Aiding Integration: The Importance of Research for Social Enterprises

By Elana Wong

Integration has become a buzzword, the focus of many government policies, NGOs and grassroots organisations. Most people seem to have some understanding of the term, and some offer to provide support and assistance for related issues, ranging from basic provisions such as clothes and food to language classes, therapy and affordable transport. For example our partners, Bikes for Refugees, provide bikes for refugees that are donated by local people and organisations. But how do we, as a social enterprise, ensure that our work to ease the integration process is sustainable and appropriate?

Although the answer may not at first be apparent, I believe it is our duty to continually learn from research and consistently ask both our host and newcomer community for feedback. However, one thing is certain - we should ensure we never make assumptions about people’s needs.

Kiros Hiruy, a development anthropologist at the Centre for Social Impact in Hawthorn, Australia, conducted research that illustrates not only how complex and varied these needs can be, but how host communities should be aware of the ways these can change depending on the stage of a newcomer’s resettlement and integration.

Stages of a Refugee’s Arrival (Hiruy 2009):

1. Honeymoon Phase: here, people feel a sense of relief and celebrate being safe. Differences between their old life (of camps, danger, or a grueling journey), and the new culture of their host country are seen in a positive way. Experiences in dangerous environments, perilous journeys, and refugee camps are held as a benchmark for the newly found peace, security, institutional support, and infrastructural amenities. Here, basic needs are tended to, and Hiruy found his participants to be generally thankful and happy. This quickly fades, over periods that can range from days to months.

2. Culture Shock Phase: after the novelty fades, reality starts to set in. Culture shock, and feelings of fear, suspicion, uncertainty, and loss are experienced. Often, this is the stage in which people want to go home. Minor differences between the old and new are discussed and dwelled upon; the past is grieved, the present hated, and people can regret leaving.

Experiences such as craving food that does not exist in the host country, frustrations at the complexity of new institutional systems (for example, letters and bills some are unable to properly understand) are felt. Some encounter negative experiences of social isolation, confusion, and language barriers. It is here, in this crisis, that research argues that refugees need the most help and positive experiences; a key cross roads leading to integration or disenfranchisement.

3. Recovery and Adjustment Phase: after the shock, the reality of their resettlement becomes tangible, and this becomes the push factor to make connections and a proper place within society. People grow accustomed to the new culture, and become concerned with basic living again, figuring out strategies to live their best life.

Here, continued support from local services and organisations remains incredibly important as it is when participants start to proactively forge connections with their host community and consider their own skills and potential of their ‘belonging’ in their new home. They also start to explore the choices and opportunities available in their new environment - what they might want to pursue or study and avenues into community life.

It is within this process of constructing a refugee and/or asylum seekers’ new identity, and the ways it can fit into their new community, that their new environment is interpreted and their new reality constructed. In some cases, especially when they experience negative responses and reactions from their new community, they may feel their differences strongly and may continue to feel like ‘outsiders’, ultimately giving up on integration and retreating either within family life or within their smaller community. However, in others, some may feel drawn to the new culture and slowly disconnect from their ethnic communities - this was found to often manifest in a generational conflict between younger and older newcomers.

Nevertheless, a key lesson from Hiruy and others’ research is that creating a supportive, culturally understanding host community is incredibly important. Feelings of disconnect can be easily amplified, especially during a resettlement process that is easily influenced by past and current experiences and attitudes of both new arrivals and the host community.

Thus, local services and organisations have a duty to carefully consider issues of cultural friction and understanding, as well as the stage of resettlement their patrons may be in. Integration during resettlement is ultimately about feeling safe, a process of what social researchers call ‘place making’, of adjusting to and making a home away from home.  As such, community understanding and involvement is key to building a positive environment.

Belonging is not ‘unidirectional’ and, as Hiruy aptly puts, ‘one’s willingness to belong must receive a response of acceptance’ in order for it to stick. All his participants report asking a key question as they attempt to resettle, that “even if I try, [are they] willing to accept me as one of them?” We need to make sure this answer is a resounding yes.

Based on the research paper:

  • Hiruy, K., 2009. Finding home far away from home: place attachment, place-identity, belonging and resettlement among African-Australians in Hobart (Doctoral dissertation, University of Tasmania).

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