Participatory approaches in Greece – projects with/for refugees

October 17, 2017

Greek Local Preparatory Meeting (LPM) – Culture Open Source project
Topic: Participatory approaches referred to projects with/for the refugee populations

In the summer of 2017 three teams of CIN members have conducted a mapping of participatory practices of cultural initiatives in three different countries: Jordan, Greece, and Serbia. In the following interview, some members of the “Greek LPM team” tell us something more about their research, which focused primarily on the participatory approaches of projects with/for the refugee population.
A big thank you to the team (Martha Bouziouri, Orhan Ceka, Mietta Eleni Kyrios, Martina Zuliani) and the organisations involved (PRAKSIS, 
OIKOPOLIS SOCIAL CENTRE, ALKYONE Refugee Day Center, ANTIGONE – Information and Documentation Center on Racism, Ecology, Peace and Non Violence, INTERSOS)


1)What was your main motivation to actively take part in CIN mapping and why did you decide to focus particularly on the refugee community and Greece?

Martina: “For me it was very important as a member of CIN and as a cultural practitioner to that participation and bottom-up approach is the right way to go. Also, the aim of the Local Preparatory Meeting was to bring the local situation to an international level; we did the LPM in Greece but the same approach could be applied to other countries.”

Martha: “The mapping methods we used are a sort of prototype that we would like to use in other locations, expanding our mapping. We are interested to deepen our research at a European level and specifically in countries of reception/hosting countries. So, it made a lot of sense to us to start with a city that hosts a significant number of refugees. Thessaloniki is a dynamic city of extremely vigorous bottom-up cultural activities in the field of civic participation and solidarity. Thessaloniki has been traditionally a cosmopolitan city that has received a lot of migrants and refugees, throughout its modern history, embracing diversity.”

2)How did you work as a group, first of all virtually and then together on the ground? How did you prepare for the field work and did you find any difficulties in finding/contacting partners and organisations to map or are information already quite available?

Mietta: “There was a very good combination of very good preparation before meeting stakeholders and also the ability to react when things don’t go exactly as planned, be able to be more fluid and receptive to the environment, which is actually the whole point of this research, be guided by the participants and by the population we are interested in. We managed to be organic and dynamic.

Martha: “Yes, this is a very important point, be ready to adopt, to be receptive and flexible and really thoughtful when it comes to your expectation as a team and project, your goals and how these objectives can meet the expectation and goals of the community you are involved with. So, you have to maintain this fragile equilibrium of delivering, committing to your research objectives, and at the same time open up the space, maintain flexibility, and being receptive and ethically sensitive to embrace new inputs, new needs, new aspects and angles of your subject you haven’t foreseen while developing the research plan.”

3)From a research point of view what were the main challenges in the tools and methods you used and what tips would you give to any other researcher that would like to undertake a similar mapping?

Mietta: “We discussed it at the end of our meeting, and we discovered how the challenges we had, became sort of findings themselves. If you have the right attitude, a challenge becomes a finding! The main challenge that we had was to actually have a lot of input from the refugees themselves; we mainly interacted with staff members, and that is a finding, after all, it became something to discuss with the organisations we will map in the future, making them aware that we aren’t able to have a full picture unless we directly speak with the participants of their activities.”

Martha: “To give you some background information, originally the research was designed in a comparative perspective, meaning that we were heading towards both refugee representatives and NGO representatives. But, at the end of the day, we didn’t manage to have this balanced input from both. We asked organisations to come to the meeting together with participants of their activities When the meetings took place, no person with a refugee background showed up, and the reasons claimed by the organisations were either language barriers or the fact that a mixed group of beneficiaries and NGO staff wasn’t ideal to discuss sensitive topics such as refugee participation or their dropout from activities. They suggested for future research to have separate meetings with the two different groups.”

Mietta: “Staff members felt that there was a lot of material kind of insensitive to discuss in front of refugees, especially in the context of them trying to build trust and trying to show refugees that they are on their side and they are willing to work together, and then having researchers asking them ‘why are you not motivated’ or ‘why are you too traumatised to participate’. It actually was a big ask from us and asking a mixed group to also be negative and critical of the organisations and staff members. So that’s a lesson learned for next time. It’s tricky because you want to be collaborative, you don’t want to create two different groups and segregate refugees, because that somehow does defeat the purpose. But, maybe in this instance some small separated focus groups with translators might have been beneficial. It’s hard to say, but we definitely need to allow people to feel confident enough to share experiences in what is a really a minefield in terms of sensitive content.”

Martha: “Also it is difficult to establish trust of the organisations you are mapping. But we reached a point where they opened to us and they were really frank and this is something we appreciated a lot. It is not to take for granted that we will receive constructive self-criticism about an organisation’s activities, what’s working or not, what they are doing wrong as representatives of big-scale programmes or international NGOs. It is not easy for them to admit their approaches are not meeting the needs and expectations of their recipients. In order to have an organisation’s representative opening up to a point of being self-reflective, it means that you have established a ground of mutual trust, which takes time. And here comes another important aspect of our research: we were not there as enemies, to reveal the wrong-doings, grab the findings and publish a report that will make the organisations look terrible, nothing like that. We were there to support their efforts and provide potential recommendations. Our goal was to understand what is not working and why, and how we can contribute as researchers towards making things more inclusive, participatory, and meaningful for the actual beneficiaries.


