Podcast 14: Civil Society in Action Part Two
Hello and welcome to MOAS…
Last time we looked at Civil Society in action and the kinds of projects and organisations operating across Europe. Join us as we continue our exploration into the people and organisations who are helping refugees and migrants. We’ll look at the opportunities and difficulties they’ve faced setting up.
Let’s begin by transporting you to Canada. Canada operates two systems of accepting refugees: government assisted and private sponsorship. Families, community groups and civil society organisations, like churches, find private sponsorship is a popular route for bringing groups of refugees and family members to Canada. Of the over 40,000 Syrian refugees coming to Canada since November 2015, over 14,000 of them were privately sponsored.
Janet Dench is Executive Director of the umbrella organisation, the Canadian Council for Refugees. CCR represents its many members working to resettle refugees and migrants. She tells us more…
Our membership is quite varied. We have organisations that are multi-million dollar organisations that receive funding from the government to offer settlement services, but we also have volunteer organisations in particular communities. We also have church organisations that have national networks that are connecting in congregations across Canada, so there are lots of different ways in which people are connected to the communities. But I think your question is good in focusing on the grass roots and the ways in which the communities are involved, because in our experience that is where things are happening in a positive way for both communities and refugees – that is where people can get involved and make a difference.
In Canada, what percentage of refugees are government assisted and privately sponsored?
That’s a very interesting question and there isn’t a simple answer because the numbers have been going up and down. For our organisation, as a matter of principle, we are very keen to see that the number of government assisted refugees is equal to or preferably higher than the number of privately sponsored refugees because we think it’s important that the government take on its responsibilities and not offload onto the public. In this current year that is not applying because there is 16,000 privately sponsored refugees and only 7500 government sponsored.
We have complained about that because it sends the message that the government is stepping back and letting citizens do more, which violates the principle of additionality, which is that what citizens do should be over and above what the government does. The reason that they have got those numbers higher for private sponsorship is because there is a big backlog, so there is a lot of frustration among private sponsors in Canada who have put in their applications and they are waiting a very long time before the refugees they have sponsored are coming to Canada. So, the government decided that they wanted to give priority to processing those private applications and they weren’t willing to increase the overall target for resettled refugees above 25,000.
Setting up a civil society organisation isn’t easy and it can riddled with issues. One such project was the African Media Association based in Malta. It’s founder, David Millner joined up with Ahmed, a Somali migrant and journalist looking to restart his career. Its aim was to find a way to broadcast news to the African migrant communities in Malta. The project suffered from problems securing funding and recording space. But it hasn’t stopped David helping migrants.
The big problem we had was we thought we had applied for useful funding; we thought that we would be able to take some money to buy some recording equipment and we were told, ‘No, this funding is specifically for operating costs’. We had nothing in there to buy equipment and we also went to a number of radio stations and no one was willing to give any recording time. We even begged half an hour a week when the studio is not being used and we had no equipment, so we had a room which was full of echoes and traffic and could not find anyone willing to support us for this.
So, we did make a few radio broadcasts, Ahmed was not happy with the quality but we put six out. But we focused more on other aspects of media and communication: we set up a YouTube channel, we were making videos, interviews with government ministers or migrants or any other things which were relevant at the time. We were putting a lot of written material out at as well, both in English that I was generally writing and in Somali language, which Ahmed was writing. And sometimes even he would make a video and explain to me, ‘Please write the English text which should be seen to the side of the video’. So this was how we were operating.
What surprised us was how quickly we took an audience from Facebook in particular. We set up an African Media Association Facebook Page and I think by the end of the 12 month project we had 3,000+ likes on that page, and that time we were just watching this number roll so people were really connecting with us through that and watching. We don’t have accurate figures as to who listens and who reads but I think the fact we had 3,000 people already on Facebook liking the page and quite a few of the Facebook items including videos were shared many times, so we were really hitting that community.
