FIERI’s annual documentary festival on migration – October 4th – November 16th , 2022

Overheated Connections18th edition of the Crocevia di Sguardi

In 2022, Europe is facing the consequences of global dramas such as the end of the Western presence in Afghanistan and Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. Borders are being closed, strategies for the inclusion of immigrants and asylum seekers are being abandoned, and continuous erosion of workers’ rights is taking place. We live in an increasingly overheated world in which climate change is only one of several dimensions of crisis at play.

“Overheated Connections” is the title of Crocevia di Sguardi (now in its 18th edition) in a mixed online and in-person format. The documentaries in programme highlight the connections between global forces and local worlds, proposing new ways to cool destructive interconnections: through a radical ecological turn, demilitarization, the political leadership of youth and children of migration, and the power of art, in all its expressions. In addition to the presence of scholars, researchers, and activists, meetings with filmmakers Federico Francioni and Dagmawi Yimer enrich this edition.

All documentaries will be both presented in theaters and made accessible, after registration, on the Festivalscope platform. The seminars will be live streamed on the Crocevia di Sguardi Facebook page.

Check the programme here.

Join our Welcoming Spaces Roundtable in Saalfeld (Germany) 22-23 September 2022

Agency, entrepreneurship and employment: Learning from each other about and from migrants

Welcoming initiatives can contribute to the further development of shrinking areas while also offering space for the successful social inclusion of non-EU migrants in line with the Sustainable Development Goals (‘leaving no one behind’). Often welcoming initiatives are run by cooperating actors from different societal fields, and their actions and impact depend on the local contexts.

Despite a lot of creative energy and good examples of welcoming culture, the welcome initiatives are experiencing growing challenges, but there are also encouraging practical experiences. That is why we bring together actors of the welcoming initiatives in Thuringia and Rhineland-Palatinate, besides sharing international experiences from Italy, Netherlands, Poland and Spain. The roundtable is organised in the framework of the international comparative and EU-funded research project ‘Welcoming Spaces in Europe’ (www.welcomingspaces.eu).

Objectives of the Roundtable
The event aims at bringing together politicians, city councilors, public administrators responsible for migration inclusion, social policy workers and development planners at the local, district and state levels, as well as migrants, international researchers, and practitioners from social organisations/NGOs to share experiences, ideas and receive new insights related to the sustainable (long-term) inclusion of migrants and the development of their territories. The underlying question is:

What entails sustainable migrant inclusion?

The roundtable includes many speakers from the field discussing welcoming initiatives, governance and pathways to social inclusion. Please click on the link to open the entire programme of the Roundtable and its speakers.

Organic Farming in Italy’s Shrinking Areas: what Opportunities for Newcomers?

By Simone Cappati (Master in International Development Studies)

A handful of committed Italian NGOs and small-town mayors believe that organic farming has the potential to tear down cultural and language barriers while revitalizing the local economies and safeguarding the natural landscape. Can organic agriculture truly provide a lifeline for the emplacement of migrant newcomers in Italy’s shrinking spaces? My Master’s Thesis research took me to the hamlets nested in the Camonica Valley or speckled over the rolling hills of Monferrato. There, I met refugees that had traveled over land and sea in search of a better future, and Italian agripreneurs that had returned to the land of their forefathers looking for a new challenge. Their serendipitous encounter is where this story begins.

Off the beaten tracks of Northern Italy, a couple hours’ train ride from the sprawling urban centers of Milan and Turin, lay a multitude of scattered small towns. In these villages, where people know each other by name and families go back generations, time seems to have frozen. And yet, the passing of the years has left a mark – in the peeling plaster of the walls, the empty, dilapidated houses, and the old fences succumbing to shrubs and undergrowth. These are the tell-tale signs of a shrinking space, where economic decline goes together with a decreasing population and landscape degradation. Parts of the Camonica Valley and the Monferrato started shrinking in the 1970s, when the locals abandoned their family farms, once the backbone of the local rural economy, and began flocking to nearby cities looking for a job in the factories. The old wisdom of the farmers faded into oblivion, and traditional practices were slowly forgotten.

