitable city offering opportunities to migrants who find themselves within its boundaries. 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.”

Today, Ghent is home to over 150 nationalities. Municipal leaders recognize that “good integration of these newcomers into society is very important” and work actively to ensure that Ghent continues to be successful and can be a model of integration to others.

This includes current programs like Making Integration Work in Ghent, which pairs newcomers with local coaches to facilitate their integration. A commitment to doing integration well also means being prepared to look outside its own city walls. In September 2013, Ghent University convened an international research conference on issues of segregation and inequality in European and North American schools.  Later in November, the city of Ghent hosts the EUROCITIES’ annual conference, themed ‘Smart citizens.’

And, then there is the Ambassador project.

Focus on youth

Since 2006 the City, through Gent, stad in werking’s (Ghent, city at work) Latent Talent project has been working to improve the local labour conditions of second and third generation immigrant youth. This approach focuses on much more than merely improving youth unemployment numbers. It means that their city is working to become a more inclusive place for all migrants and their families. Their long-term goal is to change local attitudes, stereotypes and perceptions.

According to Van Acker: “The Ambassador project is important on different levels. It tackles the many 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 strong motivator for young migrants who are all too often de-motivated or disappointed. Ambassadors make a plea to society to offer opportunities to migrants and to the latter [youth] 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.”

It’s a long-term vision to create a better, more prosperous city for all. The Ambassadors are a key part of this approach.

Who are the Ambassadors?

Ambassadors are immigrant youth volunteers who have overcome barriers and have found employment success. They share their stories about school and their rocky road to success in the labour market. And they don’t just talk to other youth like them. They present and dialogue with teachers, parents, employers and other organizations in the city. So far, they have spoken to over 3,200 people who are responding positively to the initiative:

“Each of these groups, each of the individuals in these groups can be important for the improvement of the situation of young migrants on 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… Parents have a responsibility towards their children… Teachers have a very important role towards their students… When employers/recruiters hear another story of success -despite all difficulties- they start to see the individual instead of the ‘migrant.’ Their image of the group improves, and in the future they will no longer see the ‘migrant’ but the individual person behind the stereotype.” (Ilse Neyrinck, Policy Advisor on Participation)

The Ambassadors program is a great example of working to enable youth voices to speak about their own experiences, challenges and success.

“For them it is an enriching experience that enhances their social skills. They also get to know a lot of interesting people, partners,” says Neyrinck. “Thanks to this project, 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.”


In 2012, the project became part of the City of Ghent’s Office of Integration Services and is being promoted outside of the city. To enable successful replication of this good idea, the City has created curriculum focused on two ambassadors telling their own stories. It includes a series of exercises and assignments and a DVD with seven short films about the project. The original Gent, stad in werking project website has links to three of these videos.

For the city of Ghent, helping other communities see the value of being recognized as a welcoming city is essential for their future prosperity. As Marc Van Acker says: “Being recognized as a welcoming city is crucial for the development of any city. An open climate has throughout history proven to be a force of attraction for investors and innovators, be it social, cultural or economical.

This Good Idea will be featured in “Marketplace of Good Ideas” at the 2014 Cities of Migration conference in Berlin. Learn more about the conference.

Making it Work for You:

  • Taking a successful integration approach and moving it into the mainstream of municipal service delivery and programming is a clear sign of city leadership commitment to integration.
  • Story telling and helping marginalized groups amplify their own voices is a powerful way to bridge community difference and work towards shared goals.
  • Don’t just ask marginalized communities to tell their stories, work with them and provide training and skill development opportunities. Make it an active, intervention-focused initiative.

For this Good Idea contact:

Ilse Neyrinck , Integration Service
Kaprijkestraat 12
Gent , Belgium,

Interview with Hans Thielemans, Consultant, Integration Office, City of Ghent, Belgium