Integration is what we are doing and not how we define it

© Dag Oršić

Integration is what we are doing in our everyday life and work, and not something we define or talk about: that is a highlight of the transnational WELCOMM conference Communities of practice – “old” and “new” members of the society in the integration process, that took place at 7 June 2019 in Zagreb. The conference marked the culmination of the WELCOMM project and start of the transnational and national campaigns to promote WELCOMM Community of Practice.

We think of community of practice as a shared space, real or virtual, where “a group of people who share a passion or concern for something they do, learn how to do it better as they interact regularly”[1]. Such group of people met in Hotel Dubrovnik in Zagreb to exchange success stories about how they are doing what is called integration, to share concerns about challenges and obstacles they face and, most of all, to be inspired with work and achievements of others.

In the first conference panel, Contemporary context of EU integration practices, panellists from Italy, Slovenia, Austria and Croatia, discussed current political and societal pressures and challenges we are facing as civic society promoting human rights, equal opportunities and participation of refugees and migrants in our communities and countries. The context in all our countries is burdened with rise of anti-migrant discourse, conservative and populist movements and political forces, that affect migration and integration policies and practices as well as shrink the spaces for civic engagement. As challenging as it is to work in such context, there are still organizations and initiatives who actively and successfully “swim against the current” and give voice to refugees and migrants as well as others who are disenfranchised in our societies.

© Dag Oršić

In the second panel, titled “How did we get here: Socio-historical background in which initiatives, collectives and communities of practice that discuss integration are established and developed”, changing political, media and public discourse about forced migrations was discussed. Organizations and initiatives organized around and involved in support to refugees started as civic society and human rights activists. Panellists agree that 2015 was the turning-point year, when their work was re-directed, as a reaction to an emergency situation, towards helping, supporting, advocating and defending human rights of refugees. In all four countries – Italy, Austria, Slovenia and Croatia, but on the EU level as well, a lot has changed since 2015: it is getting ever harder to get the news and stories about human rights violations, suffering and loss of lives of refugees into media and public attention. Instead, production of fear of refugees and migrants gets the prominent place in the public and media discourse. Panellists agree that migrations are the most important political issue of our time and that fight for human rights of refugees is the fight for our human rights and democracy standards and values in our societies as well. We have to work together with refugees, and not for them, if we are to be successful.

The third panel was titled “Community and practice in integration – what do we do and why we do it?” and presented a variety of practices that contribute to and constitute what is called integration: from crafts, art and culture, sport, volunteering, education, building relationships in local communities to political representation and participation – everything that we do in our communities, when we do it jointly with “newcomers” in that community, serves as a tool for bringing us together. Participants in this panel discussed about integration as transformative experience for all involved, which creates new, co-constructed reality both for “old” and for “new” community members. Panellists agreed that debate on what integration is, whether the term is appropriate or not, or efforts to come up with comprehensive definition is irrelevant; as long as we, locals and refugees, are doing all we can in co-constructing our lives together and co-creating societal networks that bring us together and not apart. Conclusions of the panel are that bottom-up approach, from building personal relationships, facilitating small changes in local communities and living the example we want to see in our communities and societies, are a way to start, or better said to continue moving forward.

The fourth session of the conference was organized in moderated group work.

One group discussed art as a way of fostering integration: what’s making art such a powerful tool, how art helps to foster intercultural

© Dag Oršić

dialogue and to promote diversity, what’s the role of art in civic engagement and how it can be utilised to tackle gender issues.

Second group discussed the role of refugees and migrants in shaping integration policies and practices, what challenges refugees’ and migrants’ civic engagement faces and how to address those challenges. The role of migrant and diaspora organizations and initiatives are discussed as well as how they contribute and could contribute more to the community of practice.

Third group tackled the issue of local communities as agents of integration: the needs of local communities that have to be addressed for relations to be built and integration on the local level to work, how to tackle myths and misconceptions to allow the connections and relations to build, what resources we already have and could use more and what is the role and responsibility of civil society organization in helping local communities transform and grow through integration of refugees and migrants.

Before the official opening of the Transnational Conference, Coordination for Integration – informal network of civil society organizations in Croatia held a press conference to announce 6th Refugee Weeks in Croatia, entitled Let’s meet and change perspectives! dedicated to sensibilization of local communities.

Conference ended with picnic in local park Zrinjevac, a popular get-together place for locals as well as visitors in Zagreb. Conference participants enjoyed beautiful weather as well as performances of Achraf Halouani from Arte Migrante, on guitar, Maddalena Avon from Center for Peace Studies with aerial silk performance and choir Domaćigosti  (Homeguests) with performances of traditional local songs and songs brought to Zagreb by refugees from various corners of the world.

© Dag Oršić

[1] www.wenger-trayner.com