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Text: Goranka Oljača
Fostering Understanding between Migrants and the Majority Society
As a methodical manager of the Integration Centre Prague (ICP), Anca Covrigová has been intensively dealing with all aspects of the integration of foreigners. She has experienced the process of integration on her own, as she came to the Czech Republic from Romania in 2002. Back then, she was young and in love and she didn’t see her relocation as an official process. Thanks to her husband who is Czech she obtained permanent residence and the only formal issue she had to deal with was the fact that the authorities added the “ová” suffix to her surname.
“I found a job at an international company in quite a short time but I only spoke English and I struggled with Czech very much. None of our family lived in Prague. I knew almost no one and it only got better when I started my maternity leave – moms at playgrounds do not really care about where you come from. When looking back now, I have to say that the most important thing is to learn the language. Czech is difficult but being able to speak it makes all the difference. It makes you feel better here and it also changes the way other people perceive you. The Czechs do not say it aloud but they very much appreciate foreigners who try to speak Czech. Even the effort opens a lot of doors for them.”
“Everyone needs to pay attention to their integration process themselves,” says Anca Covrigová. She immediately realizes that she has started talking like a methodical manager and she laughs about it. “The problems we solve here at the ICP are often caused by people’s forgetting about their responsibilities. They are not aware of the fact that it is their duty to extend their stay here. I wish the Czech public understood that foreigners need to learn very fast how to deal with a plenty of everyday issues the Czechs take for granted. It is a lot of things including how the metro works as well as when it is necessary to enrol children to kindergarten. Altogether, it is an interesting process and I see it as a great life experience. I do admit that sometimes it gets difficult and you don’t really know which country to call your home. The best scenario is when people feel at home in the country they have left and, at the same time, they feel at home here. The worst one is when they don’t feel at home neither here nor there.”
Journalists would prefer this explanation to what is called integration strategical materials, usually written in a lifeless language. Unfortunately, not everyone has been as lucky as Anca. Moreover, the integration of foreigners concerns a large number of people. In their awareness-raising campaign which will take place during the whole summer of 2019, the ICP will be reminding us that there are more parties to integration.
The campaign is a part of the Integra international project. Last year, the project included mapping and evaluation of the integration policy and practice in the Czech capital. At the same time, the assessment took place in four other cities in Bulgaria, Italy, Croatia, and Slovakia. Veronika Spiegelová, the project coordinator, says that one of the aims of the project is the development of the integration policy and practice in Prague. “We want to promote cooperation among all parties involved in integration. This is not focused only on Prague but on all countries and cities that have joined the project. Another goal is to foster understanding between migrants and the majority society, which includes fighting against mutual prejudice and fear.”
It is a great advantage that Prague has it own Policy for the Integration of Foreign Nationals and that the city has been using traditional as well as innovative research to look into how it is reflected in the everyday life in Prague. The first activity of the awareness-raising campaign is a presentation of four posters with inpho-graphics, which will introduce the integration of foreigners in Prague to the public. It will be presented in public institutions.
“The poster Integration of Foreigners: Visions and Services offers an overview of what foreigners in Prague are like and how many of them live in the capital. We also described the structure of all institutions and organisations which deal with integration in Prague, from the City Hall to NGOs, city districts, and migrant associations. We point out that every seventh Prague inhabitant is a foreigner. Prague is open to migrants, it has various communication instruments, and it is basically a user-friendly city,” says Covrigová.
Another topic is Social Inclusion of Foreigners and Civic Engagement of Migrants. “We have more than 50 organisations which want to convey their cultures and to reach coexistence in a nice atmosphere for everyone,” adds Covrigová. “We have listed the activities of the city of Prague, NGOs, and city districts. City districts offer a lot of opportunities for integration but foreigners often do not know about them and therefore they do not use them. One of the methods used for the assessment of the integration policy was Photovoice. Thanks to it, a lot of beautiful photos related to the issue of migration have been created. Several female migrants from Prague 10 provided their photos and called them ‘Her Story’.
Another topic is City Environment and Feeling Safe. The distribution of foreigners in Prague is not even. However, there is not a place which people avoid just because of their fear from foreigners live there. There are no ‘no-go’ zones in Prague. The vast majority of foreigners highly appreciates the services provided by the city, especially the reliable public transport. At the same time, the Photovoice photos show that some foreigners take care of services which people often do not see on the first sight. Prague is beautiful and clean thanks to a lot of foreigners who do their rather invisible work here. The project has shown that most foreigners see Prague as a safe, clean, and a very beautiful city.
The last topic is the Attitude of the Majority towards Foreigners. The ICP team has a sophisticated communication strategy. They do not severely criticise people’s xenophobia but rather invite the majority to think about the issues in a non-violent way. The ICP emphasizes that according to a 2018 research, three quarters of Czechs say that coexistence with foreigners is perfectly fine. Among other things, it is necessary to explain the differences between the terms ‘economic migrant’ and ‘refugee’. Economic migrants migrate voluntarily, refugees migrate involuntarily, due to armed conflicts or persecution. People’s failure to understand the terms is often the reason of their generally negative attitude towards foreigners. This creates fertile ground for xenophobic manipulation. The ICP has created a sub-campaign about economic migration. The whys and hows were explained at a public presentation by the project expert Luboš Kožíšek.
After the mapping and the evaluation of integration in Prague were finished, several recommendations were made for the city of Prague, so that the future process of integration of foreigners was as smooth as possible. Above all, it is necessary to realize that a foreigner who lives in Prague is an inhabitant of the city just like everyone else, as Covrigová points out.
“Prague does a lot of things for foreigners. The City Hall runs a website with materials in several languages, but not many people know about it, both Czechs and foreigners. That’s why we recommend that the city communicates the issue of integration in a slightly different way. In the recommendations we approached the availability of housing which is a burning issue. There is discrimination in this area which is very difficult to change. Another thing which needs to be done is getting foreigners involved into the life in the city, so that they knew that there are such opportunities and also how they can react to them and get involved. We think it is important for the city to pay more attention to the prevention of problematic issues. The topic of integration must not be opened only after a problem emerges. It would be very beneficial if the city commissioned quality demographic studies which would enable better planning of the development of services targeted at integration, conditions at school and pre-school institutions, etc.”