Also, of course we had the opposing community who don’t like anyone on the street who is a migrant, especially if you have a black face. We have to remember in Malta, most of us probably are migrants because we come from many countries, but if you have a black face that’s different, you’re very much the minority in number but you’re the ones that show up and people can see so there’s a small proportion of the Maltese community who are completely against any integration, any migrants being here at all, [saying], ‘Oh you’re taking our jobs, you’re taking tax payers money’, which is all rubbish because the Maltese often get the jobs first, if they don’t want to do the jobs, the migrants do it – it happens in every country.
In its wake, you’ve set up the Migrant Skills Register with Skilled Migrant Website. What does this do and why?
We came to the end of the first project in September 2015. We had applied for some funds that we didn’t get but we applied to the Malta Council Voluntary Sector. They offer up to €3,000 for what’s called SIS funding, Small Initiatives Scheme, I think it stands for. And we were successful and we got funding for that, but we had to make a project so I was looking at this thinking what is the greatest need for the migrants here, they have many needs but the greatest one is to get work, and again, the system in Malta is not conducive to them finding work.
There are a lot of asylum seekers who are still going through the asylum seeking process or who have been rejected once or twice, they are not permitted to register for work with ETC Jobs Plus so the government system is excluding this minority who are the most disadvantaged. The migrants who come through who have refugee status, they have subsidiary protection, they can register but they need a lot of support; it’s very difficult for them to come and just be offered a job. They go along to an interview; they’re not prepared for it. If they can get an interview and we know a lot of employers just don’t give the possibilities to migrants so we thought what we need to do is to set up a project, we call it the Pilot project because we learned a lot from it and it was very small seed funding and the concept was to get them to register, it’s a bit like a CV online, it’s not so professional but over the 12 months of the project which actually officially ended the funding finished in January, we had more than 100 migrants apply, put their information and we’ve developed a system where we take them through a process.
It’s not enough to take their details so we interview everyone, we have a team interviewing them assessing their language skills and other skills and there’s a lot of cultural differences with work. So, we have one Somali, he’s actually our vice president, he intervenes before they go off for a job interview for example. So we had to also obviously contact employers and we have a relatively small number of employers but we’re looking for more and they’re telling us their needs and we are working to filter the list of people to try and provide them the people that they need most. So, if someone needs to be able to read and write English and have a driving license for example, we put those filters in and see who comes out and there might be a small number who satisfy that requirement. It is a big problem when they don’t speak English because you need to communicate in work, but there are also many other skills preparing people for work in another culture in another continent. We’re trying also to guide the applicants towards all the things that they need to do whether it’s to dress smartly for an interview. There’s a thousand and one little things but we need to guide them, they’re not ready in every case just to go and work in the Maltese situation.
What areas of employment are you finding for migrants?
What we’re trying to do is to try and find the skills they have because there are a lot of untapped skills and it’s really common when they’re really short of money, they’re at the bottom of the pile, so to speak, in society that they will take the first job. So, they could be a scientist, they could be an IT specialist, they could be a doctor, but if all they can do is to get paid for sweeping the kitchen, they’ll sweep the kitchen floor. So, this is another element of this that we’re saying to them, ‘Let’s be honest, don’t apply for something that you think you’ll get a job for, like cleaning, tell what your real skills are’ and then we’ll try and match them with an employer who needs them.
Malta is in a very fortunate position of having very low unemployment, it’s below 5%, it’s very good here and Malta is thriving as a business centre at the moment and employers are looking for more skilled people. So, we’re really open to any area. Malta has big needs for construction, for the hospitality industry, bars/restaurants, obviously cleaning and various other skills, we’ve put people into welding jobs. We’re just open to what employers want and then we see who fits the bill. What we need, as I say, are for more employers to come forward. But even for the employers we can’t just send the migrants that we filter along, we have to brief the employers so that they have the same expectations from the potential employer and potential employee because often the expectations are different and quite a few of the employers are really not looking to pay enough money for the migrants to live, they are coming because they think this is a cheap source of labour and whilst they don’t get paid much we have to have fairness as well. We’ve had people go to jobs and they were told they’d earn six euros an hour and then when they got there they were told, ‘No, no, it’s not that’ and they didn’t have enough just to feed the family and pay the rent. So we try to balance everything.