“We have paths to clear, woodlands to clean up, we have a lot of things that need to be done, things that we, the local residents, do not want to do. Our young generations do not want to work in agriculture.” (P., agri-preneur)

The two NGOs visited during fieldwork. Adapted from Wikimedia commons.

Despite their socio-economic marginalization, these areas are no stranger to solidarity. Local NGOs such as K-PAX and PIAM have long been working with vulnerable communities, from victims of sex trafficking to migrants and people with disabilities. As the flows of migrant arrivals to the Italian shores increased in the early 2010s, these NGOs embarked on a shared endeavor with their respective local municipalities by joining the Italian System of Reception and Integration. Over the years, more migrant newcomers were being resettled into these towns, slowly bringing a much-needed injection of labor into these lands. The migrants started to get involved in a number of activities, including working as laborers for organic farms owned by Italian agricultural entrepreneurs. Indeed, the migrants were not the only newcomers to these shrinking areas – several young Italian agri-preneurs had also returned to the land of their grandfathers to restore their family farms. These newcomers “by choice,”[1] who moved out of the city and back to rural areas as a lifestyle migration, brought purchasing power and innovation into these shrinking spaces.

Since then, migrant laborers and Italian agri-preneurs have been engaged in an unfolding process of emplacement[2] together with long-time residents: they are creating a new place by building a network of connections and resources within the specific conditions of the shrinking areas. But how is this evolving over time?

Working together on an organic farm in Cerveno (BS) © K-PAX

Agriculture bridging cultures

At first, these two groups of newcomers faced some opposition from the long-time residents, as they embodied a set of values, practices, and cultural identities that somehow clashed with these traditionally conservative areas. How to win over the initial distrust? Organic agriculture offered an opportunity for the Italian agri-preneurs and the migrant laborers to get to know each other, toiling side-by-side in the terraced fields or weeding out mountain paths. They exchanged stories, dreams, and goals and compared agricultural practices, often learning from each other. Agriculture was bridging culture and language gaps while highlighting unexpected commonalities.  

The levels of distrust went down when they realized that working the land in Algeria or Pakistan was the same as doing it here, and actually some experiences they had were very similar. […] Farming could really be a channel that helps people get closer to the ‘Stranger’ (M., former mayor).

The long-time residents, too, began to appreciate the hard work the migrants put into restoring the landscape and revitalizing old farms by taking up manual labor that the younger local generations had moved away from. Slowly, migrants started to be seen as a resource rather than a threat, as the initial opposition gave way to a more welcoming attitude.

Tending the land in the Camonica Valley (BS) © K-PAX

Sharing benefits and burdens

Organic agriculture is hard work for everyone involved, as testified by the long hours that both agri-preneurs and migrants spend working together in the fields. However, there are significant differences when it comes to status and division of labor.

Migrants are only employed as laborers to fill a market gap for low-skilled manual labor. Caught in an endless series of short-term contracts that coincide with production peaks, they enjoy limited financial stability and virtually no upward mobility. On the other hand, Italians are returning to the fields as entrepreneurs – they own the lands and the means of production and are fully in charge of their personal, ‘sustainable’ life project.

The migrants working in organic agriculture are expected to subsume into the lifestyle of the agripreneurs and share their vision – even if they may not fully comprehend it. They may even end up living under the same roof with their employer and their family, especially if the farms are located in remote areas, to cut on commuting time.

“For small organic farms where there is a big human investment, it’s difficult to fit in. The employers are basically telling [the migrants]: ‘This is what I want to do, this is my life project, my dream’ and they are asking them to share it. But maybe a young man who crossed the sea all the way from Africa has a different goal in life.” (M., PIAM)

This set-up speaks of a concrete risk for hyper-exploitation of migrant labor, which is indeed seen as a resource, but a rather disposable one. Migrants are often described as having “less demands” than Italian workers, as they come from “desperate situations.” The lack of long-term investment in the aspirations of the individual migrants is partially mitigated by some educational initiatives launched by the NGOs, which aim to increase the migrants’ knowledge base, their contractual power, and ultimately their agency.

