The challenges of refugees and asylum seekers to start a new life

Hamid. Credits: Marindi Halet
Refugee Day, celebrated on the 20th of June, offers a chance to raise awareness of the plight of refugees around the world and of the efforts to protect their human rights.

Hamid is an asylum seeker from Syria, from the city of Latakia. He finished his Master’s degree in accounting before he and his brother left Latakia for a better life. Like many Syrian refugees and asylum seekers, Hamid and his brother fled from the Syrian war, which started in 2011. They had to travel a lot of kilometers away from their home, facing a lot of difficulties and even death threats because of religious reasons.

They first went from Syria to Lebanon, where they stayed for one month. Lebanon is one of the countries which hosts the largest number of refugees. From Lebanon, they went to Iraq where they worked as receptionists for 8 months. Then, they started their journey to Greece. From Iraq, they went to Iran, but they had to do several backs and forth trips because the police caught them twice. From Iran, they went to Turkey, the country that receives the largest number of refugees. Finally, from Turkey, they arrived in Greece. 

But their journey didn’t stop here. Once in Greece, Hamid and his brother had to face other obstacles. They first arrived to a Greek island, but they had to leave again because the procedure there was very slow. Indeed, the Greek government blocked asylum seekers who arrive on the Aegean islands from moving to the mainland. The containment policy trapped thousands of people in terrible conditions with limited access to protection, health care, adequate water, sanitation, and hygiene products to limit the spread of Covid-19. In September, 19,929 asylum seekers were on the islands, including more than 16,000 in camps designed to host around 13,000.

But Greece is just an example among others. The matter of receiving refugees regularly generates debates, meetings, and diplomatic tensions between states. However, solidarity takes another form, particularly thanks to NGOs that are doing their best to receive and integrate refugee people. 

“Abrazo Cultural”: an NGO to promote interculturality

Helena Lopes, from Brazil, is the director founder of “Abrazo Cultural” , an NGO which was born in Brazil in 2014 and that she decided to bring to Barcelona four years ago. “Abrazo Cultural” promotes interculturality, language classes, cultural workshops, and cross-cultural training led by refugee and migrant people. The project’s goal is to promote real inclusion, break stereotypes, prejudices and put emphasis on the talents and knowledge that these persons bring to the city. Being a migrant herself and knowing refugee people, Helena points out that “there was a real necessity to make and propose something different. It was not only to offer help to these people but to show that they can bring help to the city”.

The NGO promotes cultural workshops and intercultural exchange

According to her, Spain is not receiving a lot of refugees compared to other European countries like Germany. But a city like Barcelona has the potential to receive a lot of people and the welcoming programs in Spain (CEA) bring support in language teaching, money, and finding a place to live and work “There are a lot of opportunities but it is true that this is not sufficient for the whole demand from refugee and migrant people”. 

As far as the government is concerned, refugees feel that it is a complicated process, sometimes very bureaucratic. On the other hand, Spanish people seem to have fewer stereotypes and prejudices than other countries that maybe receive more refugees.

Hamid feels the same in Greece: “People in Greece are welcoming, at least from my experience because maybe speaking English helps and we met the right people. But the government does not help and the administration is very slow. A lot of asylum seekers do not have a place to live”. According to both of them, to solve this issue, the Government and Society must work together.

This year, Barcelona has launched an intercultural plan to create actions to work more with citizens to sensitize people. From the municipality, they want to promote diversity and integrate citizens from different cultures. “When diversity is present in every society’s field, we have inclusion and interculturality. There is no discrimination. We need to work on this specifically”, Lopes states.

Indeed, with fewer prejudices, refugee’s work integration could be easier. “If you have work you can be independent, you can rent a house, have your own life”, Hamid says. 

The difficulties because of the economic situation

Unfortunately, the Greek economic situation complicates the integration even more. Lopes explains that Greece is a country that, due to its location, particularly with the sea, can welcome refugees. However, there are a lot of issues that can’t be solved easily. Indeed, if Greece was an example regarding the reception of refugees in 2015, today restrictions chosen are also explained by the geopolitical situation and a population marked by years of crisis. 

“The Greek people can’t find a job so it’s so hard for refugees to find work”, Hamid states. According to him, the solution would be to let people go out of Greece to another country. López exemplifies: “Primary care is essential, but if we can’t achieve a real work integration, these persons will never be integrated into the city and will always do illegal employment”. 

As it is the case with Hamid (accountant) and his brother (dentist), refugee people often come with high education but are always underestimated when coming.

“Abrazo Cultural” is not solving the work integration issue because it is a small association and people work per hour, but it is still the first step to enter the labor market. People gain confidence, build networks. The main objective of “Abrazo Cultural” is for companies to see refugees and asylum seekers from a different perspective. “They feel that they are treated equally. Knowing that they are professionals gives them trust”, the director of the NGO states. 

How to improve the situation?

A work integration also means working with the companies to change the narrative. But as Lopes explains, changing mentalities is something transversal. You have to change it in every society’s areas: people, companies, government, but also media since they participate the most in creating this image. We need to help change the narrative not to see refugees and migrants as weak and passive people who need help but as people with talent and knowledge who bring value to society.

In “Abrazo Cultural”, the refugees are the ones who teach companies how to create intercultural spaces where there is good communication and no discrimination and stereotypes.

According to Lopes, even if companies are more and more willing to work the cross-cultural theme and the question of diversity- The Fondation of Diversity published this year that there was a rise of the demand for more diversity and inclusion in companies in 2020- the majority of them do not know how to do it. “Within the topic of diversity, cultural diversity is the last one that companies worked on because they don’t know how”, Lopes points out. 

How has the COVID impacted refugees and asylum seekers?

Moreover, these last two years, the Covid-19 pandemic impacted a lot the refugee cause. According to Amnesty International, in 2020 in Greece, the number of arrivals by maritime and land transportation decreased considerably from 74 613 in 2019 to 15 669 on the 31 of December 2020. After a lot of time spent waiting in the islands, Hamid and his brother took a boat to Thessaloniki, where they are now living for nine months. But when Hamid and his brother went to take appointments for asylum, all their meetings were postponed and then canceled because of the pandemic.

Lopes agrees that all the processes for administration were in pause. People without papers didn’t have access to reception services that existed before. For refugee people, it was a big chaos. And it still is. Hamid and his brother find now in volunteering a space to try to forget what happened to them and to start a new chapter of life.  

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