Giving a voice to the migrant community is vital. It helps them get their stories heard. That’s the view of Farah Abdullahi Abdi, Somali trans woman, blogger, public speaker and activist. She spent four years in Malta struggling with social exclusion. Although she didn’t set up a civil society organisation, Malta’s NGOs made her feel welcome. And, she made sure her time here wasn’t wasted.
In the four years I was blessed enough or privileged enough to do a lot, I had a blog with one of the largest papers on the island, I was able to publish a book that ended up launching in other countries, I started public speaking whereby I spoke at the European Parliament, the United Nations, several other public events across Europe and the world. So pretty much I did a lot of activism. So, yeah, over the last four years I was very proud that I was able to achieve some of my biggest dreams especially in a place whereby I didn’t feel comfortable and I didn’t feel welcome and I didn’t feel accepted.
How did you start writing a blog?
I basically approached one of the editors of Malta Today, the paper in Malta, and I convinced them to give me a space on their website to be able to tell about refugee stories because most of the time what was happening was that other people were speaking about our stories and they didn’t know exactly what they were talking about. So, I was like, ‘Give me the opportunity to tell our stories from ourselves directly and the issues that we’re facing’ and here we were able to develop a community around that and we were able to change some of the racist and xenophobic policies that were in place.
For example, there’s a story that I did about how difficult it was for refugees to get residence cards in Malta after getting international protection. The home office in Malta made it pretty much impossible for refugees to get identity cards and that was going on for the last three years and when I did the story it was very shameful that in a European country people have to sleep outside a government office to be able to get identification. So, we were able to change that and make the government give us an office that would serve us from Monday to Friday as opposed to only Friday before.
You wrote your book ‘Never Arrive’. How did writing about your experiences help you?
I think the book was cathartic for me because I think it gave me a voice to be able to, at a time when I felt that I didn’t have a voice, sort of, and it was like my diary to vent out because, as I’m saying, some of my most frustrated years were not lived in Libya, they were not lived in Kenya, they were lived in a European country: Malta. So ‘Never Arrive’ was like my diary through the four years of, I think this is extreme but torture, torture is not the word, it’s too extreme, but that’s how I felt at the time.
Civil society organisations are driven to help out of responsibility and compassion for the refugees affected. However, if larger aid charities are slow to respond they face steep learning curves.
That’s what happened to UK based HelpRefugees when they arrived in the Calais Refugee Camp back in August 2015. They went from being another helping hand to becoming the umbrella administrator of the camp; feeding, sheltering and supporting its diverse population of 10,000. Nico Stevens is a co–founder heading up HelpRefugees’ projects…
I’ve spent a lot of time in Sub-Saharan Africa and, to be perfectly honest, when I first went to the Calais camp I really felt like I was stepping into another continent. There were no tents, there was no water. At the time people were saying there was a cholera problem, distributing any form of aid was so incredibly difficult because people were in such need, it was a really difficult thing to see and totally unbelievable that we were 26 kilometres from England. At the same time I was meeting the most incredible people, people who really did not deserve to live in such conditions. I met a poet from Sudan who was more articulate than I could ever be, I met a woman who spoke perfect English, was educated higher than I was, guiding her entire family from Iran to safety and seeking a life where they could live in peace. So it was a really complex first impression, I would say, people living in the most utterly awful conditions but also had such spirit inside them and such hope.
What kinds of activities have you brought to the camp?
We started by renting a warehouse, that was our kind of first port of call, we started by learning logistics and storage and haulage and obviously with that comes LFI and distribution. We very quickly, as soon as we started working in the camps, collectively working with the community themselves and learnt that the community in the camps did not want line distribution, it was an undignified way of receiving aid. So, we created distribution points, worked with different communities to make sure that the LFI provision happened. We also started building shelters, as I said, so building infrastructure, women and children’s services, food.
Something that we’re really proud of was working with a group called Calais Kitchens that realised with the hugely different demographic, different people had different needs in terms of food, and there were different groups cooking together: some were small groups, a group of four friends, some were groups of 30 that would cook together and food is such an important part of culture, so we worked with the communities to make sure that they received dry food packs in the kind of food that they wanted. So, for instance, Eritreans really like pasta whereas Afghans really like rice, so that is a really big part of what we do is working with the different cultures and different groups to make sure that they receive aid in a dignified way. We were also providing information.
