Policy recommendations for local and national bodies

Policy recommendations for local and national bodies based on the interviews with refugees in the cities of Antwerp, Bochum, Paris and Turin

In today’s Europe refugees form an integral part of our cities.

Refugees bring valuable contributions to the economic, social and cultural fabric of the cities they live in. Yet the lives, the contributions and history of refugees in European cities still remain marginalised, undocumented and make hardly part of our European heritage. Added to this, the public perception of refugees which is largely shaped by the dominant media and political interests often represent refugees in a negative light. The refugee is mainly seen as the ‘other’ who threatens our liberal and traditional values. While we are forgetting or maybe even more neglecting the importance of the history of migration in the making of Europe. Cultural and heritage institutions play a significant role as it comes to documenting and telling the stories of people. But these institutions barely have relationships with refugee communities and missing their own stories in these institutions makes refugees feel insufficiently involved and represented in the cities they live in.

In the European Refugees Oral History project Specially Unknown, partners from Antwerp (Red Star Line Museum, Bochum (LWL Industrie Museum Zeche Hannover), Paris (Association Générique till December 2018 and Cité Internationale des Arts ). Turin (Rete Italiana di Cultura Popolare) and Amsterdam (Stichting Bevordering Maatschappelijke Participatie) worked together to:


  1. Train 25 fieldworkers  in the method of oral history interviews and the way to record and transcribe these interviews.
  2. Collect over 140 life stories on video of refugees in Antwerp, Bochum, Paris and Turin, create a database with English translations of these interviews and make sure the interviews are part of an official local or national archive.
  3. Make 9 cultural productions ( video, theatre, dance, poetry, and storytelling based on the interviews and in co-creation with refugees.
  4. Reach an audience of 5000 people in real life end about 40.000 through the website wwww.speciallyunknown.eu and social media (videos, newsletters, reviews) of the project itself and of the partners.
  5. Make educational material based on interview fragments in different languages
  6. Organise an European conference in Amsterdam
  7. Make policy recommendations on a local, national and European level.


During the project we have seen how important feeling at home and belonging are for the participation and integration of refugee communities in participating cities. Collecting life stories and sharing them with the receiving society in creative ways contributes to a stronger awareness of our collective migration past and growing compassion, understanding towards new groups now and in the future. Doing this by involving refugees from different backgrounds and ages, not only as spectators, but as contributors to cultural heritage, makes refugees feel even more appreciated and welcome.

Below we give a short summary of the lessons learned from the first 40 interviews and some policy recommendations  based on this analysis. We hope policy makers on a local level will take them into account. We also hope that researchers challenged to use this special material in the future.

In this short summary we will lead you through some of the most striking differences and similarities on three main topics:

  1. The period before the flight
  2. The period of arrival and the first steps  in the new city
  3. The period of settling down


The period before the flight

When we read/listen to the stories about the period before the flight, a difference that comes forward is the one between people who, back home, have lived a rather stable life in a society where they, although they might not have had freedom of speech, at least had relatives and friends around them, possibilities for education and, in many cases, rather good or sufficient material circumstances. Think of people from Syria and Iran. And, on the other hand, people from regions were insecurity and unstable situations are at the heart of their existence, like Palestine’s from Gaza and some people from Cambodia during the regime of Pol Pot.


Although most of the people who fled have very bad and life threatening experiences,  it seems that those who had a more or less stable childhood, are more confident they can build up a new life in the new society than the others.


Women  tell about their sometimes vulnerable positon in their own society, because of their dependency on male relatives and lesser educational possibilities. Almost all of the women who were  interviewed showed a great capacity for endurance and perseverance. They are willing to take every opportunity they get, and in many cases, find a way to live more independently.


This leads to the following policy recommendations:
  • Be aware of the life story of the refugees you want to assist at their integration in local society. Offer extra support to those who have experienced a violent and insecure childhood and youth. This can prevent later problems and promote their integration. The required  assistance can be either social or psychological, but the main focus must be to reduce the intense feeling of insecurity.
  • Make sure the policy on job guidance and participation does not only focus on male refugees, but also takes the special position of women, of who often have to combine motherhood with other tasks, and have their own way of looking for more independence into account.
Arrival in the new city and the first period in finding your way

In a lot of interviews people tell about their first impressions  of the new city and how they love the place. This is probably the fabric of every person who arrives, very often randomly, in a new place and knows he or she has the build a new life. “You better embrace it, or else you make it very difficult for yourself.”


