Including People with Migration and Refugee Experience in Educational Activities

S._V._Ivanov._Female_migrant_(1886)
Sergey Ivanov: Female migrant // Public domain

Topics concerning the situation of migrants and refugees are raised during conferences, seminars, symposia, lectures, online events, workshops and in social media. In these discussions, how often is there space for the perspective of people who had migrant and refugee experiences? As organizers of various educational events, do we create a safe space for their voices? What is the educational significance of this? What could help in the search for means of inclusion, which would give them strength and the feeling of subjectivity?

Similar questions about the representation of perspectives concern other minority groups as well. Some of the issues discussed below also relate to working with representatives of other groups. Risks and aforementioned good practices might be particularly useful for those who would like to take up topics dealing with the condition and history of national and ethnic minorities.

The research and a number of the examples I cite relate to the context of work in Poland, which I know best. I hope they become a starting point for reflection on how similar mechanisms function in other countries.

The Educational Meaning of Including Minority Voices

An example of a systemic lack of migrant and refugee voices is the content of schoolbooks. This phenomenon has been described in a detailed report based on research conducted in 2011 by Towarzystwo Edukacji Antydyskryminacyjnej. It analyses, among other topics, the content of history and civics textbooks. In civics textbooks, refugees and migrants were shown ‘as disadvantaged people seeking help, mainly anonymous collective heroes about whom little can be said’.[1]

In history textbooks, refugees and immigrants were rarely mentioned, which, as authors fairly point out, ‘seems odd, when we consider that only in the 20th century, migrations were and still are one of the acute consequences of actions taken on the international arena.’[2]

In the context of the systemic absence of migrant and refugee perspectives, inviting people with such perspectives to contribute and take part in educational activities could be one of the first occasions to hear their complete stories.

The reason for the search for subjective ways of inclusion is not only the need to include the experiences of minority groups in the worldview. My experiences as an educator show that including migrant and refugee voices can create space for learning, exchanging of knowledge, development of intercultural competencies, and creation of bonds between people from minority and majority. Inclusion should also strengthen people with migrant and refugee experiences.

Measures taken to include the voices of migrants and refugees are also relevant in the processes of dehumanizing the ‘other’ that we, unfortunately, observe in the public sphere, on the internet and in private conversations.

In 2016, the Centre for Research on Prejudice conducted an online survey on the associations of Poles with the word ‘refugee’. The various words provided by the respondents were divided into 25 categories.

The most frequent terms were those associated with the category ‘escape’ (34%), followed in turn by ‘war’ (27%), ‘injustice suffered by refugees’ (24%), ‘terrorism’ (18%), ‘empathy’ (14%), and ‘poverty’ (14%). The seventh category (13%) were terms of a dehumanizing nature: ‘insulting, dehumanizing: filth, fraud, swindler, layabout, savage, lazybones, parasite, leech, slob, clod, screamer, paki, lout, slacker, trash, baby-maker, crook’.

Dehumanizing statements also appear frequently in the public sphere. This phenomenon is particularly troubling when combined with the creation of xenophobic narratives about asylum seekers. Dehumanization may contribute to the development of indifference to the fate of refugees and condoning violence against them. This could be observed in recent weeks, during the humanitarian crisis on the Polish-Belarusian border (November 2021).

Monika Tarnowska, a researcher on infrahumanization (i.e. perceiving members of other groups as ‘slightly less human’), indicates the following ways of counteracting this phenomenon: ‘In terms of possibilities for reducing people’s tendency to infrahumanize, it seems that in the case of culturally distinct groups, especially those in conflict, it is important for improving intergroup relations to build a sense of closeness and perceived similarity between groups (with respect for distinct group identities).’

Building a sense of closeness is certainly possible by organizing meetings and interacting with personal stories. So let us look at different aspects of such events with migrants and refugees.

Inclusion – In the Role of an Expert

Considering the possible influence and agency of people from a minority group is crucial when designing educational activities in which they participate. Among people with migrant and refugee backgrounds, there are those with specialist knowledge and experience in educational activities. These people can provide suggestions on how to present the topic and what issues related to an event are worth paying attention to.

Also, in a situation where we invite a person who does not have much experience in education, it is worth engaging them before the event to consult the ideas for it. As experts on their own stories, invited people can join the process of defining, e.g., educational goals, risks, roles during the meeting or jointly prepare a scenario of activities.

For me, as a participant, one of the most inspiring educational experiences, in terms of thinking about including experts with migration backgrounds to lead activities, was the Refugee Voices Tours Berlin walk (Refugee Voices Tours Berlin | Facebook). A city walk led by a Syrian refugee was an opportunity to learn about the history of his country and the reasons that force its citizens to leave. Berlin’s streets, buildings and commemorations became the starting point for stories about historical events in Syria.