4)During the panel discussion in the Culture Open Source Forum 2017, you had the opportunity to discuss some of your findings together with the other two LPMs teams. Your insight was very interesting and sometimes quite pessimistic regarding the engagement of the refugee community in cultural initiatives, or at least quite negative in the current use of participatory practices.
Is this a result you were expecting? What finding was the most negatively surprising for you? Did you manage to understand the root causes for it?

Martha: “We had some evidence that what we call participatory approach on the ground is not working. We know the local scene, we know that the programmes are not designed with the participation of the refugee community, are not tested before going on air by refugee recipients, so refugees are limited to the last part of the process, as people receiving the activities. We knew that this was the case in the context of Thessaloniki, but we didn’t know the details and what are the key factors that are leading to this situation. We came somehow prepared to discover the reasons ‘why this is not happening’.”

Mietta: “The funding aspect also came out a lot. Funding is not disseminated to organisations with participatory approaches in mind. So, if you are a grassroots organisation you have to go to a larger organisation with a lot of money and say exactly what you want to do with their money and how. At that point how can you make it participatory? We saw people that are given money to do really oddly specific things like cupcake decorating, things that people weren’t attending anymore. The organisations kind of feel they are bound to who they answer to funding-wise. This was one element that kept coming out in all our meetings.”

Martina: “There are also other realistic factors that are there, regardless of the financial conditions, such as the diversity of the refugee population, the very different needs and expectations of a whole community often considered as a single target group. Also, the lack of stability in a place: we are talking about people that move to different countries and cities and it is quite difficult to plan long-term. Last, the human resources available in the NGO sector. All these different elements influence the design and implementation of a programme.”

Mietta: “I definitely think that the methodology of this research is relevant to a lot of other European cities, I think though as well that the socio-political and financial situation of Greece shouldn’t be ignored. And it shouldn’t be ignored that a lot of refugees did not reach their ideal kind of final destination. So as diverse the refugee population is, also the “reception” population is, the host countries have diverse problems. All this obviously doesn’t foster a positive communication.”

Martha: “See it as a vicious circle that needs to be broken: what we have here as a fact is a lack of engagement when it comes to programmes for refugee communities. This means that the non-engagement in the design phase of the programmes, ends up in programmes that are not tailored to the community needs and expectations. And therefore, this ends up in low levels of attendance of the refugee community, and this low attendance ends up in zero opportunities to further develop the programmes according to the community needs and so on and so forth. So, we need to find the right point in this circle where we can interfere and take it from scratch, start developing the activities.”

5)Did you find any organisation or any particular best practice, on a positive note, that manages to break this circle somehow, and how?

Martha: “That is a very interesting and provocative question! I will refer to something brought up by NGO people themselves: they told us that the highest level of engagement and participation was in the field of food, in shared spaces of community experience through food culture, where people were confident and really happy to prepare dishes and share their cultural traditions. This created an opportunity for a cross-population community to join the table and occupy a shared space of non-imposed interaction. To me this says a lot about the critical factor of imposing things on our target populations. When you are creating and designing something and giving this away to the “beneficiaries”, they will most probably receive it as something alien, something they are obliged to get along with. But in the context of food sharing, this was not the case because people could organically jump into this process there was nothing pre-fixed, it was just an opportunity available for a shared space for everyone to come in and enjoy”

Mietta: “I guess something like food is much more important in cultural sharing than we think. I live in Australia, a very multi-cultural county, I come from a migrant background, migrant family, and it’s food what brings people together and stops people from saying crazy racist things. It sounds silly but it totally makes sense to me coming from a multi-cultural intercontinental community.”

Martina: “Food is what makes you human to the eyes of the other, especially when you find similar tastes or similar recipes in another culture, or something that brings up a memory, it makes you bond. It is a way to spark a conversation, to share memories, so it makes it easier to bond.”

6)I found very interesting what Martha said about a free shared space, so not just food as the ultimate goal but as a way to avoid imposing a prefixed programme but creating a space for dialogue, storytelling, sharing. And I guess this is what we can take as a more general and applicable finding here.

Martha: “Definitely! And also, food is a space to re-gain normality, being a ritual of everyday life. I feel we don’t need prefixed programmes to “empower vulnerable communities” and all these pompous buzzwords, which in many cases are not meeting the expectations and actual needs of the communities, because these programmes come with pre-assumptions. I feel we just need to create spaces of normality. Many refugees I have spoken with told me clearly ‘I don’t need your expertise, your intellectual sophisticated approach. Just allow me to regain my dignity through normality.”

7)Do you think that your research method can be applied to other communities? What can we learn from your findings in terms of a more general community engagement in cultural initiatives?

Martina: “The preparatory phase for sure, as it focuses mostly on the perception of our focus group, the approach, the attention to the diversity of our focus group, the time that we spend in the field, the familiarisation with it, the ability to gain the trust of our community. These are aspects that for sure could be customised for different communities.”

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