working and living together in a multicultural environment
Case study on the first year of the implementation of the IRIS project in Amsterdam
Pilot sessions are often isolated experiments with a random group of participants gathered just for that purpose. But that is not necessarily the case, as shown by our case study from Amsterdam.
Context of the IRIS project in Amsterdam
With In Touch we develop projects in the personal domains of life such as birth, growth, shelter, healing, sexuality, transition, mourning and death. In our projects we prefer to work in a participatory way which means a long-lasting interaction with researchers, development workers, government agents and the population. At the time of the IRIS project we were involved in an urban neighborhood integration process in Amsterdam. The reason why we wanted to bring the IRIS project to a specific housing/integration project for young refugees (SET/IJburg) was because of its unique position and central role in the abovementioned neighborhood. We wanted to experiment with how a more structured Erasmus project (with its specific goals and timeline) can be integrated into a neighborhood initiative which is partly municipality led and partly organic grass-root.
SET is a housing project meant not only for refugees but also for Dutch youth – a place for integration where young people with very different cultural backgrounds live together and try to find their ways in Dutch society. The Amsterdam municipality, based on the learnings from previous similar projects, didn´t want to settle the building in an isolated area, so they dropped it in the middle of an already existing but relatively new Amsterdam neighborhood. Our associated partners in the IRIS project have been NGOs, churches, communities, local art projects that have been providing services and programs to different housing projects like SET.
We had the opportunity to join this integration process from an early stage – even before the building arrived in the neighborhood. In Touch is located and its staff lives in the same neighborhood. We, as ´locals´, participated at the early meetings organized by the municipality for all the residents in the neighborhood to talk about the ´newcomers´. The aim was to share our concerns and discuss how neighbors themselves can take an active part in the social integration of the arriving 80 young refugees and 80 young Dutch students.
The main concern of residents as well as of the municipality was what is going to happen if numerous single refugee men arrive in a neighborhood densely populated by families with small children. Like in many other European countries, the representation of groups of ‘young foreign men’ appeared as a synonym of threat. What if they don´t mix? What if they do mix? And finally: what can we do to prevent bad scenarios and help new people arrive safely?
Since the main objectives of the IRIS project address the same questions, it gave us an excellent opportunity to connect these two projects, as well as a chance to actively participate in the process not only as neighbors but as local professionals. We wanted to smoothly and cautiously adjust the mission of IRIS to the mission of SET from the very beginning.
SET – first steps
Our target group at SET were young newcomers: young refugees who lived in different parts of the Netherlands, mostly in refugee shelters, or who had recently arrived in the Netherlands before they came to SET. Most of them were totally new in Amsterdam. Many of the young Dutch students or life beginners at SET are also newcomers in IJburg. At the beginning of the IRIS project, they had just arrived in their new homes and were busy with the very basic aspects of settling in: furnishing their rooms, finding their ways in Amsterdam and in the neighborhood. They began language courses, and started looking for a job or a volunteer job. Since they hardly knew anyone or anything in the area yet, it would have been too early to approach them with workshops about intimacy. We decided to take the first steps to get in touch with social workers and local organizers who were about to set up a community space in the building with the aim of connecting SET with the neighborhood.
This was the time for the first connections between Dutch neighbors and refugees, but also with local people from the neighborhood: a complex web of social relations began to grow. In the beginning, more experienced and foremost most settled Dutch residents came regularly to volunteer around SET. They organized welcome programs for the newcomers, small excursions in the neighborhood, garage sales to help them find furnishings for their new homes. The well-functioning Dutch social care system also began to operate: volunteers helped the new people to learn Dutch in the small local library, members of different churches came to give different types of support, free food packets arrived and local buddies (maatjes) organized themselves or arrived via NGOs as volunteers to pair up with someone from SET to give support in a more personal way. Numerous NGOs started immediately with their official programs for language courses, job application support, arranging their administrative problems with the authorities, etc. All these various services and civil initiatives created a strong web of practical support and care for the safe arrival of a lot of people. Nevertheless, at the beginning it was also a bit of overwhelming and chaotic – one could easily get lost among the many organizations and private persons who were around and eager to help. It was the first step in the process of arrival – focusing mainly on the basic and practical aspects of integration.
COLLECTING CRITICAL INCIDENTS
SET and IRIS – the beginning
One of the main objectives of the IRIS project is addressing the topic of social inclusion on a very sensitive level, via intimate relationship: friends, family, love. We address questions like how to develop basic skills necessary for intercultural contact and interaction or what kind of social, emotional and intercultural skills we need to create and successfully maintain those relationships.
