Don't help newcomers, empower them instead

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This is a guest post from Tessa de Geus. Tessa is an advisor on social and urban innovation at Kennisland, consortium partners of the European Social Innovation Competition 2016, which this year has the theme ‘Integrated Futures’. This blog originally appeared on Kennisland’s website

As part of the organising team of the European Social Innovation Competition we recently visited Berlin to prepare for the Social Innovation Academy that will be hosted for the semi-finalists in July. This intense three-day Academy will consist of workshops, coaching sessions, and site-visits in Berlin. We met up with actors and projects working with refugees and migrants in the city, to get acquainted with the local situation. During our visit, there were four issues that were repeatedly voiced by the social innovators on the ground: the need for a Culture of Welcome, empowering newcomers, tailor-made solutions and systemic change.

1. We need a shift from ‘Refugees Welcome’ to a Culture of Welcome

Images of Berliners holding up signs saying ‘Refugees Welcome’ quickly spread across the globe last year. Volunteer organisations such as Moabit Hilft, still work daily to provide people standing in line at LaGeSo, Berlin’s registration office, with food, blankets and support. However, after the lines at LaGeSo lie the true challenges for the newcomers. Social innovators in Berlin urge for a transition to an ‘Ankommenskultur’ (culture of welcome), meaning that newcomers must actually be welcomed to start their lives in Germany. New and existing organisations in Berlin are developing innovative means to facilitate this.

Start-with-a-friend’s Nikolina Milunovic told us about how they forge long-term relationships between newcomers and locals by matching tandems and organising shared events. Sharehaus Refugio is another initiative that fosters encounters between locals, refugees and migrants. The founders of Give Something Back to Berlin, who are based at the Sharehaus, gave us a tour through the building in the Neukölln neighbourhood, where locals and refugees live, cook, paint and do yoga together. Many new initiatives have arisen there recently, such as a catering company founded by a Syrian chef and a weekly meetup to fix bikes for the local community. A culture of welcome means allowing people to take part in public life.

Nakeema Stefflbauer, who’s working at the coding initiative Refugees on Rails, pointed out the importance of visibility and making people feel that they belong. In her experience, it’s not evident for newcomers to visit a library, or to know that they can use a cafe’s WiFi connection for a few hours after having ordered a drink. Refugees on Rails aims to teach its classes in public spaces or co-working spaces, as a way of getting people out of their physical isolation.

2. Don’t Help People, Empower Them Instead

One of the common denominators of all local actors we spoke to was their emphasis on providing support on equal terms. As Nathanaël Molle, a judge of this year’s competition and founder of the French entrepreneurial incubator Singa put it:

“Refugees aren’t beneficiaries, but equal to local entrepreneurs in their ambition and venture”.

Rafael Strasser, co-founder of Über den Tellerrand, an organisation that establishes mixed groups of locals and newcomers around cooking and sports, also stressed that an equal approach makes their project sustainable:

“After so much time, people feel like they’ve helped enough and they’re done.”  

At the workshop of Cucula , where migrants build furniture based on the open source designs of Enzo Mari, Corinna Sy confirmed this observation. She has noticed how through craftsmanship, migrants can express themselves and be empowered through sharing their skills. This is crucial, as many immigration procedures lead to months of isolation and boredom, which can be harmful to the mental health of migrants. Besides their workshop, Cucula matches newcomers with apprenticeships and internships as well as legal support and accommodation, to optimise their chances of obtaining a visa based on the merit of their skills.

Another initiative that aims to provide tools for refugees and migrants to flourish is SavingBuddies, a platform for saving groups. Many migrants and refugees are not eligible for loans from the bank, which can prevent them from starting their own enterprise or investing in education. Saving group participants can save a certain amount of money each month and can take out loans from the total amount saved, based on the principles of the Association of Self Funded Communities (ACAF). These saving groups completely regulate themselves and serve as social networks. As Abdoulaye Fall of ACAF testified:

“Many people who come to Europe are not taken up into an existing community. They are all overwhelmed by the new systems that they have to deal with. The saving groups are based on trust and stability.”

Besides a financial infrastructure, access to the labour market is also key to empowering refugees. Maja, co-founder of Prinzip Heimat, works with hotel chains to employ refugees and migrants. She aims to increase access to the labour market by helping hotels with legal expertise and workshops, as well as setting up a hotel (called Hotel Utopia) that will be completely run by newcomers. Evidently, access to the education system is also crucial in this regard.

3. There is not one solution, but different solutions for different people

The term ‘refugees’ is a huge generalising concept that does not appreciate mediating factors such as someone’s gender, health, qualifications or network. The people behind the numbers are individuals with different talents and strengths. Competition judge Inge Missmahl, founder of socio-psychological organisation IPSO, points out newcomers often have complicated histories that can have a great effect on how they enter a society or job market. Therefore, it’s pivotal for them to have access to psycho-social counselling. IPSO trains refugees or people with a migration background in order to make them capable of providing such professional care.

The wide array of social innovation initiatives in Berlin does justice to the diversity of people entering the city as a refugee or migrant. Each person will feel comfortable with a different approach in order to connect with German society. This is an important observation, seeing as certain assumptions that assume homogeneity, such as how all refugees or migrants are potential entrepreneurs, can be treacherous. Refugees on Rails only selects applicants who have a genuine ambition to learn how to code for their professional career. Besides, they also make sure to involve potential employers early on, so that matches can be made on a personal basis, rather than assuming that matches based on demand and ‘supply’ of skills can be successful. Most importantly, however, Refugees on Rails teaches refugees how to learn on the job, so that people can upgrade their skills in whatever context suits them well.

4. How to invoke systemic change?

Despite all of these great efforts around Berlin, it seems that there is still a lack of coordination between initiatives. There is a need for social innovators to share their knowledge and experience, to prevent them from having to reinvent the wheel. Moreover, a lack of coordination results in nobody having an overview of who can go where, for what, and when. There is no one who oversees the whole picture, which may result in some refugees and migrants missing out on much needed involvement. Furthermore, based on on our conversations in Berlin, it seems that the public sector has been forced to focus most of its energy on initial and urgent aid efforts. Now may be the time to assess the local field of social innovation and to support these efforts where necessary.

Cucula’s Corrine Sy argued that she views the current crisis as an opportunity to reconfigure the system:

“We need to fundamentally reassess how we treat each other in society. Instead of having fear take the upper hand, we should transition to a system that allows for more flexibility and creativity in welcoming migrants and refugees. Only then can integration work.”

Framed this way, all the social innovation initiatives we met in Berlin are doing exactly this: using a tense situation to explore new opportunities and connections in society.

Many of the people we spoke to did not necessarily have a background in working with refugees or migrants in particular. Therefore, these people are eager to learn more about the intersection of social innovation and newcomers, which makes the scene dynamic and energetic.

The preparations for the Academy on 4, 5 and 6 July are in full swing. Drop us a line if there are any social innovation projects in Berlin that you feel we have missed.

To continue reading about local initiatives in Berlin, check out the blog of our consortium partner ImpactHUB Berlin ‘Spotlight on: Community Refugee Projects‘.