A reflection: What is a newcomer?

By Jofelle P. Tesorio

For someone who has moved places, whether from Utrecht to Harlingen, or from Damascus to Arnhem, perspectives can be different. Are newcomers the only ones who need to adjust to the new cultures, new people, new environment, or should it be a two-way, perhaps a circular process? Newcomers could also mean new inspirations and new ways of thinking.

Sometime in July, in the beautiful city of Nijmegen, our Welcoming Spaces group collaborated with Samenwerkingsverband Burgerkracht Europa (SBE) to organize a symposium unpacking the question ‘who is a newcomer?’ where around 150 professionals and residents from the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany came to discuss how, with mutual effort, everyone can shape the embedding of newcomers in the community in a positive way.

As countries with shared borders, the Netherlands, Germany, and Belgium are often confronted with similar issues, and in many cases, coordinating, sharing experiences and knowledge help unpack the issues and identify best practices. Like other countries in Europe, dealing with newcomers is one of most pressing issues in the last years. How do newcomers see themselves into our communities? How can they best integrate or is ‘integration’ (‘integreren’ or ‘inburgeren’ in Dutch) the right word to use? As Wahabou Alidou, the coordinator of a citizen-led initiative for newcomers Colourful Het Hogeland, said, community members should ‘outegrate’ (‘uitburgeren’) to also learn from newcomers. The theme collaborating with newcomers is not a new concept but in the wake of the Russian aggression against Ukraine, this is timely to revisit and put into perspective. What can newcomers do to become part of the society, and what can communities do to ensure that they feel welcome? There are many similarities but also significant differences, in which we can learn from each other.

Telling stories and perspectives on once being newcomers and now part of the society. (Photo: Jofelle Tesorio/Welcoming Spaces)

Participants with migrant backgrounds engaged in a conversation wherein they were asked: Are you still a newcomer if you have been living in the country for 20 years? How do you manage to be part of the community? For them, there were no standard answers but common to their experiences was the need to connect with people, the community and to be able to feel that they were welcome.

“I always say to them, you survived, you are safe here and it is also genuinely nice to also show your gratitude by giving something back to the society where  you  are,” said Farisa from Arnhem. She added that while there is talk about conforming, the best way to collaborate with newcomers is not to be in front or behind them but beside them. “They will soon be able to find their own place in the future.”

Farhad, who volunteers at a reception center, said residents need to connect. “I told them you have to work, volunteer, no matter what it is…so you can make contact.”

The bright side

Welcoming spaces and initiatives are the bright side that are often invisible, says Prof. Dr. Zoomers. (Photo: Jofelle Tesorio/Welcoming Spaces)

The bright side, according to Prof. Dr. Zoomers, is that there are existing examples of ‘welcoming spaces’, but often remain invisible and dispersed in various European regions, which play a very important role in the reception of newcomers, but also  in working together with the newcomers.  She stressed that newcomers can really make a difference. “Thanks to the arrival of these migrants, schools  can remain, a hotel  can be reopened, shops  are opened, the industry  is  kept  afloat…” Explaining the outcome of the project, she stressed the harmonious relationship built around citizen and migrants-led welcoming initiatives, which are also often supported by NGOs and mayors. “I am very much convinced that mayors can really make an enormous difference. It is not hard for us to show this, and it is possible.”

While looking at this bright side, Welcoming Spaces is also gradually finding out about the number of restrictions for newcomers, which have to do with policies. Many migrants in general are not in preferred locations. “We can describe in many cases how harmoniously people work in small   locations and seem to keep  small  communities  afloat, but if  you put it from the perspective of newcomers themselves, their development opportunities are often  very limited.” She also posed a question on the distinction of newcomers from the point of view where they come from, which becomes ‘stigmatizing’. “In the end it does not help us build a bridge. If we do not talk about where people come from… If we manage to  fuel the debate  and  ask for more. What are you  going to do here? What contribution do you want to make? Then you get a completely different discussion.”

