During the first decade of this century Barcelona was defining a global public policy for welcoming the thousands of immigrants arriving each year to the city, as a first step towards a more global process of intercultural integration. The system had its symbol in a municipal centre called SAIER that was created more than 30 years ago to support immigrant and refugees. The SAIER is funded by the municipality but many of its main services are offered by important NGOs, associations of lawyers and trade unions.
However, the massive arrival of immigrants in the past years meant that many local NGOs, civic or cultural centres were providing some kind of welcome services (learning the language, legal advice, knowledge of the environment, occupational training workshops, empowerment of women, youth work etc.)
But in order to make all that effort more efficient, there was a need to coordinate and to design a common welcome framework and a practical methodology to share know-how and to collaborate in order to respond better to the daily challenges. This is how the “Welcome Network” of Barcelona was created. It is coordinated by the city and includes more than 100 organisations and agencies. The coordination of all these welcoming services very soon showed great improvements in the efficiency of the system. Specific working groups were created focusing on topics like legal advice or language learning. New tools and materials were also created as a result of common needs and diagnoses. Annuals working plans were approved and members met in working groups and new online tools to share information were created, together with more public resources to support the members’ activities.
In addition to the Welcome Network, new reception policies were applied in schools through reception classrooms to reinforce learning of the language and basic information on the context and in other sectors like hopsitals, occupationl traning courses etc.
Very soon it was obvious that the methodologies and approaches used on thr welcome policies should be tailored to the constant changes in migratory flows, profiles, ages, backgrounds and circumstances of people arriving.
For example, since the year 2007 there was an important increase of the the arrival of immigrants for family reunification, unlike previous years when most immigrants were single adults (women and men) who were in an irregular situation. Taking into account the specific circumstances of the new type of migrants, it was considered important to create a specific space to address the needs of the reception of reunited family members (whether husband, wife or children).
These were people with a very specific reality. On the one hand, their welcome was a long process and complex in administrative and legal terms. On the other, families were often coming with a significant emotional and psychological burden, strained by the not always easy reunion between mother and child or husband and wife… It became clear that if this process of family reunification could be accompanied from the very beginning, providing information, preparing the key aspects of arrival, and also offering psychological support could minimise many of the potential complications. Knowing in advance what kind of documentation was important to validated education qualifications, providing adequate resources for language learning, taking care of the legal aspects relating to work permits or access to health care or the psychological preparation for the reunion with teenagers or couples - these were issues identified as crucial for facilitating the welcoming process.
The project to meet these needs was implemented by professional technicians at the different districts of the city, working closely with the families, services and social resources of the neighbourhoods. Participation of migrants was voluntary but families were actively solicited, thanks to the information that had the council on applicants for family reunification. The informative workshops were filled with families who found the service very important to prepare for the reception of their relatives. They were creating specific spaces to discuss issues of empowerment of women, addressing health issues and also focusing on the specific reality of teenagers.
But after a while, an important gap on the welcome itineraries for the youth was identified.
Minors who came for family reunification, needed to access the education system (depending on their age). The schools provided specific support focused mainly on learning the language. When the kids arrived during the school year, they went to school and started learning the language and making their first friends.
The problem was when the kids came to Barcelona at the final days of the school year and did not go to school until after almost three months of vacation period. In addition, for the 16 years old, for whom schooling is no longer compulsory, there was a need to prepare your next steps. The specific reception classrooms of schools also closed for holidays! And the free courses for learnong the language offered by institutions were only for adults over 18 years. There was a hole in the net: if you were 9, 14 or 16 years, there was no host resources during the summer for a key group and at a crucial time of the welcome process.
We are talking about youth from very different backgrounds from Latin American countries, from Pakistan, India, China etc. In many cases they arrived after a long time of not seeing or living with their parents, leaving behind key familiy relations, friends etc. Suddenly they were in an unknown city (some of them didn’t want to come) where for three months they could do little more than sit at home waiting for their mother or parents to return from work. That meant losing 3 key months to facilitate the reception of these youth. The psychological impact that this situation also caused did not help their adaptation and also all the pressure was transferred to the school or the education centre to which they would go after the summer.