When we were planning how to connect IRIS to the integration process, we realized that we need to wait with our ideas and programs; beginning with workshops would be too early. But in the meantime, our presence and involvement in daily life created a safe and strong texture of trust, respect and mutual curiosity. That created a baseline on which we could start the IRIS project with its more concrete tasks and schedule.
The structure of IRIS helped us to join in an easy way. The first work phase was to collect critical incidents and to introduce the method and the project to our target groups. We started to work with professionals (social workers, caregivers, community builders and trainers) who were involved with SET in some way. We introduced them to the method of Margalit Cohen Emerique and collected their critical incidents. Meanwhile, we approached the group of residents responsible for maintenance and community building in the building. They meet regularly, know each other and many other people from the building and already had a sense of responsibility and commitment towards the integration process. From the very beginning, we invited both the professionals and residents for co-construction. From time to time we discussed how the process and innovations of IRIS could become the most valuable for them and for us. We meant ´intimacy´ not only in terms of their intimate relations towards others, but also for the relationships that grew among us within our IRIS related work. ´Intimacy´ in that sense meant: trust, openness, mutual interest, shared responsibility, mutual support, commitment. That was the reason why we invited four people (two Dutch social workers and community builders, and one young Syrian and a Dutch resident from SET) to participate at the Barcelona Joint Staff Training. That was a great opportunity to show them more about our work and deepen the commitment in the IRIS project and the intimacy among us.
SKILLS TO CONNECT
Challenges and answers
Through the preparation for the implementation of the next phase – ´Skills to connect´ – we realized that we needed to organize smaller and more frequent events instead of a series of workshops. We also needed to avoid the workshop format and find a way to adapt the exercises to the daily life of SET residents.
Our target group had been living for six months at SET at that time. We invited them to think together: what they would need as ´skills´ to connect. The first ´Skills to connect´ workshop was a co-construction workshop with the participation of young residents and professionals aiming to map the needs of our target group. We collected all the needs and ideas participants mentioned they would need to acquire or develop to be able to connect with others. These included learning the Dutch language, sharing things that we like to do such as cooking, gardening, playing and learning music, learning to repair our bikes and appliances. This was how we developed together a series of weekly ´Skills to connect´ events at SET for SET residents and for people from the neighborhood:
- Café connect evenings every Thursday evening
- Language theater – Dutch language workshops with theater methods
- Cooking lab
- Gardening afternoons
During these events we were be able to pilot the exercises we developed in IRIS to work on the topics such as ´first contact´, ´good listening´, ´boundaries´, ´self-awareness´, ´the awareness of the other´, ´communication´ or ´relationships´. Thus, the exercises have been integrated into the daily life of participants. It was also an important aspect that In Touch facilitators themselves were participants, and not only ´providers´ – we were all hosts of these events, we shared mutual ownership and responsibility in these co-construction sessions. We tried out most of the exercises, some of them with minor modifications. Here are a few examples:
- All about communication
This series of exercises was excellent for us to begin exploring different facets of ‘communication’, in particular, non-verbal communication: proxemics, eye contact, physical contact, posture, gesture etc. It gave us an opportunity to identify our comfort zones and preferences. We could invite participants to explore communication forms that are different from theirs. ‘Facework’ can be understood as the key momentum in the management of relations: how to offer the needed recognition and attention without offering too much. It was also a nice beginning, because it helped participants having difficulties with the Dutch language to express themselves in another way. We integrated many of those small activities both in the ´Café Connect´ evenings as warm-up exercises as well as in the ´Language Theater´ sessions. We modified the series a bit by beginning the session with watching short funny videos together about cultural differences in daily communication. We organized a ´Café Connect´ evening around the topic ´first contact´ where we created a more intimate sphere by sharing the meaning of our names.