A silver bullet?

Organic farming remains one of the channels that may usher emplacement processes between newcomers and long-time residents in Italy’s shrinking areas. However, left to its own devices, it risks sliding into abusive mechanisms that do not sufficiently protect the best interest of the most vulnerable. NGOs and municipalities must play a guarantor role by vouching for the migrants’ skills while linking them up with ethically oriented employers. Going forward, stronger synergies and partnerships among the various actors of the system (NGOs, municipalities, agri-preneurs, and education institutions) will be crucial to foster a more ‘connected’ space for both newcomers and long-time residents in Italy’s shrinking areas.


[1] Perlik, M. & Membretti, A. (2018). Migration by Necessity and by Force to Mountain Areas: An Opportunity for Social Innovation. Mountain Research and Development. 38(3): 250–264.

[2] Glick Schiller, N. & Çağlar, A. (2013). Locating migrant pathways of economic emplacement: Thinking beyond the ethnic lens. Ethnicities. 13(4): 494–514.

‘The Renaissance of Remote Places. MATILDE Manifesto” New Routledge book series “Remote Places and Remoteness”

Our colleagues of our H2020 ‘sister programme’, MATILDE present their new book, a Manifesto, which discusses 10 Theses for a new centrality of European remote regions, and an active role of both internal and international migration in local development processes related to the places left behind.

Prof. Dr. Annelies Zoomers (PI Welcoming Spaces) reflects on the manifesto in her commentary ‘The need for a less territorial, more people-centred and relational approach'(pp. 117-124)

The volume is freely downloadable in Open Access:

Intercultural day in San Esteban de Gormaz (Spain): Creating a community of practice through social theater and a photo exhibition

On Saturday, May 28, Cepaim Foundation together with the Association of Maghrebi Women of San Esteban de Gormaz, AISHA, and in collaboration with the City Council of San Esteban, organised an intercultural day in San Esteban de Gormaz (Province of Soria, Spain), as part of the Welcoming Spaces project. The day was a way to create spaces of coexistence, generate improbable encounters and advance the path of our Community of Practice, connecting different localities across different continents through a photo exhibition and theater.

The photographic exhibition sought to make visible those objects that connect us with our roots – root us to our identity. Being aware that culture is something that accompanies us wherever we go, with this photographic tour, the AISHA Association wanted to share their cultures traditions and their identities with the rest of the village to exchange and learn from each other and construct together something new.

The exhibition reflected on who we are in order to reach new common horizons, inviting all participants to answer the question: What would you take with you if you had to leave your country?

The photographs were exhibited throughout the day and welcomed the participants to the Forum Theater “Arab Women among Cultures” that represented the company La Rueda Social Theater in the Assembly Hall of the Old Schools. Taking Welcoming Spaces as a starting point, the play was co-created by the AISHA Association and La Rueda, and reflected on the lived experiences of those living in the same locality.

This social theater, which involved the entire audience in the performance, managed to generate a debate around the situation of inclusion in the village. The theater sought to achieve mutual understanding, to eliminate negative beliefs and stereotypes, and to create a bond between all by finding common representations. In the words of one of the women of the Association: “it is very difficult to migrate and sometimes a small gesture, an attitude of incomprehension feels very big and makes our backpack heavier. With this work we wanted to try to understand how we can feel sometimes.” The play managed to generate that necessary understanding and bring the different positions closer together, reflecting together on how we could face different situations from the variety of our positions. The play ended with a round of wishes with proposals to continue building together a more welcoming village.

Both the photo exhibition and the social theater contributed to creative ways how to make visible the invisible, name and share the things that hurt us, and generate bridges that help us understand and improve when it comes to creating welcoming spaces. It started a conversation between all locals, both newcomers and long-term-residents.

