SMART AID GATHERING #13: The voice of a community rising
On the 6th of June, Campfire Innovation organised its 13th Smart Aid Gathering with a focus on Active Participation & Self Advocacy. Many volunteers and people of migrant and refugee backgrounds joined us, eager to explore ways to be active citizens and engage in self advocacy.
The discussion was started with Jackie from Generation 2.0 and Kareem and Wael from Syrian Greek Youth Forum but many others from the audience shared their perspective. We were very pleased to have Loretta from United African Women and Enri from Greek Forum of Migrants with us who also shared some of their insights.
Here is what we heard and what we learned...
What is Advocacy?
Advocacy is a word we hear a lot in the context of refugee response, but not always with clarity. What it means is developing intentional activities to influence policy making, monitor different laws, lobby, inform, consult and campaign on different levels.
There are many gaps in migration policy or its implementation and many large NGOs and grassroots initiatives are advocating to address the issues that are created by those gaps. A recent example is the case brought by Still I Rise against the management of the Samos camp and the conditions for unaccompanied minors. It combines both recording conditions, gathering proof, and inviting more scrutiny of the policies and finances around camps in Greece.
Such activities can influence policy making on local, national and EU levels.
Why is Self Advocacy important?
Self advocacy are advocacy activities led by the community itself, rather than someone on behalf of them. There are many affected people on the margins of society that policy makers don’t consider and it’s important for them to raise their voice.
There are many benefits that self advocacy can bring.
Building a community
Self advocacy helps marginalised people come together and build a community. It creates opportunities for people to express their identity and have a support system. In fact, it never means advocating for an individual/one person. It is always about crafting a joint goal or vision.
Self-determination: Overcoming the stigma
It is important to reflect on the terms and labels that we are using and self-advocacy is an opportunity for such self-determination.
For example, during our discussion, the Syrian & Greek Youth Forum brought up the use of the very loaded term ‘refugee’. Identifying a new term would help eliminate the stigma and highlight the willingness of refugees, migrants and asylum seekers to participate in daily life like any other citizen.
The suggested terms were:
‘citizen with migrant/refugee background’. Even though it was acknowledged that the legal framework that determines a “citizen” means that legally many displaced people are not citizens.
“resident”, which has less legal connotations but still acknowledges people presence in a society.
In any case, in this context it was important to find symbolic terms that are connected to sense of belonging rather than to the legal status.
Broadening the definition of the humanitarian/activist
Beyond the term “refugee”, we would often hear the terms “person of concern” or “beneficiary”. Both have passive connotations and determine the relation of that person to the system as someone receiving charity or being in constant crisis.
The citizen and solidarity movement in humanitarian aid is part of a broader discussion about “who” can be the aid provider and the empowerment of refugees themselves. The terms citizen or resident is a much more active term, clearly referring to wanting and having responsibility and right to participate in society.
A simple switch of terms can help reverse the psychology: for people to see themselves as active members of a society that have the rights and responsibilities to their new communities and neighborhoods, but also for others to see them as such.
Self advocacy means to advocate against the norm. Through self advocacy, people become existent in society and they can change legal frameworks and minds about them. It is an opportunity for people to see themselves and be seen differently.
Challenges and difficulties
While it can be inspiring to look at the achievements of self advocacy groups or active citizenship initiatives, there are many difficulties that need to be overcome for an initiative just starting out with limited resources.
Here are some of the challenges suggested by Smart Aid Gathering participants:
Diverse Visions Under One Roof
Refugees and migrants who want to stay in Greece have very different needs and approaches to people who plan to move on. Since organizations do not wish to exclude, an extra layer of complexity is created by trying to advocate jointly for groups that have vastly different visions.
Building a team
It’s often challenging to build a tight, stable group that can invest time in the project. Division of tasks within the team might be difficult because of the time commitment of each member but also because of the challenging process of figuring out the strengths of the team (especially if the members didn’t do similar work before).
Making the vision tangible
Getting people motivated and active in the beginning is tough because many people cannot imagine how the status quo could change. Rather than searching for people who want to participate, it’s better to get started and by showing what is possible, more people will want to join and participate.
HOW TO GET THINGS DONE
Advocating makes sense only if we target the right institutions, understand the issue, who us responsible for a policy or how a systemic situation can be changed. To reach that goal requires many small steps and a lot of planning. All that sounds great but how can it be done practically?
Let’s have a look at some of the steps as described by Generation 2.0:
Start from the problem but focus on the solution
Very important initial stage, it includes getting a group of people together and setting goals, developing a vision of what society looks like when this changes.. Eg. Citizenship for children born and raised in Greece by migrant parents. (These children are in limbo of neither being Greek citizens nor immigrants; they are invisible in Greek society.)
Gather all the information
Gather as much information and insights as you can and get educated on the matter. This might be a very long and difficult phase as this includes studying existing laws and understanding the current policy in detail.
Make an action plan
Realise what the steps are and what needs to be done, and identify whom you should be engaging with politically enters. It’s crucial to target the right institutions. Eg. Citizenship is a matter of state law so law needs to be changed/ new law needs to pass
Educate Greek society about your existence
Put yourself out there, create attention and build media presence. Tell your story, people need to connect a vague idea to stories from everyday life in order to understand the issue and the need for change. Eg. If you manage to convince a lady in the bakery you know your matter is being recognized in broader society.
Suggest a plan and strategy.
Do not just say “we want this”. Show you understand the system and coming up with a ready suggestion for HOW policy can change and using the legal terminology when you talk to politicians.
Be ready to compromise
Keep in mind that you will always have to compromise based in on the bigger picture and what is good for the group. Be prepared for losses and for the possibility to need to restart the process from the beginning.
In all stages of the process, collaborations are crucial. Building alliances with civil society, other NGOs is a necessary part of the process. Exchange of information with other groups in order to understand common ground or sharing difficulties on how to start and how to get information is very useful for a new self advocacy projects.
Conclusion with a little note about diversity
Diversity and multiculturalism are phenomena that we have been observing for a long time now and that are finally gaining more and more attention. In some countries diversity is better acknowledged and thus more visible than in others, in some it is not. Self-advocacy and active participation is a powerful tool for a community to make itself visible and be taken into account by policy makers and the rest of society.
However, one important note needs to be made: even though we are speaking about a community gaining its voice, we can’t forget about the fact that we are actually speaking about very diverse voices coming together. Through self-advocacy efforts, people with common goals, learn to cooperate but also showcase their own multiplicity.
We often speak of “the refugee perspective”, bypassing that people with a shared displacement experience might actually have very different stories, needs, background, perspectives and goals. Therefore, we are looking forward to seeing the growing community of new residents develop their message, sometimes with a united front and other times through a large spectrum of different approaches.