- NON-verbal activities
We tried to integrate non-verbal activities, which has been sometimes challenging. In a non-workshop setting, many people (residents from the building and locals from the neighborhood) found it a bit weird and didn’t understand why we would start to play and behave like animals or children or do strange things. Trust helped us to overcome these difficulties, slowly everyone became open to experimenting with those unusual ways of being together. Anyone who didn´t want to participate could hang around in the communal area while others were doing the ´exercises´. No one was forced to participate or stay longer than they wanted, anyone could join or step out any time. Even if we were not a closed group, the communal area and sphere in our events were safe for everybody at all times. We had the chance to try out the ‘Colombian hypnosis’ and ‘Mirror dance’ which were useful exercises not only to tune in and listen to each other without talking, but also to create trust and release stress. But for instance, to play any of the ‘Blind games’ would have been beyond most people´s comfort zones and the level of trust in our target group. The ‘One chair less’ activity was a perfect exercise to combine verbal and non-verbal communication. We used it as an intro exercise in the ´Language Theater´. It served as an ‘icebreaker´ – fast and physical, but it still gave us a chance to get to know a little about each other. It also helped people to relax a bit and arrive to the group. Shy participants could learn to receive attention and say a word. It was especially helpful for participants who had language difficulties. Speed made sure that participants didn´t have much time to think, which automatically promoted language / talking skills. This exercise helped participants to feel their boundaries out of their comfort zones, but also to challenge them.
- Active listening
With professionals, we implemented this exercise according to the instructions. With the youth, we integrated this exercise into one of the ´Language Theater´ sessions. We devoted more time on the debriefing to discussing how language formulas can be used as tools in active listening. We were experimenting with raise attention and self-awareness about the spoken word and body language as well as the differences in different languages when we are listening to the other. We also talked about the cultural differences in the ways of active listening: which are consensual signs of listening, what is polite or impolite, and how to deviate from social norms. We paid attention to small things which seemed to be crucial for participants such as eye contact or avoidance of eye contact, silence or talking too much, etc.
- Galaxy of relationships – Timeline of relationships
Both of these were good exercises to reflect on our relationships as well in our old and in our new home countries. For some people it was a bit challenging because of the abstraction and because they did not understand the point: why do we need to think about relationships at all? For next time, we are considering organizing an art contest with this title that would create a more obvious setting for this activity.
- Analytical image – rainbow of desire
We have not yet had enough time and space for the ‘Rainbow of desire’ activities. Their complexity goes beyond the capacity of any of the current events at SET. Nevertheless, we used some theater elements at the ´Language Theater´ sessions – creating small real-life scenes which served two aims: 1) practicing real-life dialogues, and 2) analyzing interpersonal, sometimes conflicting situations. At a couple of the evenings, we also used image-theater elements that helped participants come out of their comfort zones in playing with their bodies (overcoming some inhibitions).
Skills to connect – Integration, the process
One of the ´learnings´ of ´Skills to connect´ activities in the neighborhood integration process around SET was that it goes slow and we can hardly plan or expect anything. During our work we needed to be flexible and open to change anything related to the activities: the length, number of participants, timing. We sometimes needed to adjust the instructions or modify the activities themselves. We, as organizers had to be ‘one step ahead´ looking at the process itself: how is it evolving? Is it appropriate to introduce this or that? What helped a lot for everyone has having a regularity and continuity in our programs; everyone knew that every Wednesday and Thursday something would happen.
Implementing ´Skills to connect´ as a process gave us the opportunity to make observations on how our skills to connect grew organically or become activated in certain life situations. Being together in the process for months gave us the chance to see everything that happened through the lens of ´Skills to connect´; to read between the lines and try to understand better the why and how of the many ways we connect with others.
- Dynamics of connections
One set of observations was about the complexity of human connections. It was intriguing to see in practice all that we have learned from books in theory: the subtle and sensitive texture that evolves when two or more people want to connect. How fragile connections are and how (most of the time) accidentally we connect with others in a new environment. We explored how implicit or more explicit motives play a role behind the first step towards the other; basic needs such as the desire for belonging, sharing, understanding, controlling, the need for attention or asking for help, to learn something or finding a job can be strong motivations that cause us to share a word with a stranger. And also, the opposite: how fears and frustrations can create huge walls and prevent us from making even the most basic interaction. We learned a lot about power dynamics which can cast a shadow over even the simplest interaction and factors that can create power dynamics even in a hidden and unconscious way: my accent is a bit different from yours, my social status is a little bit higher, I have a different skin color, gender, age, etc. We also learned that those barriers can be bridged with time and space.
Time is a very special ingredient when we explore social connections, especially if we talk about the more intimate ones: family, friendship or love. We all have a different tempo and pace to ´arrive´, to feel safe or just to feel ready to connect. It is a very special moment when we both feel the same ´readiness´ to connect with each other. Even in a relatively homogenous group it can be challenging, but in groups where people must overcome cultural differences and language barriers, it is particularly difficult. Time was present in our programs in many ways, and we needed to learn how to reflect on its impact. Just to mention a few examples: some people arrived at our programs from work bringing all the tiredness, stress, and energy from a long day, while others had nothing to do all day, for them it was their main activity of the day. We noticed how important it was to create a space, or indeed spaces, where people could meet and take their time freely to connect.