Activating the migration-development link in medium and small municipalities – H2020 Joint declaration

Five ideas for getting the most out of the Italy’s National Recovery and Resilience Plan (and for a better reception of refugees)

Joint declaration of the Horizon2020 project

Welcoming Spaces and Whole-COMM

April 2022

Since 2015, there has been a redistribution of asylum seekers throughout the country, even in the most peripheral areas. Specifically, territorially and economically most disadvantaged areas of the country are often those most capable of leveraging the arrival of refugees to start rethinking the future and investing in economic, social and cultural revitalization.

Yet these promising experiences have remained substantially isolated, at best awarded formal recognition as “good practices”, in a context where the link between welcoming migrants and territorial development of marginal areas has not been placed at the centre of any real national policy.

To counter this lack of attention, the researchers involved in two ongoing projects, all funded by the European Commission’s Horizon2020 program—Welcoming Spaces and Whole-COMM—want to unite their voices to emphasise the importance of some key principles for the creation of a stable and profitable link between the integration of migrants and the development of marginal areas. To prevent territorial and social exclusion from reinforcing one other, and starting from the kind of development that also leverages cultural and environmental dimensions, we believe that the following principles should be placed at the centre of a serious program of coordinated investments and interventions, from the local level to the national and European one.

  • Produce shared imaginaries of possible futures regarding migration and development of inland areas. Migration is often narrated as a problem, a crisis to be solved, while peripheral areas are often romanticised or trivialised by traditional media. Given that narratives on migration and inner areas can influence and are influenced by policies, it is necessary to co-construct a “third imaginary” to bring out the link between migration and development, with space for cultural diversity and a clearly defined added value for territories and communities. The various welcome initiatives present in some peripheral Italian areas are already working in this sense (e.g.: photographic exhibitions and public seminars, street art contests, summer schools, collaborations with local and national newspapers, blogs, theatrical performances, documentaries, etc.).
  • Support development for the benefit of all. The development of inner areas should be considered in an integrated way, combining the dimension of socio-cultural well-being with the environmental, economic and political dimensions. From this perspective, it is necessary to take charge of the needs and aspirations of all the people who are part of the new intercultural communities present in the inner areas, in order to preserve their dynamism and development. It is essential to overcome the shared vulnerabilities of the residents. This means ensuring a good quality of life through the consolidation of local networks and social infrastructure and access to public services, housing and decent employment opportunities.
  • Support a participatory and inclusive (whole-of-community) approach to the integration of migrants and local development. The development of inner areas and the creation of positive relationships with migrants must necessarily involve the whole community, and the multiplicity of voices and organisations that characterise it: the local administration, civil society associations, businesses, individual native citizens and migrants. It is only through mutual knowledge and dialogue that it is possible to build cohesive communities of which everyone feels a part, where hospitality and integration are not a burden but a chance to imagine and build new opportunities for economic and social development.
  • Think about local development and the integration of migrants starting from the relationship between rural and urban areas. Local development and the inclusion of newcomers in peripheral areas cannot be thought of as isolated and impermeable to the dynamics of urban centres, which represent relevant poles of the labour market and services. The relationships between urban and rural areas consist of material and immaterial flows: people, economic resources, information, skills and practices are all elements that make up this relationship. An example of this is the food chain, where many migrants are employed and where the dynamics of large-scale distribution often generate negative effects on producers and workers, as well as on the environment. The joint strategic planning between rural and mountain areas of these flows is therefore indispensable to guarantee spatial and social justice and to promote sustainable development.
  • Establish decision-making bodies that connect the different levels of government and also involve medium and small municipalities. The smaller municipalities are often excluded from decision-making processes which nevertheless have a decisive impact on their territories. Interventions capable of supporting local development and the integration of migrants in major urban centres may be unsuitable for rural and mountain contexts, characterised by different needs and resources. At the same time, Regional and central governments, even if they want to, do not have effective tools at their disposal to keep in touch with these areas and closely follow their transformations. It is therefore essential to develop stable institutional mechanisms that allow for continuous, and not just occasional, exchange between levels of government and facilitate the involvement of smaller municipalities.