Newcomer policies: Belgian, Dutch, and German perspectives

While all three countries operate within the European asylum policy, there are also different perspectives, principles and realities.

Mayor Kees van Rooij of Meierijstad notes that we need to be aware it is a balancing act. At community level, people might be receptive of policies on integration and welcoming initiatives but he is also often told “our children also want a roof”, not just newcomers. “In all those discussions, you’re already trying to manage each other, in such a way that  you want to keep  some support, but also at the same time try to give  perhaps even an extra impulse for all those starters and all those young people  who also want  a home…”

In the Netherlands, the discussion is mainly on the shortage of collective places for asylum seekers and some are situated in municipalities where many people are against large shelters being built near them.

For Belgian Secretary of State for Asylum and Migration Nicole De Moor it is also finding a balance.  “I try every   day  to  work  on a better migration policy, a  fair  migration policy, a  policy  whereby  we can protect people  fleeing from war or persecution… as well as for  people  who may  not  be  fleeing the war, but who want to come to   Europe  to  work or to study.”

According to her, there are many different channels, but there are also  many  challenges  that   come with it. The past few years have been ‘historic’ and particularly challenging year, she said, because of people fleeing from war  and  persecution  from  different  countries, including the Ukrainians.

She is in constant communication and meetings with her counterpart to learn and improve the Belgian system, for example in asylum reception and integration. Now, the federal government is in favor of voluntary asylum centers. They have about a hundred collective centers spread over different municipalities and local shelter initiatives, which are managed by municipalities on a voluntary basis. “These are municipalities that actually take over the task of federal asylum reception and often receive asylum seekers in many small-scale or individual homes.”  She said that they encourage local reception initiatives because those places are important for specific target groups of asylum seekers, people who may find it more difficult to join a collective center and “they are much better for integration”.

Workshops and ways of moving together

After the opening plenary, 14 interactive workshops followed. Based on concrete initiatives by residents, municipalities/governments and civil society organisations in Belgian-German-Dutch rural regions, the participants discussed specific themes in relation to newcomers. During the workshops and during breaks, the participants gathered suggestions for ways to look at collaborating with newcomers differently, creatively and good practices, which were discussed in the closing panel.

Listening and learning from each other. (Photo: Jofelle Tesorio/Welcoming Spaces)

Throughout the panels and breakout workshops, participants listened, shared experiences, and critically analysed various aspects of the theme. The following are the ideas for recommendations from the participants:

A. Collaborating with newcomers

  • Approach the newcomer by not asking where he/she came from
  • Talk to newcomers and not about newcomers; involve them more
  • Make the encounter easier by thinking along about possibilities
  • More newcomers are needed to use their experiences in the inclusion processes at support organisations
  • Have newcomer guides as coordinators and process supervisors
  • Introduce reciprocity for newcomers; think about volunteering
  • Build self-confidence and language skills through the active involvement of newcomers in the activities for and with newcomers
  • Questions about needs – what do newcomers need to find their way when they arrive and settle in. Start from what people themselves say they need or worry about

B. Policy and guidance

  • Treat all newcomers equally: both from Ukraine and from the rest of the unsafe countries
  • Ensure an integrated approach. Not to approach everything from the perspective of target groups of status holders/asylum seekers/family reunifiers
  • Use the Temporary Protection Directive for Ukrainians as a basis for the reception, integration and placement of all newcomers
  • Provide information at the right time and in phases at the pace of the newcomer
  • Subsidy schemes for associations and local foundations that want to go the extra mile
  • Make sure that you are not the only driving force, but along with several people in your organisation to support newcomers
  • Flexible,  structured cooperation so that the newcomer can be integrated into the system

C. Asylum reception

  • Use the potential of everyone who enters the asylum seekers centrum (AZC)
  • Create opportunities to participate and learn equally
  • Provide a larger range of languages at the AZC (e.g. English lessons)
  • Think from the perspective of the local society and see how to realise an ideal reception
  • Connect with employers, sports clubs, educational institutions, etc.
  • For municipalities, provinces and the state (including COA), create opportunities for early involvement of local residents to work towards humane and sustainable shelters that serve both the neighborhood and newcomers
  • Make the shelters smaller; think from the perspective of local communities