So Bochum is praised for its quietness and green surroundings and it beautiful buildings. Paris is loved because of its historical monuments, the metro, its diversity and its many layers. While Antwerp is loved because it is not Brussels, it has an interesting history and a lively cultural atmosphere. Turin has great food, an beautiful inner city and a great Egyptian museum.


But there are also nuisances. Bureaucracy is by far the most important cause of a lot of stress and instability everywhere. In all cities people complain about the non-transparent system and the long waiting terms. In Bochum a lady had to wait for four years in a asylum seekers house not allowed to go further away than 30 kilometres. Finding a house that you can afford is also a complicated thing.  A guy from Syria really was amazed about the small size of the apartments in Paris and the fortune they cost. In Turin housing seems easier to find, but you end up in a suburb that is difficult to reach by public transport.


A striking difference with home is the individualism of the people in Europe. The social life at home, with family and friends, the natural hospitality and the willingness to share the little that you have is in  big contrast with the stress full life in the new cities, where everything is scheduled by agenda’s and everybody takes care of himself.


Despite this, many people tell  us that the horrors of the asylum procedures and the unfamiliarity with the new culture are softened by  individual people. A teacher, a social worker, neighbours and volunteers who notice you, take care of you and help you find your way.


The first period the language is a crucial topic. Refugees who arrived during  the eighties and nineties notice there was not so much emphasis on learning the language. Recently arrived people tell the language is the key to everything and they work very hard to pass all the exams. But sometimes the bureaucratic stress and the need to find an income are so time consuming, that they fail to learn the language at the level they want.


Many of the interviewees turn to cooking and catering to make a living. For this you don’t need to speak the language so well and you don’t need to many diploma’s. It also offers you the possibility to share some of your hospitality, and to meet other people.

Last but not least: The future of the children and their education are by far the strongest motives for parents to build a new future.


This leads to the following recommendations on a national and local level:

  • Try to avoid unnecessary waiting periods. And if there is no escape from this, try to explain as clearly as possible why this waiting is necessary and when it will be over. A relatively short waiting period in an asylum seekers centre or the like, makes integration afterwards much easier.

Recommendations on a local level

  • Establish, in collaboration with volunteers in different neighbourhoods, social meetings and events where newcomers can practise the new language in a relaxed way. Language buddies, or group meetings with people who speak the language and want to talk about the life in the new city are very important.
  • Realise hospitality and easy going social contacts are in the fabric of many refugees. Try to support refugees who are willing to make living out of cooking and catering, even if this will be for a short period only.
  • Do not only organise language courses, but also create opportunities to get the new arrivals familiar with the way children are brought up in your country. Let them exchange thoughts and practices in this field with people who already live for a long time in your city. Not because the know better, but because people can learn from each other.


The period to settle down

Once people are more or less settled, they discover more deeply the beautiful and ugly sides of the city and the country. They find society well organised and love the democratic ways in which everybody is the same in front of the law. But the lack of corruption also has a shadow side, according to one of the interviewees from Paris. “Once a bureaucratic way is blocked, an individual has no means to de-block it.”


It is also appreciated that in the new city, you can make your dreams come true if you work hard. Opportunities are not only for the happy few and the people with the proper relations. You can make plans for your future and achieve them. Many young refugees have future plans that give them the opportunity to do something with their experiences as a refugee. For example becoming a journalist, “Because without the media nobody would know what happened in my country”.


The black side of the media and politics and the negative messages they send about refugees is also named. Many refugees know by experience how propaganda can divide communities that used to live peacefully together. So the sometimes openly expressed racism really fears them.


When you are more or less settled, the role of the diaspora becomes an issue to think about. Many families have close relatives scattered over the whole world. Interviewees from all four cities say that being part of the diaspora makes them feel more Syrian, Somalian, or Kurdish than they were in their homeland. Not only because they can express themselves and organise financial aid et cetera, but also because they are much more aware about their background and identity.


No matter how long you live in the new land or city, you can never forget where you came from. As a woman from Chad says: “No matter how long a firm piece of wood is lying in the river, it will never become a caiman.”


The most strong policy advice based on the experiences of refugees themselves is to realise that identity is not a fixed state but a development process, that requires opportunities to tell and re-tell your story, to reflect on the new situation, and to be involved in different co-creation processes in which you can (re)discover your talents , be in contact with others and get the feeling you are contributing to the new society. Projects on a local level that offer these opportunities should be seriously supported.