These could become inspiring principles for an adjustment of the Italy’s National Recovery and Resilience Plan, which so far has underestimated the very real danger of ethnic and territorial disadvantages reinforcing each other. By putting these principles into practice, it may be possible to counter the risk of proposing standard solutions in the face of very heterogeneous paths of both the territories and the migrants, or the danger of draining funds through calls for projects that fails to connect individual initiatives to an organic, medium-long term strategic planning framework. With an eye to the immediate horizon, these same principles could guide us in managing the arrival of Ukrainian refugees, so that reception becomes a tool for pursuing lasting processes of economic, social and institutional innovation.

WS public event Friday 6 May 2022, 10.30-13.00 (Torino, Italy) The migration-development nexus in European areas

FIERI and Collegio Carlo Alberto Foundation are pleased to announce the conference “The Migration-development nexus in European inner areas: Shaping strategies around the post-pandemic investments and plans” organised in the framework of the Weloming Spaces project, which will be held on Friday 6th May 2022 from 10.30 am to 1 pm at Collegio Carlo Alberto Foundation (Piazza Arbarello 8, Torino).

Languages: Italian/English, simultaneous translation available

To register for the event in person please sign up HERE.

To register for the online event please sign up HERE.

In Italy, as in the rest of Europe, inner areas and migrants risk to be among the losers of our societies. Several inner areas have been facing a demographic and economic decline as well as a social closure expressed through negative attitudes towards newcomers and anti-diversity voting patterns. At the same time, a remarkable rise of unemployment and poverty and an upsurge of nationalistic attitudes have been hitting a large share of migrants. Can these two potential losers become allies and foster
mutual improvement by refreshing languishing local economies and societies with diversity-triggered and inclusive innovation? For this purpose, the Italy’s National Recovery and Resilience Plan and the European Commission’s long-term Rural Vision may be powerful weapons but much depends on how they address and actually implement the migration-development nexus of inner areas.

In order to answer those questions and starting from the assumption that inner areas are highly diverse, the event addresses processes and tools rather than prêt-à-porter solutions. Moreover, it connects the still rather separated research and policy communities dealing with migration and inner areas, and brings together scholars, local innovative practitioners and high-level public officials with the aim of blending visions and expertise into a fresh strategic thinking.

Programme

10.30-10.45 Opening
Ferruccio Pastore (FIERI)
Paolo Ghirardato (Collegio Carlo Alberto Foundation)
Annelies Zoomers (University of Utrecht)
Representative of the Compagnia di San Paolo Foundation

10.45-11.15 Key messages from ongoing Horizon2020 projects
What can research offer to policy formulation and implementation? What are the musts and must-nots for policies addressing migrant integration and local development in inner areas? And for Italian policies in
particular?

Chair: Irene Ponzo (FIERI)
Pierluigi Musarò. Welcoming Spaces Project (Univeristy of Bologna Alma Mater)
Tiziana Caponio, Whole-COMM Project, (Collegio Carlo Alberto Foundation, University of Torino, FIERI)
Andrea Membretti, MATILDE Project, (University of Eastern Finland)

11.15-12.45 Roundtable “Methods and approaches towards the migration-development nexus”
What are the processes and approaches that can turn internal and international mobility into a factor of cultural, social and economic renewal of inner areas? When does the mobility-development nexus fail and when
does it succeed? What are the tools and methods to involve the local community and newcomers in shaping cultural social and economic development? How can municipalities of inner areas coordinate their action and connect with higher-level institutions? How can social innovation blossoming in remote areas scale up and turn into structural measures? How can Italy’s National Recovery and Resilience Plan and EU programmes addressing rural areas enhance the migration-development nexus? What tools do they offer? What are the risks at implementation level and what can we do to prevent them? What is the balance between inclusion and selection of inner areas targeted by those programmes?