The person leading the walk not only shared their experience and knowledge about their country of origin but also acted as a city guide. A city guide is a co-host of the city, someone who has expert knowledge about a specific neighborhood and someone from whom you can learn a lot about the shared landscape.

The expert role of people with migrant/refugee experiences is not only about their view of the country they left but also about their view of the current situation in the place where we meet.

Creating Safe Meeting Spaces

Inclusion can be more than just inviting one or more people to tell their stories, discuss, or teach a class. One should look for educational formats that also include the stories of those attending the event. Maybe the student or adult audience is itself diverse, and you can build on the potential of this diversity? Or invite people with and without migration experience to create a new forum?

A few years ago, Ukraiński Dom w Warszawie Foundation opened near the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, where I work. We organized a meeting at that time to talk about educational activities that we could do together. Our discussions led us to conclude that there is no place where people from Poland and Ukraine could meet together on equal terms and create a safe space for talking about their shared history and today’s minority-majority relations.

In response to this need, together with Myroslava Keryk from Ukraiński Dom, we prepared and ran three long-term Polish-Ukrainian educational courses for adults. The perspective of people with migration experience was present in various aspects of this project:

  • in jointly defining the purpose, methods, program and recruitment of participants,
  • in the organization of meetings, as well as summarizing and evaluating the project,
  • among the coordinators of the project,
  • among the persons invited to teach as experts,
  • among the participants of the courses.

Inviting a diverse group (a half from Ukraine, a half from Poland) was particularly important for the course. The long-term nature of the action was also crucial from an educational point of view – as part of the course, the group met regularly for several weeks and spent over 30 hours together. It allowed for the building of trust and a safe space for participants to speak. The final classes were led not by invited speakers but by the participants themselves.

Not Only Through Meetings

During live meetings, there is a risk of exposing the guest to reliving their trauma during the retelling of the discrimination experience or experiencing hate speech from the audience. These risks can be mitigated, for example, by moderating the meeting, setting a clear goal and rules. The meeting can be preceded or supplemented by another anti-discrimination class, during which educators discuss the mechanisms of stereotypes, bias, discrimination and how to identify hate speech and react to it.

However, if the risk of exposure to trauma or hate speech is too great, it is better to forgo live meetings and look for other forms of presenting minority perspectives.

At times, planning such a meeting is difficult or impossible due to organizational issues. If for any reason, we decide against such a meeting, the voices of people with migration and refugee backgrounds can be included through written account, interview, audio, or video recording. We can also get to know the person through their art. Before such a lesson, for example, a teacher or a group of students can meet with the guest.

Educational materials available on the internet and prepared by various institutions can also be used. An example of such materials created based on stories from various people is the Anne Frank House project ‘Stories that move’ (storiesthatmove.org). These materials have been prepared with students and teachers in mind. They facilitate in-depth discussions about perception of identity, mechanisms of discrimination, use of media and taking action. Among the prepared educational paths is the ‘seeing&being’ path, where we can find, e.g., stories of today’s migrants.

What is more, some of the people who share their stories appear also in the ‘taking action’ path. There, as part of peer education, visitors can learn more about social actions undertaken by other adolescents. Including these voices in the path dealing with agency and inspiring others to act highlights the fact that migrants are a part of civic society.

Not only does text or film facilitate close contact with personal stories, but also items. In 2018, as a part of a temporary exhibition ‘Obcy w domu. Wokół Marca ‘68’ (‘Estranged. March ‘68 and Its Aftermath’) in the POLIN Museum, we wanted to mark Refugee Day and dedicate the space to the stories of contemporary refugees.

We collaborated with Ocalenie Foundation, which works with them every day, and employs people with refugee experience. We discussed this idea and planned how to include refugees and create the exhibition together with them. We proposed to include items that tell stories of their experiences of forced migration.

People lending the items for the exhibition decided how to describe them. These descriptions, in the owner’s handwriting, were placed next to the items. Right next to them, we placed similar pieces of paper with translations. It was important not only to include these stories in the narration but for people who trusted us to feel that they have influence.

What Should Be Kept in Mind?

Complexity of Identity

The person invited to tell their story possesses an identity that has many parts. Perhaps we are inviting them because of their migration experience, but that does not mean this person would describe themselves as a migrant. Various aspects of identity might be important for the invited person, including origin, ethnicity, gender, age, skin color, sexual orientation, family and professional roles, education, membership in organizations, etc.