How important has it been to conduct census on the residents of the camp? Can you tell me a bit about the numbers and demographics of people you were coming into contact with?
So, we conducted the first census during the first eviction of the south bit of the camp in February 2016 and this was the first time that any reliable and accurate data was collected on the camp’s population. Until that point there were estimates by the French authorities which really grossly underestimated the number of residents in the camp and that’s why we sought to conduct our own census because we were appalled at the numbers that the authorities were putting out there because we knew that they were at some points double.
Something that was really important that came out of that first census after the first eviction of the camp is that we found that 129 unaccompanied minors from the camp had gone unaccounted for. Having these kinds of numbers has been absolutely invaluable for advocacy providing the numbers of people living in such conditions that were previously ignored by authorities; they have been used for evidence in legal battles and give us a legitimacy when we’re talking about the conditions. The census was also important for all different kinds of reasons: we were able to identify the changing demographics, the changing needs, adapt our distribution to this, adapt the numbers and the type of food that we were making.
In September of 2016, we announced that there were 10,000 people living in the camp and this was just ahead of the final eviction, this was a really important number because it brought to light the sheer amount of people that were living there and the authorities were very much trying to deny that in their media. So I suppose most importantly for us we were able to identify the number of unaccompanied children and that has led us to legitimately fight for their rights.
Food doesn’t just nourish, it can be a way to create healthy and inclusive society bridging cultures and experiences. That’s what inspired La Recho, a French organisation on wheels that’s sharing its culinary skills with refugees. Their first missions were in La Linere camp in Northern France. It’s been a great way to connect local people with refugees without language. Alix Gerbet is one of its ten founders.
Well, when we decided to create La Recho and start the adventure we had ambitions, we had an idea of what we wanted to do, and most of us work in the cooking environment and we already do cooking classes so we knew Vanessa, knew Elodie. I work also for a cooking class firm so I know that leading cooking workshops brings people together and makes people work together and this is really what we wanted to do.
When we arrived in the camps we had no idea of what would happen, we didn’t know if the magic would just work or if people wouldn’t be welcoming. What we found is an amazing place where we found amazing people, and where at the beginning we taught French recipes and then as the days were going on, while the people in the camp were mostly Kurdish at the beginning, we started to choose the recipes to tell us about their memories about what they used to cook, about how they like their dishes to be prepared.
We spent some amazing days and somehow the word refugee disappeared and it became Salman that we met and Kaman that we met and all those friendly faces which are people like us. People who didn’t have the luck to be born on the good side of the world but who are mostly people like us so it was really amazing and it was full of love and of understanding, and even if they didn’t speak French we could sometimes speak in English with them. Most of the time we didn’t even need to speak, we were just standing there for hours cooking together preparing the meals that we were going to have together, which is really important because this is what La Recho is: to have the meal together. Once it was cooked with the local people and with the refugees, with us, everybody sat and ate together and so it was like magic, really.
How many refugees are you feeding per day?
Well the results at the beginning: when we decided to create La Recho was to buy a food truck and to go and realise some missions on some refugee camps. Our first mission took part in august 17th to the 3rd September in 2016, so we spent three weeks on a camp near Dunkirk which is called La Linière which was a camp that was built by the mayor of the city which is called Grand-Synthe and it was the only camp in France set up under European norms so it was quite a unique camp and that is where we did our first mission. During those three weeks of mission, 10,500 meals were served in three weeks, we led 20 cooking workshops with migrants and volunteers and among those four workshops were only for women and two workshops were hosted by French star chefs and something like 60 volunteers helped us over all. So it would be something like 10,500 meals which makes something like 300 – 500 meals a day.
What kinds of training do you provide?
