Intergation Actions, a link between refugees and society

By Nikos Fournaris & Elena Hajilari

The information, experience and knowledge diffused in the media about refugee issue, with different intensity depending on the period of the year – but on a constant basis, holds leading role in the agenda of the media, during these last months.

Politicians, journalists, experts analysts are called to explain phenomena, causes and triggers. In the contrary, representatives of non-governmental organisations, institutions, organisations, public administrative departments specialised in refugee matters, and ordinary volunteers do not appear in the media often, on such a critical issue, with multiple extensions

The paradox of this case was told to us in a very eloquent way by one of the interviewees, when she said that in private conversation with a high-ranking European official, entirely responsible for integration issues, he confided that he has never met and has not discussed, even for a minute, with a «newcomer», as the recently-arrived refugees in European seminars and events are called.

Besides the information source, the content of our knowledge itself is questionable. Citizens are often ready to “enlist” themselves on one side or the other, but how many of them are familiar with the actions (educational, recreational, social) taken to support the integration of refugees? How many know, for example, that a voted law (4375 / 04.03.2016) entitles the applicants for asylum with the right to look for a job in Greece, however when they proceed with the National Insurance Number application, the services do not know how to manage their cases? How many know that Central European countries such as Belgium, covered the surplus job offers – which could not be covered by the locals -educating refugees?

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We started by speaking with the chief of the Monitoring, Evaluation and Accountability Department and head of Advocacy and Bidding Rights of «SolidarityNow». The organisation is operational since 2015 and its actions take place within the hospitality programs, the «BlueDot» programs and at the solidarity centres of Athens and Thessaloniki.

They work with refugees, immigrants, or Greeks, providing psychosocial support and legal services. At the same time, the organisation has used the legal framework for the recruitment of refugees, especially in positions of interpreters, and even certified them officially. Moreover, it focuses on trying to fit the refugee children in morning classes or in the evening public programs at least, and not to further assist camps, since “there is a need for social pressure for the detention centres to close, in order to start the process of integration into society.”

“There are education-sport activities, and other activities just for entertainment, relief and exercise. There is aParalympic Team, participation in the classic marathon and some regular activities like soccer, running, yoga (mostly for women). Purely sporting activities focus more on men for a single reason -because usually in other social activities men do not participate. There is the risk of creating negative mechanisms, due to the inactivity in men between 15 to 25 years old, which is a neglected group. Such activities help to achieve the socialisation and mental discharge. For women, more mild activities are preferred, such as yoga classes, “pilates”, handcraft, sewing. “

The program also includes museum visits on a regular basis, such as the Benaki Museum and the pottery museum where guests attended pottery lessons. Also, there is cooperation with the “One child, one world” program.

Additionally, the program includes cinema debates, updates, animation courses, Greek, English, German and some French lessons, painting, theatrical expression and many other activities.

One of the many paradoxes of the process is that the beneficiaries of resettlement programs, the «relocation candidates», staying in hotels and asylum seekers that their country of origin does not allow them to participate in the same program remain in camps. “This element is that most controversial of integration places people will leave in a short time from the country in urban and those who -in it seems, will remain, living in remote areas”. The aim of the organisation is to find funding for the creation of accommodation programs, with beneficiaries and non-Greeks, because the real need is not limited to people living in the country for a short time.

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Through written communication with the “Melissa” network, an NGO started by a female migrants network that is active since June 2015, we were informed about many actions that are carried out in the pleasantly coloured floor of a neoclassical building in downtown Athens. The inspiration and the motivational force of the network was and still is the empowerment of migrant women “by attending art therapy workshops, to free-of-charge child care; music lessons to language classes, from building a community of women from around the world with differences and similarities to a sense of belonging together.”

There are activities like Yoga and Feldenkrais (a physical training method that aims to improve the individual’s everyday life through empirical knowledge) but forefront artistic and creative activities, while it’s own space is the proof of that assertion. There are rooms full of colourful handicrafts, knitting and sewing crafts, photographs and letters written in all kinds of alphabets; all of the above are migrant creations that have benefited and contributed to this space. Cinema, poetry, photography, storytelling lessons, and psychotherapeutic «laugh and let go» activities are part of the program, as it’s “purpose is to promote individual creativity by supporting each other and maintaining group structure”. This multicultural μmixture is complemented by actions such as musical events that have taken place from time to time by the Ukrainian community choir, a young Greek violinist, and children dancing and singing in Arabic and English.

