“The democratization of border crossing is not yet on the agenda in a world where everything circulates more and more freely, except people.”
– Catherine Wihtol de Wenden
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We are repeatedly confronted by the media and politics with certain words to describe refugees and the ensuing refugee crisis. Regardless of affiliation, the topic of refugees appears impossibly intertwined with the word crisis. Immediate thoughts and images conjured from the word automatically suggest to the reader depictions of chaos, disorder, violence and war. Untangling such an association from this monolithic term is an important step to address this issue on a human level, and to treat someone who is seeking asylum or has refugee status as an individual person, with individual stories, backgrounds and goals.
European countries in particular are being pushed to confront the ongoing arrival of asylum seekers in terms of national and EU policies and social and economic integration. While these policies are a vital element, local initiatives and individual support are also necessary to reframe the public debate and shift societies’ perceptions and actions from one of fear and chaos to one of compassion.
Taking back the dialogue: SINGA France
This may seem like a tall order, but there are those that are rising to the challenge. One such community, started in France by Guillaume Capelle and Nathanael Molle, has made it its mission to transform French society´s interaction with refugees and assist in their social and economic integration. Through various initiatives ranging from language partners and community events to entrepreneurial guidance and academic research, SINGA France continues to come up with creative solutions to involve French citizens and refugees to create a welcoming and educational space.
One of SINGA’s initial projects aims to support refugees in the creation of small business enterprises. These small enterprises have included, for example, the opening of a restaurant serving the cuisine of its four female founders, hailing from four different countries, as well as the opening of the first Kurdish dance school in Paris. To assist in these entrepreneurial pursuits, SINGA provides language courses, trainings on the local culture and business market, and other fundraising and administrative guidance. Participants in this project are then able to act as ambassadors for the refugee cause and highlight the value of their presence.
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Today, SINGA has 20,000 members in its community, including 1,000 refugees. They have set up 600 host “buddies” with 100 refugees and currently organize 10 events or workshops every week. Since its creation in 2011, SINGA has already spread to other countries. Using the same charter, each SINGA community runs independently and creates its own local programs, events and initiatives to adapt to the context of the country. To date, SINGA has locations in Morocco, Germany and Canada, and likely more on the horizon.
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Perception, Power and Politics
“What constitutes success and failure in such a quest, what is ‘real’ gain, or merely ‘symbolic’ or ‘illusory’ achievement is hard to say. Again, much depends on perceptions. Perhaps international politics today should be defined less as a struggle for power than as a contest for the shaping of perceptions.”
Perception in local, national and international politics carries enormous pressure and has the power to transform policies and politics, for better or for worse. Misinformation, seizing security fears and preying upon economic uncertainty have helped some policymakers advance an agenda that spends more time and money on security measures to deter asylum applications than on programs to help process and integrate refugees. The public opinion’s confusion toward refugees can be seen in the results of the opinion surveys carried out by the Jean Jaures Foundation and Ifop (Institut Français d´Opinion Publique) in October 2015 (full report here). The study found variations of opinions by country, political party affiliation, religion and age. In France, for example, 50% of those polled agreed that the borders along the Mediterranean should be reinforced against clandestine migration, and only 30% agreed that aid and integration programs should be created in France for migrants and refugees. French opinion was also split when asked if it is their country’s duty to host immigrants fleeing from war and persecution. France and the UK tied for last place in the pack of seven European countries polled, with only 54% agreeing that it is in fact their duty, compared with Germany, the frontrunner, at 79%.
Is it your country’s duty to host immigrants fleeing from war and persecution?
Source: Data from study by Ifop and Jean Jaures Foundation
Within this context, communities like SINGA are vital to help change the “us versus them” discourse and remind citizens and governments of their humanitarian and legal responsibilities, the effects of which are already visible. In France, SINGA has worked with the Department of Interior Affairs to produce a study on how information and technology communications can assist with refugee integration, as well as on the launch of a new program in 2015 to connect citizens offering rooms in their homes with refugees in need of accommodation. In one year, this new program CALM, or Comme à la Maison, has already connected 220 people with places to stay.
From Crisis to Creation
Photo taken by Jennie Cottle at SINGA Art and Disco Soupe Event
All of us have seen or faced discrimination in our own backyard, and it is how we act and respond to this that makes the difference. SINGA represents one community that has given citizens a unique outlet to take back the public debate, to identify misrepresentation and misconception, to put together a recipe for a successful society, and to develop a sense of empowerment to reach their goals.
At this point in time, 215 million people, 3 percent of the total world population live outside their country of birth—a greater number than ever before. As the number of people who move, whether by choice or by necessity, continues to grow, so does the importance of our interactions with one another. SINGA’s objective to address these challenges from the bottom-up is therefore timely and significant. It is an important dialogue that is relevant both inside and outside of Europe, at a local and national level. Putting individuals at the forefront when discussing the “refugee crisis” empowers these same individuals to tell their stories, to expound their values as entrepreneurs, artists, business owners, teachers, and to, above all, transform crisis into creation.