This volunteer-driven approach to integration can be summarized as building blocks ABC - Awareness Raising, Befriending, and Cultural Engagement. Ideally they build on each other, with Awareness Raising providing the foundation and starting point. These suggested approaches have been tried and tested in many locations across Europe.
• Awareness Raising
While there is a lot of support and good will, there is also considerable confusion and ignorance about migration, asylum seekers and refugees. We need wide reaching programmes of awareness raising aimed at actors and communities across society. Many people are unsure of the difference between ‘migrant’, ‘refugee’ and asylum seeker’; many do not understand what resettlement from UNHCR camps means, nor the various ways by which asylum seekers have arrived in Ireland, Calais, Greece or Italy. These simple facts, backed up by real life stories, need to be made immediately accessible.
Awareness raising about refugees needs to be provided where people congregate – in schools, universities, sports centres, churches, health centres, libraries, council buildings, political meetings and community centres. It is especially important to make training packages available for professional bodies that will be directly dealing with refugees, such as health providers (including mental health and midwifery services), schools, and public services. Appropriate leaflets, posters, powerpoint presentations and booklets will have to be developed in the Irish context and made widely available.
Empowering and supporting refugees to tell their story is a powerful way of awareness raising, and such events frequently win over people who are fearful or sceptical. The arts can have a major part in this by promoting theatre, poetry, visual arts and music about refugees. Awareness raising in as many settings and contexts as possible helps prepare communities to receive refugees and makes way for the other building blocks. Teams of people in every city, town and village where refugees may be dispersed should be trained to deliver awareness raising sessions and equipped with materials including digital, online and paper information.
Alongside awareness raising for the general public, there is a need for programmes and activities aimed at awareness raising about Irish society for the refugees and asylum seekers themselves as they settle into their new home.
Experience shows that one of the most vulnerable times for refugees and asylum seekers is when they first arrive. They have often undertaken traumatic journeys as well as leaving home with uncertainty about whether they will ever be able to return or see their families again.
Simple volunteer-run befriending schemes can do a great deal to alleviate the anxieties of a new arrival, as well as setting valuable trends that will encourage integration. Befriending schemes will match a new arrival with a befriender, with the two meeting on three or four occasions when the befriender shows the new arrival around, taking them to essential services such as drop-in centres and conversation classes and introducing them to simple things like using the buses and shopping in cheap places. Schemes are run by volunteer coordinators who train and supervise befrienders and match people on the basis of gender, age, interests and languages spoken. Normally, the formal befriending agreement can be ended after 3 – 4 meetings as the newcomer has by then made a set of connections. It is a short-term commitment for volunteers who might opt to befriend several people consecutively. Successful schemes usually start by recruiting befrienders for up to a year, thus broadening the language skills of the befriender pool and giving people the confidence that comes with volunteering. Refugees who have benefitted from such a scheme (e.g. in the UK) say that it made all the difference to their integration and peace of mind in their new home city.
Befriending schemes can also be extremely beneficial on a longer term basis for refugees who have received their papers and are ready to move to the next stage of integration, particularly when they include the option of professional mentoring where a refugee is matched with someone who has a similar career in Ireland.
• Cultural Engagement
This is an essential aspect of integration into Irish society and is built on awareness raising and befriending. Cultural engagement is helping organisations and individuals across society to be committed to facilitating welcome and integration of refugees. It means that, once people understand why refugees are coming, they can be helped to make their activities inclusive and welcoming.
Here are some examples:
• A football, GAA or other sports team putting on a diversity sports festival and offering tickets to their matches to newly arrived asylum seekers and refugees;
• Older school children volunteering to show around new arrivals in their schools and help with reading and writing;
• Language buddying, where local people do informal English language conversation practice with refugees (can be in a group or on a one-on-one basis);
• Choirs, bands, traditional musicians and orchestras offering free places at their concerts and festivals to newly arrived refugees interested in music;
• Events where refugees can meet politicians and exchange views and concerns while learning about the political system in Ireland;
• Hospitals and GP surgeries putting up notices in other languages and training their reception staff to engage with refugees;
• Midwifery services to be trained to recognize the unique situation of pregnant refugees and asylum seekers and adjusting their programmes accordingly;
• Churches making space for songs or readings in another language or holding ‘sanctuary Sundays’;
• Older people offering to be surrogate grandparents for refugee children who have no grandparents;
• Local gardai and fire services doing sessions for refugees to help them understand their role and how they can help;
• Libraries to stock relevant books and to hold welcome events for refugees;
• Opportunities for refugees to volunteer in various places such as charity shops.
The list can be endless, but everything is underwritten by local communities learning to ask the question: ‘How can we include refugees in our activities?’ and the helping them to get started.