What we do is really to use the kitchen and the cooking as a way to bring life again in those camps. So training would be that every day on those camps it’s mostly a question of survival, like those people who in those camps they usually want to go to the UK or not to stay in France, so each night they try to pass and if they don’t succeed they come back and, well, during the day they have mostly nothing to do. With La Recho we had a timetable which was really precise and was the same everyday so it was a way of installing again a rhythm in the day-to-day life which is not the usual, which doesn’t happen in the camps, and while cooking is about discipline it’s about respecting the one that is cooking with you it’s also about sharing, it was also about bringing again a link between the local populations who were helping us and about the refugees. So it was about bonding again.
The thing is that on those camps there are also people who already trained to cook. And we know that there are many jobs that are available in France for this in the cooking and restaurant universe so it was also about putting in touch the chefs that we met and that were supporting our actions with the refugees that are already on the camp and have already the qualifications to find and to seek a job in France. So it’s not mostly training but it’s really about communicating and putting in touch people with qualifications and people with job offers.
How does it make you feel to be doing this?
It makes me feel human, it makes me feel, it’s good for the soul, it’s good for the heart, it’s good for the people, it’s amazing to see how much good energy comes out of a project like this and we do it because we feel what happened in the camps doesn’t look like how we would like to welcome those people. At the beginning it’s something that we do because we want to heal this situation that we don’t like, but also because now that it has been a year we also are really conscious about the fact that it also helps us in our day to day lives. I don’t know it’s really fulfilling to make this and to realise that everything is achievable, that if you have the energy and if you have the good people around you and that you have the feeling that what you do is right then nothing can stop you. It makes you confident and ambitious about the future and human after all, so it’s as good for us as it is good for the people that we cook with in the camps I think.
For most of us here in the Northern Hemisphere we’re at the peak of summer and what better way to enjoy it than to have a barbeque. But how do you feel about one with a twist? Forget your burgers and bangers, how about a Brazilian barbeque that’s raising money for good causes? Well, that’s what Marketing specialist Lucia Mastromauro has been doing for the last nine years. And, she’s managed to get the support of big companies to match her fundraising. MOAS has been helped by her barbeque. Here’s her story…
The barbeque started many years ago, about 9 years ago when through my career I had moved a lot. I’ve lived in London, I’ve lived in Cleveland, Zurich and Italy and so on. So one of the leaving do’s which was around my birthday I organised a sort of semi leaving slash birthday party, and having lived in London for a long time and always having a little bit of an issue with this English standard barbeques which is basically burgers, sausages, coming from Brazil with a family that comes from the south of brazil, the pampas land, I’ve always kind of shook my head and was like, ‘Ah, this is not really a Barbeque’ and by then I was earning a little bit more and I decided to sponsor a barbeque for my friends for my birthday and, as it was, leaving party.
It was about 40 people that time, I borrowed a friend’s garden in Camden, invited everybody and it was an amazing party; everybody loved the meat, everybody loved that they actually had real meat for the barbeque. My friend who lent me the garden, she’s vegan, so we kind of had to keep the meat away from her sight at the same time serving some of the vegetarians and vegans at the party and not let anybody clash at the sight of blood and meat…
When did you decide to use the barbeque as a fundraiser?
I used to fly to London every so often to see friends, for business reasons, for school as well, I was still doing some exams, and my friends were like, ‘Oh, can you do a barbeque again this year?’ and I was like, ‘You know guys, it costs quite a bit of money to buy meat to feed a lot of people. We buy good steaks so I feel a little bit uneasy about feeding you all for no reason.’ and they were like, ‘Well we’ll give you the money, we’ll give you all the money that you need for the barbeque, we just need you to organise it.’, and I’m like, ‘Still it doesn’t feel right.’
So, after a few side conversations I said to them, ‘What if we still do the barbeque, you guys still put in money but rather than giving me money we fundraise for a cause or a charity, I don’t really care as long as it’s worthy of your money and our efforts.’ We do some due diligence to ensure it goes to a charity that is going to make use of that money and it is going to be applied to a cause and everybody was like, ‘Yeah sure, no problem, we like the idea’ and the following year I flew in from Switzerland to organise it, borrowed again a friend’s garden and I think we had 50, 60 people that year and since then growing the number of people that came to the barbeque.