These dynamic activities aimed to long-term empowerment of women, contribute to further social integration. “Learning Greek helps their everyday communication, while community activities provide an opportunity to appreciate the local community, along with meeting new cultures. There is plenty of interaction with local stakeholders since most of the co-founders and coordinators are Greeks or immigrants living in the country for over 15-20 years. Every shopkeeper, from florists to the grocers around Victoria Square know ‘Melissa‘ and are very polite to us. Sometimes, when we organise celebrations we can be a bit loud and may cause some complaints from neighbours. There are many challenges, even the most basic, simple thing can be a challenge for us. Comprehending integration as a mutual process is not something that happens often. There is a European-level dialogue that focuses on the amount of responsibility that is charged to the refugees to adapt to the new environment, but there are not enough discussions about how we can learn from immigrants, and their skill, endurance and strength. Tackling racism and sexism is a long process in any population. But I am optimistic that we can overcome these obstacles together.“

Meeting with an immigrant who participates in ‘Melissa’ activities for over four months, we found out that initially, any briefing is given by friends and acquaintances. Apart from language courses, creative activities actually have a great impact and the fact that there is a schedule helps coordination and contributes to the smooth and orderly conduct of the activities. “I feel happy here. I can learn many things, not only educational in nature, but I learn how can I help myself, family and my friends. Here, immigrants no matter what country they come from are being supported, often from people with different backgrounds. So I think it is a place where people can participate regardless of their origin.“

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While collecting information for this article, we came in “contact” with another interesting pilot program, “SolidaritySalt“. Talking with one of the two co-founders of this social enterprise, we learned a lot about how one can help women-refugees to integrate, through food. “We are both entrepreneurs in the food industry, so thinking how we can contribute actively to the refugee issue, and on the occasion of the European Social Innovation Competition, there was a call for ideas of refugee integration activities in Europe. Moving to the final stage, this European experience in social enterprises taught us a lot about integration and about the major role food plays in the integration process.

“At the moment, we carry out pilot workshops in collaboration with “Melissa“, to find out how this wοuld work in practice. We talk to women’s groups. We will build a small food production that can be easily packaged and sent through the post office, since our goal is to create an e-shop of Greek products, starting with salt, spices, herbs, all in handmade packages that will carry messages from the refugee woman that created it. “

This way there is a direct communication between the person creating a product and the person using it, to make everyone realise that the refugee is not something vague. The women will be paid for this job. Obviously, at the first stages this doesn’t mean a “normal” salary, but after it starts making a revenue they are hoping to be able to do this, too. “It is important that there is a reward, it is not only about the cultural and time management factors. but also about the psychological part.”

“After a while, products will be sold to shops and the number employees will increase depending on the demand. This is not limited to the production process but includes positions about the business operation, marketing, handling orders, t so that there would be training and specialisation. At the same time, there will be language courses, some basic entrepreneurial tool lessons and integration activities.”

“We have carried out some activities in camps, in Sounion in particular, where there was a team that made an initial approach through food. They prepared some traditional biscuits and we experienced how food and cooking can connect different ages, languages, cultures. There was a great first contact. We need an initial common ground to communicate with each other, despite the difficulties. I think the key that unites all people is eating, expressed by «making and sharing food». In order to connect with someone, you should eat “bread and salt” with them.“

“‘Refugees‘ is not a uniform group. There is a percentage of people with spectacular potential, tremendous energy and talents to build a new life. We can gain a lot from this. What I want to share, what I learned it that it is very important that the institutions and the state will help, but at end of the day every citizen’s contribution is crucial. Eventually, this leads to ‘one to one’.” Refugees often will say “I remember this person who asked me what I need, if I’m alright. We need to think about what we do and what we can do, the easiest thing we can do it is to be humane.”

The Municipality of Athens carries out some activities and takes important initiatives, too. Discussing with the coordinator of the project of the “Athens Development and Destination Management Agency” through the Office of the Deputy Mayor of “Migrants, Refugees and Municipal Decentralization” we were informed about the refugee and migration activities of the municipality, especially those aiming to children.

  • The “Migrate” on “Frutopia, the island of fireworks”, in Michael Cacoyannis Foundation, which is an exhibition – tribute to the work of the beloved writer Eugene Trivizas.

  • Visiting the “Bath House of the Winds” in Plaka. Children and adolescents refugees hosted in the “Temporary Refugee Housing” of the municipality of Athens and the UNHCR, visited the only public bath of Athens surviving at the present days, and they were engaged in interactive games, organized at the initiative of the people of the Museum of Folk Art, to which the “Bath House of the Winds” belongs.

  • The interactive “Digital Museum of the Academy of Plato” and the “Caring with Art ” activity, conducted by the” Museum of Greek Children’s Art”, aims to the cultivation of solidarity and collectivity from infancy through art.

  • The action that stood out was launched by Venezuela and concerns a social-musical project, the «El Sistema Greece». Music education has proven to be an incredibly effective tool for achieving long-term social change, both for the children involved and for their families.

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Written by Nikos Fournaris & Elena Hajilari  |  Translated by Daphni Kiriakopoulou

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