Cities Can Help Refugees Simply By Enabling Citizens To Be Empathetic

Despite vocal anti-refugee sentiment from politicians, when given the chance, many people will step up to help new members of their community.

Cities Can Help Refugees Simply By Enabling Citizens To Be Empathetic
[Photo: Astrid Riecken/Getty Images]

Earlier this year, as the German city of Hamburg struggled to find homes for its huge influx of refugees, many of them from Syria, it turned to its residents. In its HafenCity University, it built a big interactive model of the whole city and asked people to come and point out places in their neighborhood where they could fit in more shelters.

This is no gimmick: the project is supposed to find homes for 20,000 people. The residents put down Lego bricks to represent shelters and the model calls up the relevant planning information for that spot, as well as displaying what that would mean for the total number of shelters in the neighborhood and the city as a whole.

Anselm Sprandel, the head of the Hamburg’s refugee efforts, told Apolitical, “The great thing about it is first of all that they’ve made interesting suggestions–we’ve had 160 and we’re acting on 20–and also that the residents can see for once how complicated the planning business is.”

[Photo: Robert Katzki via Unsplash]

Some 1.1 million refugees have arrived in Germany since the start of last year, nearly 10 times as many as have been accepted by the United States even though the U.S. population is four times as large. Germany has taken in 40 times as many refugees per capita as the U.S. This is part of why The New York Times heralded German chancellor Angela Merkel, who has announced she will stand for a fourth term in office, as “the liberal West’s last defender.” (Britain, which has a population slightly smaller than Germany’s, is accepting 20,000 Syrians over five years, about the same number as would fill 25% of Manchester United’s soccer stadium.)

What has allowed German cities to cope with such a rush of people is the spontaneous help provided by volunteers, and the decision by government to work together with its citizens. A Brookings study found one permanent shelter in Hamburg that had 140 volunteers for 190 refugees.

Sprandel told Apolitical: “I’ll go to visit a shelter and it turns out I’m interrupting because volunteers from the neighborhood are giving German lessons. And then I’ll go out onto the playground and see adults looking after the children playing there and, when I ask who it is, I’ll be told those are volunteers from the neighborhood. We sometimes get called up by people saying, ‘We’re an initiative from this or that part of the city. When are you finally going to open a shelter here? We’ve all been waiting and want to help.'”

There has been a backlash, too: Merkel’s poll numbers have slumped, her own party has muttered against her and there has been an uptick in activity from the far right.

Nevertheless, the success stories show that the way to make a city good at accepting refugees is to get its residents to help–and make it work for them, too.

In Canada, around a third of the 36,000 Syrians who’ve arrived in the past year have been privately sponsored. That means groups of Canadians have promised to financially support them until they become independent. The Canadians also help the refugees with the things that make moving to a new country so difficult: finding an apartment, finding work, understanding all the forms and paperwork, getting a school and health care for your kids.

After the government announced that people could sponsor refugees like this, it was so deluged with sponsors that it ran out of refugees to allocate to them. And–surprise–officials have found that privately sponsored refugees integrate faster than those who don’t have that support.

In the U.S., too, efforts to make cities better at taking in new arrivals have concentrated on getting them up close and personal with the people already living in them. Dayton, Ohio, for example, runs a welcome program which pairs immigrant children with local kids at school and hosts community events at which immigrants share their personal stories with their new neighbors.

“It’s really all about building relationships,” Melissa Bertolo, who runs the program, says. “The way for high school students to truly be integrated into America is by having American friends. And for Americans to really understand why people are immigrating, they have to have friends from somewhere else. A lot of it comes simply through exposure and getting to know someone else. I find that people respond very, very well.”

[Photo: Robert Katzki via Unsplash]

And it’s no small program either: Dayton’s foreign-born population jumped 62% between 2009 and 2014, astonishing for a Rust Belt city whose population had been in decline for 50 years.

In the Netherlands, this kind of close integration is going even further: young refugees are being housed together with Dutch students. A joint housing complex in Amsterdam caters to 500 people under the age of 28 and the two groups not only get a “buddy” from the other culture but are jointly responsible for maintaining the buildings and grounds.

Governments have tended to fear that those already living in their towns and cities would not want a refugee moving in next door. Perhaps they should give their own people more of a chance.

Alexander Starritt is the editor of Apolitical.


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