The Socially Inclusive Community Center
Some 6,900 human beings are stuck on the Greek island of Lesvos, due to the EU-Turkey deal, made in March 2016. This deal sealed the borders across the Balkan route to stop migrants coming to Europe (Strickland, 2018). Around 4,700 of these people reside in the camp of Moria and 1,250 in Kara Tepe. Depending on the different statistics around 70% to 90% are people from Afghanistan. Women account for 22% of the population and children for 42%, of whom more than 7 out of 10 are younger than 12 years old (UNHCR stats published on the 15th of April 2019).
The community center ‘One Happy Family’ is visited by 700-1000 people per day on average and gives visitors and helpers (refugees volunteering in the center) the possibility to learn, laugh, forget their worries for a couple of hours and be part of a community. It is a place which is built and run together with people from refugee camps in Lesvos – therefore, also their slogan: ‘Work WITH the people, not FOR them’. At ‘One Happy Family’ (OHF), you can drink tea, eat lunch, use the Wi-fi, get a haircut, repair your clothes, draw, dance, rest, see the doctor, get legal advice, take language, geography and photography classes, play chess, learn about theater, permaculture, how to repair a bike, get soap, diapers and a toothbrush, do yoga, Muay Thai, play volleyball.
People at the ‘One Happy Family’ love the strong feeling of community: making friends and connecting, meeting people from different nationalities, giving and receiving respect, as well as actively participating in the community. However, not everyone in the center feels equally part of the community. Some feel uncomfortable and excluded or are concerned that others feel uncomfortable in certain dynamics or situations due to the different backgrounds. It is important for them that everyone feels comfortable and welcome at the community center.
Due to this diverse mix of stories, backgrounds, dynamics as well as the given space of the community center, the question arises: How can refugees visiting and working in the community center ‘One Happy Family’ feel more included and comfortable at the center?
The Socially Inclusive Community Center
|Project name||The Socially Inclusive Community Center|
|Start date||February 2019|
|Action Researcher||Julia Ertl|
|Number of action researchers||1|
Each Participatory Action Research starts from a community issue, addressed by its problem owners at location. As such, we make sure the action research is based on local demand rather than donor demand. Together with these local stakeholders, we design the action research in a way that fits the local context, from the problem framing up to methodology and concept definitions.
Everyone (the visitors, helpers and volunteers) loves the community feeling they found at the community center ‘One Happy Family’. However, not everyone in the center feels equally part of the community. Some feel uncomfortable and excluded or are concerned that others feel uncomfortable in certain dynamics or situations due to the different backgrounds.
The goal of this action research is to increase the community feeling in the community center ‘One happy family’, by making refugees working and visiting the community center feel more welcome.
What initiative(s) (and organizational changes) can be co-created by visitors, helpers, volunteers and the coordination team in order to contribute to a more inclusive and comfortable environment for everyone at the community center ‘One Happy Family’?
- How do visitors, helpers and volunteers currently experience the community feeling at ‘One Happy Family’?
- What are the exact causes of people not feeling included or comfortable in the community center?
- What factors improve inclusiveness and comfort in this context?
- In what situation and who would like to feel more included and comfortable?
- Can the situation be changed with an intervention? What is needed and what are concrete solutions to practically improve the feeling of inclusiveness in the center? What can each community group do to create a more inclusive environment?
- What is the role of each stakeholder and their group dynamic in shaping the organization?
Each PAR-project delivers direct outcomes for the local community on the addressed issue: we can share what the people’s perspective is on the current and desired situation, as well as the new developments and changes due to the action research. In a later stage, local stakeholders will evaluate the impact of these developments.
The members of the community (helpers, visitors, volunteers, coordination team) with the help of different methods (e.g. focus groups) defined that belonging to the community is very important for them, but that 4 topics could be improved to create an even stronger community feeling:
- Cultural understanding/ differences
Cultural understanding is crucial in a place with such a diverse range of nationalities. Especially helpers consider OHF their ‘family’ and are simply happy that ‘there is no war here’. However, understanding others’ behaviour and communication better can strengthen that community feeling even more. Also, some people from the African community also mentioned racism as an issue, as them being avoided and less included among the helpers.
‘Cultural understanding is one of the most serious topics to tackle at OHF’ – Coordination team.
- Physical contact
At OHF there is this culture of hugging each other as a ‘good morning’ greeting among many helpers and volunteers. However, not every helper and volunteer is hugged, depending on how long they are already at OHF, their English level, and other factors. This makes some feel excluded. Others are not culturally accustomed to being physical with other people, especially of the opposite sex. Many volunteers are also wondering how to behave towards the helpers in this mutli-cultural context and what to wear to be culturally sensitive.
‘How to make them understand the difference between flirting and being friendly?’ – volunteer
‘Are the helpers comfortable when we hug them?’- volunteer
- Physical space
OHF is a colourful place which attracts 700-1000 visitors per day and offers many activities. And there are many more ideas on what other project or activity could be started at OHF to make it even more fitting to the visitors’ and helpers’ needs. However, the space available is limited and there are some restrictions from the Greek authorities, such as no extra buildings can be built. Thus, OHF already caters for so many people, their needs and desires, and is trying their best to cater for more within the given possibilities.
Regarding women, due to different cultural customs, many women don’t feel comfortable sharing the main hall with men. Thus, they spend much time in the women’s house, but they would like some more space.
‘Can we make the barber shop bigger, one for women, one or men?’ – Helper
‘We need a place to relax, eat, pray.’ – Female helper
‘Public space in Afghanistan is male space, and you can also see that as a reflection in OHF – women don’t like sharing their space with men.’ – Volunteer
- Language barrier/difference
Community members mentioned that they would like to communicate with others more, but that it is difficult due to language differences. Around 80% of all refugees on the island and thus, also represented in OHF, are Afghans. Therefore, Farsi is the most spoken language in OHF and the level of English varies in the community. Thus, there is not per se a language that is shared by many people of the community, which makes it difficult to communicate and relate to each other.
‘I cannot talk to many people, I don’t speak Farsi – but at least we are a family and there is no war.’ – Helper
The following outcomes were co-created by the OHF community and are in different stages ranging from ‘in development’ to ‘implemented’:
- Regarding cultural understanding, an African culture sharing day was organized and a food recommendation box was created.
- Regarding physical contact, the coordination team updated the code of conduct with the information taken from the workshops.
- Regarding physical space, a group of women redesigned and rearranged the outside area of the women’s house.
- Additionally, together with the coordination team, focus topics were defined and concrete solutions to tackle these were found which include (see report for more details about the outcomes):
- Using a new setup and format for the helpers’ meeting
- Creating an overview of the improvements ideas and topics list in front of the coordination office accessible for everyone
- Employing an extra innovation/improvement person on the ground
- Establishing coordination office hours
- This novel participatory approach used during the action research planted some seeds and is expected to lead to even more involvement of the helpers in shaping the organization of OHF.
To be determined 1 year after the action research.
Sustainable Development Goals
You can find the full report here: OHF Action research report – Julia Ertl