Welcoming Spaces European Meet-up

On the last Friday of March, the Welcoming Spaces team hosted initiatives, social organisations, businesses, policy makers, local authorities and researchers from all over Europe in a celebration of the first anniversary of the Horizon 2020 project Welcoming Spaces in Europe.

We celebrated our progress and cooperation over the last year and created a space for an exchange of practices, ideas and experiences between the different actors present – all from diverse international and professional backgrounds that provide them with different and important perspectives on the ways shrinking regions and migrants can become connected in mutually enriching ways.

The meet-up was opened with a few guiding words by the Director of Welcoming Spaces, Prof. Zoomers, before diving into the pitches by four organisations working on welcoming initiatives that shared their innovative strategies on how they connect people and places.

The first pitch was about the Spanish foundation Cepaim, presented by Carmen Ayllón, Welcoming Spaces project broker. She introduced the nuevos senderos projects (“new paths”) by which Cepaim is working on social and labour inclusion of migrants in rural localities. Their core focus is to engage both migrants and local communities to contribute to the revitalisation and development of the rural areas. To reach this goal, Cepaim guides the process of emplacements of migrants in rural areas from an early stage, working closely with not only the migrant but also the local residents, to involve the full community in the process.  She remarked on the importance of revitalisation of rural areas in the Spanish context by showing the example of Spanish Lapland. In the experience of Cepaim, successful relocation of migrations to rural areas depends highly on accurate and detailed information and decent housing and job offers.

The next pitch was presented by Claudia Schneider, project leader of the German NGO Ökoherz e.V. She described how the roots of the NGO lie in the region of Thuringia where they help farmers engage in social farming practices, facilitating for example the integration of intellectually disabled people. Later, she said, they asked themselves if they could also work with refugees and quickly realised that their context provided great conditions to do so: they noticed that for many refugees coming from rural backgrounds in their home countries the familiar activities and the home on a farm had a healing effect. They also found that the engagement in farming provided good informal language learning opportunities and further opportunities to train skills and competences. Lastly, they also saw that for many refugees the possibility of paid work was important, giving them the opportunity to send money to support family members. Claudia also added that this development benefitted both sides, as the additional manpower was desperately needed by farmers in these rural depopulating areas.

Next, the Italian initiative Miledù was introduced by co-founder and senior researcher at Euricse, Giulia Galera. Miledù focuses on the social and labour-market integration of newcomers, especially refugees and asylum-seeking people in the peripheries of lake Como, and on bringing the business perspective and the eco-perspective together in rural areas. Employing migrants, they are following a holistic empowerment model which is based on multiple dimensions: the social, work and cultural dimension. By pursuing strategic economic fields such as the management of common goods with activities that include the production of edible flowers, restoration of drystone walls and beekeeping they manage to combine the enhancement of social cohesion, economic stability and environmental protection. Giulia also mentioned that she sees a strength in their small size with opportunities to upscale through collaboration.

The last pitch was about the Dutch/Belgian/German project In de zorg, uit de zorgen (“Into care to be carefree”) presented by project coordinator Romy van den Akker. The initiative is a collaboration of eight refugee, care and labour market organisations that work together closely with the aim of supporting refugees in finding a job or internship in the care sector. The initiative facilitates a specific education path for refugees with the ambition to find employment in the care sector. Participants could join the programme without prior knowledge or education and find out during the course of the programme what healthcare position fit them best, from becoming a nurse to more social healthcare positions. Eventually, the completion of the programme provided them with the guarantee for a paid job in the healthcare profession, more specifically in elderly care. In this way the programme manages to benefit both parties involved, as many of the regions in the three countries involved are experiencing severe labour shortages in the healthcare profession and the initiative manages to address this need.

These newly gained insights were then processed and discussed in small mixed teams giving everyone the chance to reflect on how these good practices could be adapted to their local contexts. Some interesting insights and further discussion points came out of this, as was revealed in the subsequent plenary harvest. The many great ideas voiced here were certainly inspiring and provided great food for thought that will be further discussed in future meetings.

Community of practice

Carmen Ayllón then introduced and invited everyone to join the Community of practice. The name stands for a broad network of stakeholders we aim to create as part of the Welcoming Spaces programme. Here, the focus is on local actors in the field, including local policy makers, those involved in the welcoming initiatives, and both newcomers and long-term residents, and broader, more overarching projects related to welcoming initiatives for newcomers and processes of revitalisation in shrinking region. The community of practice builds on the idea that despite the diversity in context everyone has the same shared goals and that a space for supporting each other and sharing thoughts could help the creation of solutions and possibilities on the ground.