Creating a safe and inspiring space at SET and around SET took time for us. And it might not be ready yet for everybody. In terms of safety, everything that happened grew organically and was quite simple: the same faces, the same time in the same communal area and communal garden are always present. We learned how important the first giving hand is as a gesture of invitation for a newcomer: a ´warm welcome´. And at least as important is to create a safe space for everyone. It can be created in different ways; but we learned how important it is in a new environment if we know the rules and boundaries in order to navigate in a system. For more openness and positive connections, it was also important for everybody to feel mutual acceptance, honesty, trust and the aim to create something together. We learned that connection is not always created via verbal communication – it often grows from doing something together, sharing something or just being in a space together. Especially in a new environment, it can be crucial to have a space where we can feel free and not forced to do anything. We also learned that we all use spaces differently; for some people it is better to stay inside while others prefer to be outside, some people like being a guest while others feel better if they can have the sense of ´ownership´ to show and share their talent. It doesn´t matter if it’s a school, a workplace or a refugee shelter, the importance of the physical space is always relevant to how we can activate our skills to connect.
- Thinking out of the box:
Our long-term participatory observations gave us the chance to see and think out of the box a bit about human connections. We learned that sometimes we randomly under- or overestimate the same factors in our connecting skills, such as the role of verbal communication or having a language in common. We tended to underestimate differences when we came from similar cultural backgrounds – like white, middle class, same nationality, age, etc. and that prevented us from seeing possible connections across a seemingly bigger cultural gap. Finding activities and shared interests helped us to find new and unexpected connections across cultures. The focus of the IRIS project lies on youth groups and youth workers, and in their relations we learned how important it is to acknowledge the impact of cross-generational relations in the life of our target group. The current ones: mostly with older native citizens from the host society (where they find trust, safety, through which they can learn a lot and develop their resources) but also old ones like their relationships with their parents and grandparents which gave them the emotional fuel and patterns for future intimate relations.
During this period, another quality of ´intimacy´ began to grow; we made a further step towards integration by promoting the idea of diversity as a value: not only as a source of challenge but also as an opportunity for learning. Our ´Skills to connect´ programs were multicultural: people from different countries with a different social status, age, color, education were together. Diversity has not been denied nor forced, but acknowledged in a positive way. The practice of integration went beyond the idea of when a homogeneous group invites or forces the ´other´ to integrate. Through these programs, we stepped into a process where there is no longer a minority or a majority, instead, we were all individuals with a complex cultural background. The method of the ‘Critical incident’ helped us to keep our compass alert regarding power relations, even hidden or unconscious ones, and not lose our focus on integration as a process of growing something out of our mutual and diverse cooperation.
It is important to note that although In Touch is formally a Dutch NGO, its members are Hungarian migrants who have been living for less than eight years in the Netherlands at the time of the IRIS project. On the one hand in the eye of the ´newcomers´ we were ´outsiders´: arriving to SET as professionals, middle-class white European people who speak Dutch, but on the other hand we were also migrants, newcomers who speak the language with an accent. We participated in the integration process with our multiple identity positions. The IRIS project, especially the ‘Critical incident’ methodology, helped us not to hide the complexity of these positions but to openly reflect on them. We framed our first contact with our target group as a learning process from the very beginning. That created a more balanced power relation based on mutual sharing; we all stepped into the process as ´beginners´. Our participation in both the IRIS project and the integration of the neighborhood also contributed to our own identity and integration process both in personal and professional terms. The IRIS project made it possible to handle this complexity in a way that it could become a learning experience and could add extra value to the whole community in the integration process.
One of the base concepts of ´Skills to connect´ is to reach a certain level of self-awareness – in terms of own cultural background, identity positions, personal and professional motivation in social interactions. That served as a compass for us when we were selecting which exercise or activity would be the most useful to reach our goals in our events. For similar situations, we can recommend using the method sheets and the learning path similarly, ´à la carte´, how they best fit in your own process. We hope that this example helps you feel more secure in navigating the complexity of your own process with your people; which nuances, self-reflections, sensitivities or simply information can be relevant when you plan to work on the topic of ´Skills to connect´ with your target group.