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Arriving to a new country, having survived, in many cases a horrendous past and long journey with great hopes and energy for the future but faced with a new culture, language and with the absence of intersectoral welcoming strategy confronts all refugees and newcomers with a lot of challenges. Everyone starts with mixed feeling of happiness and worries but, after a short time, this turns to isolation and uncertainty and soon these feelings turn into depression, frustration and loss of faith in being included at all, turned into possible passive future citizens during the first few months in this new country!

Welcoming people is a series of gestures that can take so many shapes and forms, Culture is one of them.

Culture can be a sanctuary and refuge, a celebration of diversity and inspiration because culture is an opportunity to create links, to bring refugees together with hosting populations from different backgrounds breaking the wall of isolation. It is a powerful tool that promotes openness to others, sharing our feelings and experiences, communicating who we are, what has formed us and what are our ambitions and concerns. It can take away the idea of “otherness”, of people being seen as strangers.

The Culture sector plays important role in welcoming and integrating refugees as it represents and promotes some of the essential pillars of integration like: equality, access, networking and sustainability.

But Culture is not alone in this, an effective reception system and good integration strategy is dependent on so many other factors also like: housing, integrated education, access to language learning, jobs, welfare and justice… In my opinion, the tricky part is how we can create cultural integration projects and activities that encourage intersectoral cooperation between these different factors as very effective tools for integrating refugees. In order To do that, first we have to change the “unintentional” intendancy of most programmes/projects which victimise refugees and introduce them as a “crisis”! And to talk more about the beauty and strength that new comers bring, to look at them as survivors with a lot of power and potential rather than victims and problems that need to be solved. That means we have to provide more tools and strategies not only to do activates with them (not for them) and also to empower them through providing them with spaces and opportunities to lead, initiate, and organize as well as to participate in culture activities and projects. It’s about human dignity, about making it possible for them to be proud to be recognised as a survivors, of who they are, of all the beautiful things in their past, of their power, and will to start a new life… rather than stigmatize them however good the intention sometimes as a “charity case”, letting them feel ashamed of their current situation, of their vulnerability, reminding them constantly that they are victims of all the horrors of the world!.

To achieve Empowerment the cultural sector have to involve and include refugees –kids, youth and adults- as target groups in all the discussions concerning them in all levels starting with structuring culture funds to designing and organizing cultural projects and activities ending with the evaluation of what worked and how to develop or improve existing cultural programs.  The support and funding of self-organisation and active participation of refugees and migrants in cultural life needs to be found, and the need to identify suitable partners -especially from the target groups themselves in order to guarantee the required contact with refugee populations wherever they are. Furthermore the culture associations and projects have to notice and consider the change in needs of their target group and to create more accessible and cultural programs.

Only with empowerment, ownership, partnership and inclusion can we help refugees to be stronger and more confident. This is an essential step to increase the participation of refugees in cultural and social life as well as to promote intercultural dialogue and diversity in our society, parallel to that we have to develop more projects and activities with host populations that bring them into contact with refugees.

In this context I can give this example: The refugees Support Group Network Self-organized Group in Restad Gård -biggest refugee camp in Sweden- started a culture show with a lot of dance, music, songs, art, food, traditional fashions from all the countries that they come from, depending only on their competence and skills to organize and run all the show, they called it “All Under The Same Sun” an initiative directed towards the people in the hosting cities with one main message saying:  (we understand your concerns as you don’t know who we are and where we come from! With all the bad news in the media about us. We are here to tell you that we come from very rich civilizations and colourful cultures… we will add colours to this society and we will never ever be the dark spot in it).

I will leave it to you to imagine what impact that this show did for the integration of both “refugees and people in the hosting cities”.

Adnan Abdul Ghani