It’s become a little bit of a kind of a yearly very expected, to kind of expected to attend barbeque and every year until last year we’ve changed the charities that we support so normally I will put out an email to everybody and say ‘hey guys, anybody out there would like to suggest any charities or cause. It needs to be something that we can fundraise for, ideally we can fundraise through JustGiving but suggest a worthy cause and so on’. So we get maybe 10 to 20 suggestions then we look at the ones that we might have a couple of times received a suggestion twice or three times, put up a list normally 10 to 15 and then I send it back with a doddle to vote in an anonymous way so that we get the one that ranks higher and as long as it’s a worthy charity that people will connect with and nobody has an objection to it we pick it. As for international War Child, Save the Rhino, Save the Rhino was really interesting because of the amount of people who thought the irony of eating cows to save Rhinos that year was hilarious but people got it…
How did you end up choosing MOAS?
So, MOAS come up voted last year as the highest charity, we had a very similar, we had another charity with not a similar cause but around the same with projects around refugees as well that came second, so it was very top of my topic last year we really thought that MOAS was like spot on amazing, that we, that we got people that voted for MOAS. And as a background, I don’t exactly remember how MOAS came into the list or who exactly suggested it but it was the year before I was still working for Google and Googlers had started voicing to management that there was a massive refugee crisis going on.
Google has a project going on called ‘Google Give’ which I volunteered 20% of my time as well at times on specific projects, so we were like ‘can Google do something about it?’ and in that year Google offered 5 million dollars to three charity slash organisations that were looking after the refugee cause and any donation that employees put forward, they were going to match on top of that. So I think that created also a lot of interest among my friends, a lot of them are Googlers. So when we came to select the charity for voting what I asked people was think of smaller charities that we will raise 2 – 3 K max, so a charity that will genuinely benefit. I mean I know the UN Refugee organisation is amazing but I’m not sure how impactful our 2 or 3 K will be, so therefore please suggest smaller charities.
So, MOAS came out of that, it was voted out by everybody, it was the highest one. And then this year when we were about to kind of send an email out… there’s about 10 people that help me put the barbeque together by now, it’s becoming such a big undertaking and they started rumbling around, ‘Do we really need to pick another charity?’ and I was like, ‘Well it’s been tradition but we don’t have to, it’s not written in a rule book per se, there’s no penalty’. They were like, ‘Well nobody is talking about refugees but it’s still a major issue’ and I completely agree, so we made an executive decision that we would support MOAS this year again.
How do you get big companies to match your funding?
So, I wrote to my CEO and said ‘hi Ricardo, this is what we do, this is more or less what we normally raise which is normally £3,000, we’re trying to push for a little bit higher this year, do you think King could match?’ We didn’t have a charity matching programme so he internally talked to some people, I don’t know who, and they got back to us immediately saying ‘yes, we’ll match your event and we’re working on a programme’ which is great.
And then on top of that one of my friends who works with another company with one of her clients, she actually went up to them and said, ‘I want you to sponsor Lucia’s barbeque because it’s a worthy cause and you guys are a great company, you have great values and so on’ and so they immediately said yes. So this year is the first year we had two companies matching donations which then triples the amount which gave us big ambitions, because next year we want to go to more companies and say, ‘You guys, every little helps when multiple companies can match and we can maximise the impact’, and hopefully we’re going to get over £12,000 between the donations and two companies matching.
From food to friendship, building to belonging, civil society organisations and initiatives are filling the gaps when the conventional response is too slow. And, it’s clear in the current migration crisis they’ve been stepping up for some time.
In the next podcast we’re going to explore the theme of labels. What is a refugee? When do they become an asylum seeker? Who is a migrant? We’ll find out about the different ways that governments and institutions use them. What it means for the people who are given them. How do they feel about it?
Until then you can follow us on our social media. Check out our latest updates on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Youtube and AudioBoom… or you can support our rescue missions by giving whatever you can to help us save lives at sea. If you liked this Podcast don’t forget to hit like, comment and subscribe for more Podcasts from us. From all of us here at MOAS: goodbye.
This project has been funded with support from the European Commission. This publication reflects the views only of the author, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.