It was obvious there was a need to address this gap and capitalise on those three months. But what could be done? The immigration and intercultural department we had some resources, but it was considered up to the Education department to take care of the language training and preparing their moves into the education system. But since Education had also many other complexities, that priority was not at the top.
We decided to go for the basic recipe for social innovation: having a good diagnosis of the challenge, and a good dose of creativity and focus on collaboration and networking.
We started identifying possible allies in this process. Where could they go these youth to learn the language during the months of July and August? Schools were closed and trying to convince the system to open some of them proved more than complex under the weith of competences, burocracy, and legal barriers.
At some point we thought on the great network of city public libraries. We were already collaborating in some activities and also the wide network of public centers throughout the city did not close in summer. The director of the public libraries responded well to our proposal and from there we started identifying the activities that could be offered. The main objective was to foster the language learning, but not only. It was also important to know the neighborhood, and social, cultural and historical aspects of the city, and also the institutions, basic services or sports and cultural facilities etc. The activities were designed and the program was called "During summer, Barcelona welcomes you" and culminated in activities focused on several libraries in the districts during the mornings of July and Agost, boosted by professional technicians and specific collaboration of staff from different municipal departments (education, health, participation youth..)
The activities were not only implemented at the libraries but there were visits to many sites of the city to learn about the environment. But from an intercultural lens, it was also very important that a positive interation between these youth and other youth of the city be promoted. And finally, also a crucial aspect: the symbolic one. This was a voluntary pilot program for families participating in the comprehensive program of support at regrouping. It was important to give a symbolic dimension to the process of reception of these youth and it was decided that at the end of the “summer welcome course” a ceremony would take place in the noble hall of the city council, with the Mayor of the city and the families, where a diploma would be delivered to all the youth who had completed the course. From the first year, the room was filled with proud mothers and fathers of their children in the most symbolic room of the city council. The emotional atmosphere that such event created it was really deep and touching. The Mayor cheering the youth saying they were the brilliant future and the best energy for the city that was proud to welcome them. Looking at the eyes of many mothers who have came few years ago leaving their kids behind and working so hard to get them back..that was something.
Our feelings and intuitions were clear about the effort we had made by launching that humble program was having a real and positive impact to the lives of some people. But we can’t live on intuitions, and neither can public policies that need resources and political support. We have to prove that that “feeling” is really being translated intro real social change, and that’s still one of the main weaknesess of the realm of public policies, mainly in some social areas and also mroe in some countries than others. After two years of implementing the program, we performed an assessment of the welcome policies and further evolition and development of rhe youth who had come for family reunification to the city and who were between 15 and 18 years. In this context, we compared the evolution of the group of youth who had participated in the course "during summer, Barcelona welcomes you" with the youth who had not gone through the program.
The results were very interesting and I want to emphasise their importance from the intercultural perspective. On the one hand it showed that among young people who had gone through the program, had lower rates of education failure and drop-off. While 13% of these youth were neither working nor studying, in the case of those who had not gone through the program the percentage was 33%. But also we could identify that the youth participating in the program were engaged in more extracurricular activities and had more relationships with other youth of the city. Hence the importance of the intercultural approach. On the one hand facilitating equal opportunities by preventing them to be “excluded” from the education system, and on the other bear in mind the importance of interaction, building relationships and sense of belonging.
The availability of this kind of impact data of public policies is essential. Not only reinforces the motivation and commitment of the team and the chances that politician decide to strengthen and expand the program. It is necessary to be accountable to the citizens of the use made of public resources. Because the most important message of this program is not that it is important and necessary for the youth who come to the city. It is a program that benefits the entire city. It reduces the pressure input to the school classrooms since these young people begin the course with a better preparation and with a more positive attitude, which impacts positively on the development of the educational activities of the center, to all students and teachers.
The program also showed that through the youth, their mothers and fathers made one step further in their integration process, gaining more interest in learning the language, to understand the host society and develop a stronger sense of belonging to the city and its institutions. It does not take much imagination to understand that the cost of not making such kind of programs, which reduces the levels of school failure and segregation and that are committed to promoting equal opportunities and positive interaction is much higher in the medium and long term. The lack of effective and comprehensive welcome policies is very very expensive, at all levels and for all.
Dani de Torres