Identity can change with time, for example, a person who today introduces herself as Czeczen and Polish, in another moment in her life, might choose to define herself as a Pole, Warsaw citizen, Czeczen, migrant, activist or many others.

Before an event, the organizer should ask the guest how they would like to be introduced and then use the provided term in the agenda, as well as during the event.

Diversity of Voices

Minority groups are internally varied when it comes to religion, understanding nationality and ethnicity, education, professional and live situation, political beliefs, etc. At the same time, they can be perceived from the outside as internally homogeneous. If I am organizing, for example, a meeting about the current situation of the Vietnamese community, who am I going to invite?

Inviting just one person from a given community introduces the risk of false generalization that the characteristics of a given person pertain to the entire community. It can be avoided, if we invite more people with varied perspectives, for example, with various identities, gender or representing different generations.

If you invite one person, you can talk about the diverse identities of other people associated with their minority group – defining themselves or perceived through their membership of that group.

Managing the Risk of Exoticizing the ‘Other’

During meetings with minority groups, there is a risk of limiting the experience and identity of the invited person to an ‘exotic story’. Particularly in the situation when the contact with the representative of a group is the first opportunity to talk, fascination with otherness and the need to ask questions about stereotypical representation might arise in the conversation. Questions about attire, dances, intergroup relations might appear during a meeting dealing with entirely different topics.

The emergence of such questions may, on the one hand, indicate that it is a safe space to ask them. It also might be an opportunity to defuse false generalizations. On the other hand, this situation might be uncomfortable for the guest. In such cases, the role of the organizer is to ensure that themes related to the image of exotic minorities or folklore do not dominate the meeting.

There are many options in managing the risk of exoticization. You can clearly communicate the main topic or objective before and at the beginning of the event. Sometimes you might want to consider organizing an introductory class or other activity about the culture and history of a particular group or a class on the mechanism of stereotypical perceptions of different cultures.

It is also advisable to talk with the invited person about the risk of exoticization beforehand, find out how comfortable they are with answering various questions from the room and, together with them, agree on a scenario for action in case the questions violate these boundaries. In a workshop, it is also possible to gather the questions relating to the discussed topic in advance with the group.

Addressing Matters Related to the Culture and Religion of the Guests

When you organize a meeting and invite a person with a migration or refugee background, it is important to take different cultural aspects into account. In the early stages of planning an event, it is a good idea to check whether it overlaps with any holidays, which might be important for those invited.

Important organizational issues also include planning meals or refreshments that account for the diversity of approaches to food-related rules. In both of these aspects, and with many other organizational questions, asking the invitees what to consider will be helpful.

Conclusions

Attention to absence can be the first step towards inclusive action. It is important to notice in which situations, texts, and discussions the minority voice is missing. We should notice these areas as participants of events and users of materials, but it is also important to look critically at our own planned initiatives.

Inclusion of the voice of migrants and refugees has an educational potential in terms of empowering these groups, creating meeting spaces and sharing knowledge. At the same time, it can be an educational path against phenomena such as dehumanization and infrahumanization.

Including the voice of migrants and refugees can be achieved by inviting them as experts and creating opportunities for them to join as participants. There are risks involved in inviting representatives of minority groups to participate in live events, including reliving trauma when discussing difficult experiences, stereotyping or even hate speech.

In some cases, additional forms of pre-meeting education or inclusion of the minority voice in other ways – through text, recording or contact with an item – may be worth considering. People sharing their experiences in preparing such materials can also play a role. In the case of live meetings, consulting the guests or the NGO representing the minority group beforehand can be very helpful.

Including minority voices also for teachers and educators can be an interesting process of intercultural learning and competence development. This is another reason why it is worthwhile to engage in this process and to search for new educational forms together with people from different groups.


The article was originally published in “RespectEd. Opprotunities and Challenges of Equality Education” by Projekt: Polska and FNF in 2022


[1]Małgorzata Jończy-Adamska, “Analiza podręczników i podstawy programowej – przedmiot wiedza o społeczeństwie,” in: Wielka nieobecna. O edukacji antydyskryminacyjnej w systemie edukacji formalnej w Polsce. Raport z badań, ed. Marta Abramowicz (Warszawa: Towarzystwo Edukacji Antydyskryminacyjnej, 2011), 200.

[2] Marcin Dziurok, (with Małgorzata Jończy-Adamska), “Analiza podręczników i podstawy programowej – przedmiot historia,” in: Wielka nieobecna. O edukacji antydyskryminacyjnej w systemie edukacji formalnej w Polsce. Raport z badań, ed. Marta Abramowicz (Warszawa: Towarzystwo Edukacji Antydyskryminacyjnej, 2011), 167.


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