Why I believe we should rethink the way we view integration.
This blog post comes at a strange time in the Year Here calendar, since as I write this we are a little under two weeks into our holidays and about to embark on the two-month-long ‘consulting phase’ that will make up our next YH chapter.
So for my post, I thought I’d write about something I’ve been thinking a lot about recently, something not directly connected to the Year Here course content, but nonetheless socially rooted and so, I hope, of interest to you. It is something that I observed in a few of the individuals I worked with as part of my placement at St Mungo’s earlier this year, and which I have seen time and time again in so many of the Syrian, Iraqi, Afghan, Sudanese, Eritrean men, women and children that I have met during my time working in camps and shelters for refugees and displaced people across Europe.
It is an overwhelming, tangible sense of not belonging, of feeling caught between and rejected by two countries or systems and struggling to find a place comfortably within one or the other. This is often seen as the struggle to ‘integrate’.
Akram*, an Iraqi friend of mine, was moved to Norway as part of the refugee resettlement programme earlier this year. He recently shared the following photo on Facebook, which I think perfectly sums up this feeling of suspension between two places:
Before reading this quote, I had intended to dedicate this post to the countless grassroots organisations and social enterprises working with migrants and refugees on projects promoting social inclusion in the UK. Such projects cover language-learning, employment, befriending and more, with food-based projects seeming to dominate the most recent wave, using the home cuisines of refugees and migrants in the UK as a way for individuals to share their home cultures whilst learning English, gaining confidence and meeting new people. SOOP, Mazí Mas and Migrateful are just three of the great social enterprises doing this kind of work in London at the moment.
Yet Akram’s Facebook post made me wonder whether there is also value in creating paths to social inclusion that do not rely on a person’s foreignness.
I ought to clarify now that I think foreignness is a wonderful thing; I have been lucky enough to grow up within the rich and diverse cultural tapestry of London and have always viewed this as something immensely positive. Yet when it comes to integrating vulnerable communities, especially in our current socio-political climate, I wonder whether foreignness is just a word for not-enoughness; whether focussing on a person’s otherness renders them more foreign and less enough, and insinuates a need for them to justify their presence. This was highlighted in Mahtab Hussain’s recent exhibition ‘You Get Me?’ Whilst I didn’t make it to the show, I was lucky enough to hear Hussain speak about the project, a collection of photographs of young, working class, British Asian men. The exhibition speaks closely to his own experiences as a British Asian.
“When you are transplanted into a country you have two cultures coexisting in you, two conflicting different worlds… By British peers I have always been considered too dark, and by Pakistanis too British.” (Hussain)
If Hussain (along with so many of the young men he interviewed and photographed for his project) was born in England, and yet still experiences the sense of not-enoughness encapsulated in Akram’s Facebook post, then how can we expect this to be any different for those arriving in the UK today?
In order to draw focus from foreignness and turn it towards enoughness, perhaps we ought to look at the human qualities — those qualities we all have — that make each of us unique (and yet somehow the same).
In early May of this year I attended a conference in Sheffield, looking at the role of volunteers in the refugee crisis. There, I met Zaed*, a Syrian man in his early fifties with a kind face and an irresistibly positive energy. Over a delicious lunch (provided by a C.I.C working with homeless individuals in Sheffield) we struck up a conversation, and he soon told me how he had arrived in Sheffield the previous year and had, over the past six months, become involved with Voluntary Action Sheffield. He volunteers giving tours of the city (which he said was a great way to get to know his new home), as a guide for older blind people, as an Arabic teacher and helps newly arrived refugees to find their feet in Sheffield. What I loved about his story of integration was that it relied on nothing more than his humanness — his being him in this new place. His various roles enabled him to find purpose and integrate into the city in a way that did not rely on his otherness, and a way that made him feel that he was enough. More than enough, in fact.
I have seen a similar process happen with Yusef*, a 17-year-old Sudanese boy I met in Calais last summer, who was brought to the UK under the Dubs amendment late last year. I watched him arrive in a tiny village in the North East of England, struggling to find his feet — and his place — somewhere so new and unfamiliar, when so many interactions revolved around his foreignness. Then he joined a running club, ran in some races and got picked up by a bigger club in the neighbouring town. He’s just completed a week-long residential running camp for young people. His running has enabled him to find a purpose and a community that were not born out of his otherness, but out of his more-than-enoughness. I can see what a positive impact this has had on every part of his life here.
I love that Yusef and Zaed have both found a way to integrate that does not rely on their otherness. I also recognise that not everyone can run as fast as Yusef, nor does everyone have as high a level of English as Zaed. But everyone has something — a skill, an interest, a core belief or set of values underpinning their humanness. So it seems to me that integration must be looked at on an individual basis. Because what works for one person may not work for another; what one person has in abundance, another may lack, or may have no interest in. Indeed, I would propose that this should be the lens through which each of the basic principles of integration** are approached, both by the individual and by the host community.
So let’s change the way we see and speak about integration. Let’s shift focus from foreignness to humanness — enabling integration through the innate human qualities, skills and interests that make us all human enough.
(*Not their real names)
(** Read the Common Basic Principles for Immigrant Integration Policy in the EU here)