D. Inclusion and work

  • In order to participate, giving the newcomer enough information is important
  • Let asylum seekers work without obstacles
  • Learn from projects such in the nursing/care sector where newcomers learn the Dutch language and work. Make this possible for other sectors and professions

E. Other tips and general recommendations

  • View newcomers as a possibility/opportunity and not a burden
  • Kindness helps!
  • Personal attention starts with a smile on an equal basis
  • Use food to connect


At the end of the symposium, the participants signed the Manifesto “Collaborating with Newcomers” that called on all governments, agencies and residents in the (border) regions to look and support opportunities for newcomers. The manifesto also included the above mentioned recommendations that will be passed on to all stakeholders involved with newcomers.

PhD School in Soria: Reflections from a nurturing exchange

By María Molinari (University of Turin)*

This year, I received an interesting invitation from the MATILDE project to attend the International PhD School on Migration and Socio-ecological Change organized by Utrecht University and the Welcoming Spaces Consortium. It was a school for PhD researchers that consisted of two online sessions and one on-site session: the first part consisted of an introduction with open discussion in March 2021, and the second part was more dedicated to peer review discussions among participants lectures and field visits in Soria, Spain, during the last days of September.

The PhD school took the form of a meeting of scholars and doctoral researchers from different disciplines working on the same broad topic: migration and local development in European rural areas. During the School days, a main question was posed as the leitmotif of the discussions: How to contribute to just and sustainable futures in depopulating and socioeconomically marginalised European localities, while at the same time offering a ´welcoming space´ for non-EU migrants to pursue their life projects?

After the isolation, we suffered due to the Covid 19-related confinements, the opportunity to hold face-to-face discussions helps strengthening bonds among the network of PhD researchers established in the two previous online sessions of the school. But the on-site meeting in Soria offered us not only the opportunity to create and consolidate interpersonal relationships and to gain an in-depth understanding of each other’s work. It also provided an opportunity to visit a very special area within rural Spain and to meet with a diversity of residents therein. We had the opportunity to listen and discuss with the inhabitants of two villages, namely Yanguas and San Esteban de Gormaz, both in Soria province, and to reflect on the differences and similarities with our own case studies.

Reflections from the field

Yanguas, which name derives from ianuas (“door” in Latin), is a small municipality of a bit over ninety inhabitants located between the region of Soria and La Rioja. Of Celtiberian pre-Roman origin, Yanguas was located on the road that connected Numanzia and Calahorra and gained importance during the Roman war against Numanzia, an ancient Celtiberian stronghold that resisted the Roman conquest until its self-destruction. Yanguas is best known because it is mentioned in Chapter XV of Don Quixote, when its inhabitants beat up Don Quixote and Sancho for not being able to steer the mules that they were riding.

Picture by Alice Lomonaco

The meeting with some of the inhabitants, set in the local 14th-century castle, gave the PhD School participants an insight into the transformation of the village over the centuries. While until the beginning of the twentieth century, Yanguas was home to two thousand residents, today these not even reach a hundred. There are many actions that the townspeople take today to invite people to settle in the village, but the one that struck me most is the far-sighted action of the municipality, which has taken to heart the issue of housing.

Housing is the first glimmer that the dreamer sees to figure out his future in a new area

It is precisely in the houses, most of which are abandoned, that the municipality wanted to invest. It took charge of acquiring the abandoned house, applying for public funding to make it habitable and then selling it to the buyers at a reduced price. This facilitated the settlement of some newcomers who sometimes called on others to join. To accept the shortcomings of many services in the village and to have one’s own car are the preconditions for understanding the village and being able to accept it as it is, with its opportunities (a community life immersed in the beauty of the Soria region) and its limitations (such as the distance from basic and commercial services). In fact, most newcomers end up leaving the villages a trial period.