Chair: Eduardo Barberis, University of Urbino
Daniela Luisi (Riabitare l’Italia)
Carlo Cominelli (K-Pax social cooperative, Breno, Lombardy)
Rosario Zurzolo (Jungi Mundu social cooperative, Camini, Calabria)
Matteo Biffoni (ANCI – National Association of Italian Municipalities)
Tatiana Esposito (Ministry of Labour and Social policies)
Matyas Szabo (Europan Commission, The long-term Rural Vision)

12.45-13.00 Concluding remarks
Filippo Barbera (Collegio Carlo Alberto Foundation, University of Torino, Riabitare l’Italia)

CO-DESIGNING AN INCLUSIVE EUROPE

Migration and migrants in the EU

Changing narratives – modifying practices – influencing policies

Under the auspicious title CO-DESIGNING AN INCLUSIVE EUROPE. Migration and migrants in the EU: Changing narratives – modifying practices – influencing policies, on March 1st 2022, coordinators and researchers of ten EU 2020 Horizon funded projects gathered together in the heart of EU quarters in Brussels to share findings, exchange experience among the participants, discuss with MEPs and EU officials, and to make policy recommendations based on diverse study approaches.

The event was an opportunity to inform the European decision-makers, in an applicable, pragmatic way, about the findings and challenges of H2020 projects related to refugees, asylum seekers and migrants. The multi-dimensional and interdisciplinary approach of the projects made us learn from our colleagues and share our findings from a learning-community perspective, being able to overcome the traps of disciplinary silos and methodological fragmentations, and especially overcoming the binary categories, such as temporary/permanent, legal/illegal, forced/voluntary migration. Rather, the focus was placed on the complexity approach to migration, such as structure and agency, narratives, policies and governance.

It was history-making the fact that ten EU-financed projects focused on migration came together for the first time. This event aimed at offering an opportunity to engage with various researchers and practitioners from 34 countries including 21 EU countries, representing a total of 135 institutions. It was also an excellent occasion to establish a fruitful research network whereas we had the chance to meet each other and become acquainted with the work we all do on closely related topics. Certainly, the prospect of this initiative will lead us into future collaborations, preferably with the formation of a formal network. The seed has been sown.

Check out the reflections of the day by our team member José Ricardo Martins (University of Siegen).

Special thanks to Lili Nottrott and Anamaria Dutceac Segesten for the magnificent organisation and moderation of the event.

Welcoming Spaces picked up by national news in Camini, Italy

Visualising migration and local development in Camini

We are currently organising workshops in various localities across the Netherlands, Germany, Poland, Spain and Italy to visualise narratives of migration and local development in shrinking regions.

Together with migrant newcomers and long-term residents, we explore the local surroundings and the meaning of “welcoming” and “unwelcoming” in daily life. We are doing this by means of photography.

Once these narratives are co-constructed and collectively discussed with the participants, we will make a selection of the visuals together with the participants for both a live exhibition and a digital one. With the exhibitions, we aim to amplify the voice of local communities, connect rural and urban contexts on migration and local development, and stimulate the collective discussion on what we consider as welcoming spaces in Europe. Stay tuned!

Our project has been picked up by national news in Italy.

Moving Forward When Life is on Hold: Personal Development in Asylum Seeker Centers in Dutch Shrinking Areas

By Eline Heirman (Master in International Development Studies)

How do you develop personally, when you are living in a rural, shrinking area in the Netherlands? In the research, I conducted for my Master Thesis, I focused on the personal development of asylum-seekers in rural, shrinking areas in the Netherlands. Talking with asylum-seekers, I have stumbled upon many interesting practices and aspirations of asylum-seekers in rural, shrinking areas that are attributed to the time they are spending in reception centers. However, one conclusion was always evident: asylum-seekers are eager to grow personally and want to start integrating in the Dutch society proactively, but they are unable to do so due to their lack of legal status. So, how can they develop personally?

Liminality and Personal Development

“When they say ‘you need to wait’ but you have no idea how long you need to wait. That is the most horrible part of the situation (…) it is just like someone is pushing the pause button in your life”. (Mia, 28 years old from Armenia) – all names mentioned are pseudonyms.

