The experiences of Favour, Mariia, and Daniel in approaching Cultural Mediation during the RE.BE.CO project
This article has been developed thanks to the contributions of Favour Salami Opeyemi, Mariia Rodionova, and Daniel Vidigal Boiwko.
What made 30 people of different ages, nationalities, and backgrounds spend two weeks in Italy? Their desire to attend the training about Cultural Mediation of the RE.BE.CO (REfugees to BEcome COnselours and trainers) project and start their journey as cultural mediators! In this article, participants Favour, Mariia, and Daniel – from Nigeria, Ukraine, and Venezuela, respectively – explain to us their impressions after this experience, as well as the benefits of having people with a migrant background becoming cultural mediators.
But first, this is how Favour summarizes the 2-weeks training:
On a cold fall morning, ten people set out on a journey from Barcelona. They were from various nationalities and regions, ranging from Ukraine to Venezuela, Syria to Kenya, and Nigeria. Although, the ten participants had one thing in common: they were all newcomers in Europe. We embarked on a journey to Italy, without an inkling of what to expect or not, completely oblivious that it would be a life-changing journey. A few weeks earlier, I was sitting in my room, scrolling through my phone when I saw an advert for training connected to the RE.BE.CO project in the Tuscan city of Bagni di Lucca (Italy) in the Slack of Open Cultural Center Barcelona. As someone who has spent just a few months in Europe, I thought: “why not”?
The Youth Life RE.BE.CO project seeks to promote the inclusion of young migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers who have arrived in European countries, through the development of better interaction with local institutions, voluntary services, associations, schools, universities, and the job market. The training on Cultural Meditation aimed at people with a migrant background has been one of the main pillars of the initiative. The RE.BE.CO project is funded by the European Union through Erasmus+, and it brings together four organisations: !Fall (Sweden), Partecipazione e Sviluppo (Italy), and OCC (Spain & Greece).
After months of preparations, the project was to begin on the 19th of September to run through the 1st of October 2022. On the morning of the 18th, delegates from Barcelona flew to Bologna in Italy. At the Bologna train station, we had our experience of racial profiling, ethnic stigmatization, and stereotyping when police officials decided to pick on one of the delegates because he looked a “certain way” and had a certain name.
We were delayed for hours, all in the name of “checks” and “due process” without a concrete reason and most of all without even an apology. We waited at the train station for 3 hours. This gave us the opportunity to discuss our various experiences with the law, racial prejudices, discrimination, and stereotypes. This experience was going to be the basis for some discussions at the training. We bonded over the delay, we got to know each other, and we feasted together. We finally got on the train to Bagni di Lucca. Altogether, we were thirty participants, ten from Spain, two from Greece, five from Sweden, and thirteen from Italy. It felt like we had the whole world in one room.
In the first week of the training, we had facilitators, lawyers, social workers, and psychologists talking about various topics, in particular European laws regarding asylum-seeking and refugee status. We agreed that every day, all over the world, people make one of the most difficult decisions in their lives: to leave their homes in search of a safer and better life.
These journeys, which all start with the hope for a better future, can be full of danger and fear. People risk falling prey to human trafficking and other forms of exploitation. Some are detained by the authorities as soon as they arrive in a new country. Once they’re settling in and start building a new life, many face daily racism, xenophobia, and discrimination. This was exemplified by stories shared by participants of their journey, which moved a lot to tears. Our experience at the train station came in handy to show that these problems are real problems and are far from going away.
On the other hand, a person’s legal status cannot express the full identity and personality of a refugee, asylum seeker, or migrant. No one can be known solely through their legal status. The responsibilities of refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants are to be responsible citizens of the world and to show the locals the benefits of being receptive to differing ideologies and cultures. After all, they say variety is the spice of life. Thus, refugees and migrants should be offered a safe place to live and opportunities to access work, education, and health care. We are all citizens of the world, and acceptance of individual differences is key.
The following week of the training involved group activities, panel discussions, brainstorming sessions, and games. The aim of this second week was to become counselors in order to help other migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers to have a better integration process and educate the host community to be more welcoming. Cultural mediators interface between the host and the non-locals, seeking to ensure peaceful cohabitation, integration, and ultimately ownership. In addition to serving as peer educators and influencers for others who may be in similar shoes in the future.
Why is it important for migrants to be cultural mediators?
Mariia has a clear answer to this question. According to her, “we are the cultural representatives of our countries”. And for this reason, she thinks that they should try to be conscious and understand the responsibility of our actions”. On his side, Daniel tells us that “migration is a very complex experience in an individual’s life. You are departing from a place and culture you belong to, and trying to build a life in a new one. Thus, it is important that people that are somehow familiar with the migration policies and processes, and went through them, share their first-hand experience to ease the ordeal for those who are just getting started in the journey”.
Giving value to the role that migrants can play as cultural mediators was precisely the main goal of the training in Italy, and Favour, Mariia, and Daniel agree on how constructive it was. “The training gave me the opportunity to open a new vision of the migration and refugee situation in Europe. It showed me the similar situation of other people from different countries”, explains Mariia, who claims to have spent the last year focused on the war in Ukraine with her family and friends.
When asked about what they would highlight from the training, Daniel answers “getting to know the experience from others that underwent this process directly, and see them not as the mere testimony recorded in some audio-visual document, but as a living and breathing example that you can face terrible hardships in life and come forward despite that”.
“We were equipped with knowledge, power, and enthusiasm to become counselors. New mediators are in town, we will be helping others to integrate, educating the host about the challenges of the group”, Favour concludes. “I think I’ve found a very positive surprise that turned out to be something I was really in need of”, Daniel adds.