There was a lot to discuss among us PhD students about this experience, especially regarding the lack of knowledge by those running the migrant welcoming initiative about the actual reasons why most newcomers left after a trial period despite the available benefits. So, here lies the importance of properly understanding the problem. This resembles to that photo circulating on the internet about the bullet holes in the planes of the Second World War. The Allies mapped the bullet holes in planes hit by German anti-aircraft weaponry to understand the weak points of their aircrafts. They thought the way forward was to reinforce the worst hit areas and further armour the aircraft. However, they later realised that the bullet holes only represented the damage suffered by the aircrafts that made it back to base and not of those that were shot down. Thus, the areas that needed reinforcement were those where there were no holes, because if the aircraft and its pilot did not return home it was probably because those areas of the aircraft had been hit. In short, they were previously missing the “point of view” of the aircrafts that did not make it back to base.

We should give more voice to those who have left

Thus, I wonder how much energy do we devote to reinforce what we consider to be the weak points without sufficiently questioning the real reasons for the failures, the real motives of others, in our efforts to attract new settlers to depopulating areas? Perhaps we should give more voice to those who have left, sometimes with regret or resentment for not being understood. Sometimes the lack of services, job or housing are not the only reasons, but they are the ones we value most. However, there might be many other reasons of less material nature.

The second visit to San Esteban de Gormaz brought me home in a way because of the similarity between the Spanish Romanic architecture and that of many village churches in the Tuscan-Emilian Apennines in Italy.

The meeting with San Esteban´s mayor and councillors started with a walk showing us the main amenities and social services that are available in town. With over three thousand inhabitants, San Esteban offers adult education services, centres for the elderly and various schools. One of the active projects that struck me most is that of intergenerational training. Elderly residents are trained to “work” with children. They learn how to be with children, how to pass on their knowledge and share their precious time with the little ones. At the same time, the children learn about the importance of interpersonal relationships by listening to stories that they would not find on television or on tablets. In short, I found it a win-win approach in which both parties win and “gain”. In this way San Esteban makes use of its most valuable asset, and arguably the most commonly-available, namely the traditional knowledge of the ageing residents, for the benefit of the younger generations.

My take-aways from the PhD School

Enlightened by the experiences of Yanguas and San Esteban, and with the help of a smart facilitation, the PhD School participants compared these experiences with those in their own field research areas by identifying gaps, limitations, potentials as well as possible ways for improvement and topics for further research. In so doing, I found very helpful the mix of selected PhD researchers with diverse backgrounds and the role of the PhD School facilitators and other contributors during the lectures and panel discussions.

In fact, the PhD School in Soria proved to be a truly “welcoming space” not only in the sense of the project’s theme, but also regarding the welcoming attitude that each participant practiced during the School days among us, and towards the territories and residents that we had the chance to visit and meet. Although we have solid discussion networks, talking about fragile areas in a fragile Italy is often not enough to break down the sense of isolation and impotence that sometimes grips us all, whether we like it or not. But talking about fragile areas in an international context and together with people who share similar ideas and fears, made me realise that I am not alone in facing this new historical era that opens the door to a future that has yet to be planned. The exchange with our fellow human beings on both sides of the borders, including those who live in our own villages and to whom we seldom speak sometime, namely international migrant newcomers, has a great potential to offer valuable insights that we should seize in every moment of our work.

*Maria Molinari (maria.molinari@unito.it)

Maria graduated in Cultural Anthropology and Ethnology at the University of Bologna and after some development cooperation experiences abroad, Maria has been working on migrant inclusion in Italy since 2005. She has a master’s degree in intercultural studies at the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia; a scholarship at the University of Parma; a postgraduate course in Museum and Art Anthropology at the University of Milan Bicocca, and courses in project management. Today, she has returned to her home village where she works as an nature guide and she’s active in planning, consulting and coordinating heritage projects. She is currently a PhD researcher in anthropology at the University of Turin in Italy.