Due to the absence of a legal status, asylum-seekers are generally in-between their ‘former life’ and their ‘future life’ in the reception country. This period in-between can  be called liminality (see also see the work of Ghorashi (2005), Ghorashi, De Boer and Ten Holder (2018), Stenner (2017) and O’Reilly (2018)). Asylum-seekers in general are subject to liminality, for example because reception centers, which are called AZCs in Dutch, are mostly places located outside of towns and separated spatially and socially from the rest of  Dutch society. The AZC is also a place where asylum-seekers have to wait long periods until they receive a reply on their asylum-application; this can take months, or sometimes even years.

Staying in the AZC feels like someone has pressed the “pause-button” of life

During this ‘pause’ or waiting-time asylum-seekers have limited autonomy to develop themselves as they have little rights to work or study. This is something that leads to great frustration, as one of the research participants pointed out to me: “Where do you meet new people? Mostly in study, in the work, because of work, because of all that connections going. So when there is no such opportunity it is really hard to meet new people”. Not only does the inability to work or study impact one’s autonomous decision to develop oneself through labour or education, it also negatively impacts network building. As research has shown, it is precisely networking that is needed to integrate in the local community.

Organisations

Often you see people going from AZC to AZC. Each time they have to make new friends. There is so much loss. Some much grief comes with it and there is no time passing during the day. Yes, somewhere they lose themselves. This programme offers new skills on how to sustain oneself in such a period. (Maya, GZA Nurse)

Luckily, there are several organizations that contribute to personal development of asylum-seekers. For example, the ‘BAMBOO’-programme of the healthcare organization ‘Gezondheidszorg Asielzoekers’(GZA), lets asylum-seekers work on their personal development, goals, skills and resilience during their liminal period in the AZC. The programme is meant for day to day struggles of asylum-seekers. ‘Stichting de Vrolijkheid’ (a name that roughly translates as ‘Foundation Happiness’) is an organization that arranges art projects for young AZC-residents. They are present in several AZCs, but unfortunately not in all. Their projects contribute to self-expression and personal development of refugees staying in AZCs, with the main goal: let children be children!

Outside of the AZC there may be Buddy programmes. Through buddy projects, refugees pair up with locals, which is an effective and inclusive contribution to integration. It may also lead to bridging the gap in networking as one employee of Buddy to Buddy mentioned:

What I have noticed is that it is so really easy to close your front door and stay in your own home. Most refugees have a full mind and their own life. But buddies quite literally open their front door and let others in. This way you will become part of society”.

Becoming part of society, or engaging in activities that may contribute to personal development is actually quite hard while residing in rural, shrinking areas. Though there are several organizations that contribute to personal development of asylum-seekers, these organizations or project are not  available in or near AZCs, meaning that it completely depends on the location of the AZC where you are placed whether you can join arranged activities or not. What became clear in my research, is that the state of liminality of asylum-seekers may be enlarged due to being located in a rural, shrinking region. For instance because available activities nearby are dispersed over a large area.  In such case, asylum-seekers do not always have the means to transport themselves easily to the nearest town or activity due to the inability to ride a bike,  or because they do not have money for public transport. It may also be because there simply are no activities or facilities available. An employee of buddy to buddy vividly told me:

“By car it [going to another town] might take you 20 minutes. But by public transport you will be on the road for an hour and a half. When you are in a very small town, like Keppel, you have to be lucky if there is a local ‘neighbourhood’ bus, but other than that, there is hardly anything”.

As some local communities can be conservative and reserved, networking with natives becomes extra hard. This leads to isolation amongst asylum-seekers and refugees, consequently negatively impacting their personal development and integration. Yet, there also seem to be local inhabitants who are active in engaging with people residing in nearby AZCs, some of them being engaged as volunteers for organizations like Stichting de Vrolijkheid and the Dutch Council for Refugees (Vluchtelingenwerk).

