“YMCA has always taken care of those who have wanted to start a new future and needed support. And the vast majority of those on the move are young people,” said YMCA Europe President Emma Osmundsen at a global conference on YMCA work with refugees and migrants held on Friday 19 February 2021.
Almost 100 participants from 26 countries joined the session, with special focus on the 57 YMCA projects currently being run by 15 YMCA National Movements in Europe.
The conference was moderated by Ed Eggink, Chair of the YMCA Europe Working Group on Refugees, and Juan Simoes Iglesias, Secretary-General YMCA Europe.
Session 1: “The European and global context and the role of Youth organisations”
Margaritis Schinas, Vice-President of the European Commission responsible for coordinating the European Union Pact on Migration and Asylum, reminded the conference that the Union continues to seek a fully comprehensive and holistic solution to the management of migration, and underlined the importance of finding a solution based on solidarity and the responsibility of burden sharing.
He said that: “Integration is ultimately always local: it happens at the level of a local community, a village or a city, and this is why organisations like the YMCA are vital in playing this role and helping us out with specific measures on inclusion and integration”.
“Inclusion and integration are a two-way street”, he said. “As much as we Europeans have a duty to refugees and asylum seekers, equally it is their responsibility to harvest these opportunities, to benefit from these possibilities, and to integrate into our societies.”
He added: “The European Union is more than anything a union: we live like a family. We must strike partnerships with countries of origin and transit that are win-win for all, and based on equality.”
Antonio Vitorino, Director General of the International Organisation for Migration of the United Nations, focused specifically on young people, highlighting those who return to their homes: “We know that many young migrants return every year to their countries of origin, bringing new skills, knowledge, ideas. It is important to listen and to give space to the youth perspective on reintegration. It is important to support young people who decide to return to become positive agents of change in their countries of origin”.
Carlos Sanvee, Secretary General of the World YMCA, charted the history of YMCA support for prisoners of war which evolved to become support for refugees all over the world. He said: “YMCA has always cared for refugees and migrants, and always will. In early 2020, we established a worldwide ‘Community of Impact’ on Refugees and Migrants, aiming to establish a shared vision statement, common objectives and working structures to advance global coordination, communications, programme and advocacy work on behalf of refugees, migrants, and new immigrant populations across the globe.”
He made a heartfelt plea towards Europe and Europeans to respect the dignity and humanity of those trying to seek a better life on the continent. “Most of the world has suffered the inconvenience of lockdown for a year now. For many migrants and refugees, ‘lockdown’ is their fate for years on end.”
Session 2: “Practical experiences with integration projects by the YMCA”
Lynda Gonzales-Chavez, Senior Vice President and Chief Diversity Officer at YMCA USA, addressed racism and discrimination in the US. “These last four years have left animosity towards immigrants, and misinformation which has demonized our newcomers. We have had to address racist, nationalistic and xenophobic language and issues that we are still dealing with. We must shift our narrative. We now have the opportunity to build bridges rather than walls. We need to address systemic racism. To achieve reconciliation, we need to address our past to build a promising future”.
Dolores Tarrafeta, Refugee Programs Officer at YMCA Thessaloniki in Greece, shared some insights of their DIAdrasis project. While children, coming from both refugee and local families, were playing together once a week at the YMCA premises, the parents started to make connections in the waiting room. “We provided the ingredients: a safe environment, tea and biscuits, and regularity… Step by step, their perception of the other changed, and even the language barrier disappeared. I truly believe that we reduced prejudice through interaction.”
Juan Simoes Iglesias led a panel where four YMCA offices spoke about their work, success and struggles.
Charlotte Faure, from YMCA Le Rocheton in France, highlighted the difficulties faced by newcomers: “We ask a lot of them: they have many appointments, they have to understand many new things. The psychological burden is heavy, as many face administrative procedures and deadlines.”
Maja Halmen, from YMCA Nürnberg in Germany, called for more integration: “Let us not reduce people to their refugees status. We have to be intentional in including them in our activities. We think that we know the solution, but actually we have to listen to them: they can express their needs.”
Pedro Fueyo, National General Secretary of YMCA Spain, explained its four programmes: “We run a residence for refugees; another one for migrants who are minors; activities for families and kids; and a component on Communications and Advocacy”. He shared how fake news spread in social media, for instance with false claims that refugees get many social benefits from the government.
Monika Ciok-Giertuga, from YMCA North Down in Ireland, emphasised how important it is for refugees to maintain their culture and language: “We want them to have new skills, but also to have roots and history. This is why we also held classes in their native language to teach History and Geography.”
Session 3: “Next steps”
Juan Simoes Iglesias concluded: “We are now developing our New Strategic Direction amongst YMCA National secretaries in Europe, which should be adopted in May. Key to it are the four Rs: Relevance, at local, national and regional level; Representation (especially to European and International institutions); Relationship, which highlights our approach to our new neighbours; and Resilience, about our capacity to be here and in the future.
Rachael Rinaldo, Senior Director, New Americans Initiative & Global Partnerships at YMCA of Greater New York, discussed the World YMCA Community of Impact on Refugees and Migrants which she leads: “The World YMCA recognizes the tremendous changes facing refugees, migrants and asylum seekers and internally displaced persons. She set out the challenges of unemployment, language, cultural and religious barriers, racism and xenophobia, family separation, lack of opportunities. The YMCA Community of Impact will engage YMCA leaders all over the world to strengthen our collective impact: mapping refugees and migrants projects across the Movement; supporting peer to peer exchange and learning; using design thinking methods to increase the impact of existing projects, and addressing gaps and challenges.”
During the various sessions, many speakers raised the current challenge which refugees, migrants and asylum seekers are facing: the access to the COVID-19 vaccine.
The event ended with ‘open spaces’ and discussion of funding opportunities.
Full recording of the event
Many moving and powerful testimonies were shared by refugees and migrants supported by YMCA.