Why the "Other" Should Become the "Us"

Exploring the dimensions of refugee integration.

von Amy Fitch, January 11, 2018
refugee integration

Over the last year, EU countries have scrambled to provide basic services such as food, shelter and clothes to over a million refugees arriving in Europe. However, the next big challenge ahead will be to help refugees re-build their lives, settle in their new homes and participate productively in this new society.

As the months roll by, the need to have a coherent integration plan and policies is becoming more acute and time-sensitive. Lets not dispute the hard facts, a large proportion of those who arrived in Germany will be granted asylum and will need support that extends beyond housing and work to adjust to the differences of living in a new country and recover from the trauma suffered through conflict and flight. 

In any country, building the foundations of a well-constructed house is no small task. Lets consider access to work and language adoption as the outer walls of a newly built house and the internal plumbing, electricity and plastering as cultural understanding, social inclusion and personal welfare aspects of integration. Whilst the first two elements are important foundations for integration, what is inside the house is more sophisticated, complex, requires skill and can determine the level of integration that is achieved. Adding to this mix are the conditions under which refugees live as asylum seekers and the length of the asylum process that contribute to a potential feeling of homelessness. 

It takes two to tango

So with whom does the responsibility of integration lie with? It lies with the two groups who experience this societal change, newcomers (refugees) and the local population. After all, you need to condition the local population to accept the newcomers and provide a space for multi-culturalism to foster. The newcomers also need to accept the rules and regulations that govern the host nation without letting go of their cultural heritage. Requiring therefore, commitment, understanding and empathy from both sides.

Often, as newcomers, refugee communities are placed in camps or constrained to certain areas of a city or town that mean there is little contact with wider society. Being new to the country, their social network is limited to immediate family or fellow refugees from the same country.  Social networks are essential to function in any society, but even more so when you are new to a country and do not understand the system. This is where linking local social networks to refugee communities is key. There are already a few examples of local social initiatives (Vereins) including refugees in activities focusing on sport, music or gaming for example. This is a great opportunity for newcomers to build a social network in an equal footing environment.

At the moment, there is an array of opportunities for refugees in Germany to learn the language and start accessing the labour market. Whilst these are important steps towards integration what needs to be fine-tuned is establishing the common ground and accepting and understanding the differences between cultures. In this scenario, structures and programs that promote an inclusive society that benefit both groups are essential.

The role of culture in integration

Promoting cultural understanding can play a large role towards refugee integration, alleviating some of the challenges that integration can bring. The impact of different cultures interacting with each other can be powerful and foster culturally diverse communities. However, if not steered in the right way, initial reactions to the exposure of new cultures can lead to ignorance, arrogance and isolation that does not allow us to benefit from rich interpersonal experiences, such as learning new languages, traditions, and customs.

Cultural understanding workshops for example are designed to provide useful knowledge about countries’ traditions, how things operate, but also to create opportunities to develop the right types of attitudes, perceptions and skills needed to facilitate integration into the receiving society and create meaningful learning opportunities that foster empowerment. In this area, there is a mix of culture-specific and culture-general strategies used to address ethnocentrism and cultural self-awareness as intercultural learning is always multidimensional.

" Real integration can only happen if the wider population is engaged and open to participate."

Opening workshops or cultural events to the wider public can increase the exposure of participants to personal experiences, knowledge and interaction that leads to a better understanding of different cultures, behaviours and attitudes. With the help of experts, cultural understanding events can help cushion cultural shocks, reduce fears and equip us with the competency to (re-)act appropriately.

An easy and uncomplicated way to promote cultural understanding is via food. Bringing people together through cooking and sharing food is a powerful way to break down barriers and change perspectives. You can learn a lot about someone’s culture by the way they cook, prepare or even share food. It also helps to relax or adopt new approaches to eating that can transfer into other aspects of life. For example, northern European eating customs do not favour sharing food, but in many parts of the world sharing dishes is the only approach when eating a meal together. This can encourage openness and a willingness to try new things. There are many examples of projects in Germany that foster cultural understanding via food through cooking events, cooking courses, recipe books, food trucks, etc.  

Art expressions such as creative writing, music, theatre and dance are also powerful tools to foster integration through cultural understanding. These forms can be used to transmit complicated and traumatic experiences and difficult emotions which are not so easily talked about. At the same time, they can be powerful conduits that showcase cultural differences but also commonalities, promoted in a non-invasive and apolitical way.

The role of coaching and mentoring in integration

An aspect of refugees arriving in Europe that is not often talked about are their expectations of what fleeing to Europe will bring. Smugglers often misinform and promise to offer certain benefits to refugees once they arrive in Europe if they pay the high fees to be smuggled. Refugees might have the idea that settling in Europe will be easy and fast and that the promised benefits and services will be freely provided. Where reality does not match expectation, it can quickly lead to disappointment that brings apathy or a will to strive. In this scenario,

In this scenario, coaching and mentoring can be used to accompany individuals in a journey of personal and cultural discovery but also to deal with new working environments through conflict and team development coaching. For example, there is a wealth of knowledge, experience and practical guidance that can be transmitted by local mentors to newcomers, helping to speed up the process of getting acquainted with how the German system or bureaucracy functions. Many organisations that work with refugees incorporate an aspect of mentoring in their programs. There are university projects for example that match new refugee students to existing students or organisations that offer support with professional qualifications along with mentoring of what its like to work in that particular field in Germany.

Using professional coaching techniques that set expectations, help to establish realistic goals and align aspirations are also key aspects to a smooth integration process. The coach uses professional methods and tools that help to change perspectives, gather new ideas on how to handle a situation and to improve self-reflection – crucial for all situations where people with different backgrounds come together.

A coach works with the basic attitude of appreciation, curiosity and empathy – three attributes that are crucial in the context of integration. Listening and giving appreciative feedback on observed behaviour helps people to accept themselves as well as others and to find new ways and solutions. Tensions that may arise from experiencing new situations, dealing with a difficult process are reduced and the process of integration can become smoother. This can translate into increased self-confidence and empowerment, that can make the transition to a foreign environment smoother.   

Bottom line? We need to start adopting a more holistic approach to integration that encompasses personal, cultural and practical aspects of settling in a new country. Some initiatives are already working with one or two aspects of this. Skipping or including these elements into integration projects will determine the level of integration that is achieved by refugees who can and will stay in Germany. At the same time, real integration can only happen if the wider population is engaged and open to participate.

Turning Tables aims to facilitate integration of refugees in Germany through a journey with training, mentoring and working experience steps centered around food and intercultural exchange. We focus on the food and service sector in Munich. 

If you would like to get in contact, you can email them here: turningtables@thrive-international.org

Originally published March 2, 2016