Personal development

Some people, they try to improve themselves. (…) it is not easy to handle these feelings, but finally you have to if you want to do something for yourself. You have to learn how to handle that situation, it is really important for your mental health. (Jeff , 28 years old from Venezuela)              

The asylum-seekers participating in my research, did not have any activities provided in, or near the AZC. A common phrase in every conversation with my research participants was ‘there’s nothing to do here’. However, they have found ways to develop themselves despite the restrictions that come with the liminal position and despite the fact that they are so remotely located.

In my research, I have used visual methods to co-create knowledge with participants. They took pictures of places they like to go, things they are proud of and goals for the future. Through photographs that research participants have taken, I will point out some of these activities that contribute to personal development.

Language learning

Well, I feel proud when I apply knowledge on the street or with someone. My computer and my book have helped me explain myself and for that I feel grateful. (Manuel 18 Venezuela)

It may seem obvious to start learning a the language of the host country, but for most asylum-seekers in the Netherlands, it really is not. As language learning is not officially allowed until a refugee status has been granted, many asylum-seekers learn Dutch by themselves by purchasing study books, going to taalcafés (language cafes) or actively reaching out to locals in order to study Dutch. Most of my research participants have found learning Dutch a must in order to be able to integrate. Besides them viewing it as a necessity, it also provided them with a sense of competence and success when they communicate in Dutch with locals.

Recreational activities

When I start the activity, the sport. I really don’t think that I am going to do that and it was the beginning of the new me. Because I started to feel a little bit confident on myself. And that encouraged me to apply to university. Because I thought ‘if I can do this, I can do whatever’. (Gloria, 23 years old from Peru)

What remains, when there are few organized activities, and little organizations nearby, are self-initiated recreational activities. One of my main findings was that recreational activities that are not necessarily intended to bring forth personal growth, often do lead to personal development. Activities that are meant as a time passing in liminality, contribute to reflection and sense of personality. They also help to build self-confidence and provide meaning during a period in which people may have lost it. Think for example of writing stories, drawing, dancing and doing sports.

Take for example mountain biking. It is outdoors, healthy and gives a true adrenaline rush. Several asylum-seekers in my research have mentioned working out in nature. Mostly, this started as a way to be outside the AZC, away from a place that is generally considered depressing. Soon, participants noticed personal development.  For example, one participant has explained the meaning of mountain biking as follows: ‘And I think the word will be freedom. Feel the freedom, that you could get riding a bike’. For him, mountain biking turned out to be synonymous to the freedom that does not exist in his country of origin. As mentioned in the quote above, biking has also led to self-confidence and decision-making that lead to personal growth, such as applying to college. Also other ways of being in nature have proven to be of importance to asylum-seekers in rural areas. These range from running, walking, reading or merely ‘being’ in nature. According to participants, they lead to a sense of peace, reflection and well-being.

Mindshift changes

Staying in the AZC, means living with people from all over the world. Everyone has a different background and a different story. And the realization of this, made my research participants describe themselves as having become more open-minded and humble. This is due to spending time with people from all over the world, and ‘making it work together’ as a multicultural community. As many of my research participants have mentioned, the stories of others, the habits of others; learning why others do what they do, have made them more tolerant and insightful and helped them to see the good in other people. One participant has mentioned: “The experience of being in exile and living in this type of community makes people humble and a lot of people should, how to say? Well, yeah. Experience it! Not in a bad way. It would be good for people. To see the good in other people”.

In the end, it turns out that in the liminality experienced in an AZC can undermine personal development. Partly because of all the rules and regulations that come with living in the AZC, such as not being allowed to learn Dutch officially. In rural shrinking areas specifically, such feelings of liminality can be reinforced by long distances and feelings of isolation. However, for most of the AZC residents I talked to, the center as a place and community can also  contribute to personal development, as asylum-seekers have noticed personal growth in how to handle intercultural communication and becoming more open-mined. Self-initiated activities that are used to pass the time waiting for a decision on the asylum application, may lead to spontaneous and self-led personal development.

* The pictures are made by the participants of the study and published in this blog with their consent.