‘We can create a win-win situation’ | Hourie Tafech & Mohamed Hassan

Immigration is not all necessarily about tensions and conflict. A new student organisation, SPARK-15, aims to change public perceptions by emphasising the social and economic benefits of integration. Founding members Hourie Tafech (president) and Mohamed Hassan explain why a new NGO was needed

Hourie Tafech and Mohamed Hassan. Photo: James Bianchi
Hourie Tafech and Mohamed Hassan. Photo: James Bianchi

There is a tendency – in Malta as elsewhere – to only ever discuss ‘immigration’ from a purely polemical point of view. The word itself seems to have become intrinsically associated with controversy: ‘immigration’ repeatedly shows up in the Top 10 list of major public concerns... even though there is an effective national drive under way to attract as many new residents as possible. Malta dished out a record number of passports to (paying) foreigners last year.

That, too, constitutes the broader tableau of ‘immigration’ in the Maltese scenario. And it would probably surprise quite a few people to discover that the more widespread popular perception of ‘immigrant’ – namely, a black African asylum seeker who came here by boat – actually accounts for a small percentage of the total number of foreign residents in Malta today.

Even within that narrow definition, we rarely ever talk about the full scope of the phenomenon. ‘Immigrants’ are invariably portrayed as people who are somehow ‘passing through Malta’: a temporary situation that will one day magically ‘go back to normal’.

As a result, the media only ever really focus on the point of origin of the entire issue. We talk about ‘arrivals’, but rarely look beyond that stage to take in the fact that many of these ‘arrivals’ are now here to stay. Some have been here for well over 10 years.

And some are now attending (or trying to attend) local schools; to apply for jobs... in a word, to take an active part in the community they are now (intentionally or otherwise) part of. 

Huri Tafech – 25, originally from Palestine – and Mohamed Hassan – 23 from Eritrea – are two out of many caught up in that situation. Houri is currently studying for an advanced diploma in Marketing at MCAST. Mohamed is doing a course in Insurance, also at MCAST. Both had to find a way to learn Maltese and (in Mohamed’s case) English; both found themselves facing similar obstacles in pursuit of what is ultimately a very modest, everyday ambition: to receive an education, and find a place of their own in society.

Was it this shared experience that led them to form a student organisation specifically aimed at “encouraging other young refugees to become active participants and agents of inclusive societies in Malta, and beyond”? And if so, what are the specific concerns of young refugees in Malta?

Mohamed: Part of the needs of young refugees is access to education, especially tertiary education. Most of the younger refugees will have been educated [at primary and secondary level], but will not have arrived here with their certificates. So they have a hard time applying for university, and mostly they end up doing work that doesn’t suit them. You can see many 18-year-old Somalis, Syrians or Eritreans working on a construction site, for example; or waiting at the Marsa roundabout to be picked up. They need education, because as my father says, if a nation is not educated it will never move forward.... 

Houri: As Spark 15, we look to act as a reference point for young refugees on this issue. If they need any help to get into university or junior college, we offer assistance. For now, as a first step, we have organised an English language programme for our members, with the help of some lecturers working at the university: namely Dr Giuliana Fenech and Dr Maria Ann Pisani. One of the issues is that you need an IELTS {English language proficiency] qualification to get in. That is one of the major stumbling blocks: It has to be paid for, etc.

I imagine there must also be all sorts of issues regarding the continuation of studies that were disrupted by the migration process itself...

H: Yes. We have one member, for instance, who was a second-year Engineering student in Libya, but the course was in Arabic, and in Malta he had to start again from scratch. Actually from less than that, because you first have to do a foundation course and get a diploma before being accepted at university. Another of our members was a second year Medicine student, and he is now working at McDonalds...

But the real problems start long before getting to the stage of applying for university. At the launch of Spark 15, much emphasis was placed on the lack of clear, existing integration policies. What sort of structure is in place today? What actually happens to refugees from the point of entry into the country?

M: If they are families, they are sent to the Hal Far open centre... the tent village. If they are single, until 2012 they were sent to detention centres. I stayed at the tent village when we first arrived [in 2011]. There were a lot of tents at the time, and many of them were ripped. They all had bunk beds, and in winter, nobody slept in the top bunks. [Laughing] You would get washed as you slept.  As a personal opinion, I think it would be better if they located refugee families in the middle of towns. That way, they would get integrated as quickly as possible...

This brings me to the next obvious question. What SHOULD happen, according to Spark 15? 

H: I think the first thing a refugee needs on arrival is access to good housing; and then, additional training to integrate and to work, so they can benefit the country that hosts them. But if you put them in a corner, neglecting them, then you will start looking at them only as troublemakers. This is something we should try to avoid...

M: For example, many of them aren’t capable of speaking English properly. The lessons they receive are all provided by NGOs; there is nothing structured: in their free time, they go to a class... if they can’t make the next lesson, they don’t. So their English very often remains weak, which then holds them back in every other aspect: education, jobs, and everything else. The same naturally goes for Maltese... I’m not saying it has to be one or the other. But they do need a working language they can use in Malta. 

H: But the issue is that the reception structures are practically non-existent. At present they are relocating refugees from Greece here...

M: And from Italy, too...

H: And when they are arrive, they are told to just go wherever they like. There are no lessons, or programmes for them... so they start searching for NGOs like JRS or Aditus. But it’s not the way. NGOs are there to support what the government is doing. Not to do what government should be doing. If you look at good practice in other countries, such as Sweden: there is a structured integration policy from the moment of arrival. They know what courses they must attend, how long before they have to start working and paying taxes

M: ... there is also a fixed number of hours for language lessons: I think it’s 250 hours of mandatory lessons in Sweden. And everybody is willing to do their part. I am talking on the Maltese side as well. There is the will to do this, but no action. 

H: It’s for the benefit of Malta, ultimately. It’s not just the immigrant who will benefit: once these people are in a position to give back to the country: to pay taxes, not to have to be supported... everyone would benefit from that.   The stability of refugees and the stability of the country are related. If we are causing instability in refugee communities, that will affect the stability of the country. They are here now: we have to deal with it. Some people can’t deal with it, because they only look at the negative side. We understand there is a negative side, but there is much more to it than that.

On the subject of the negative side: among the arguments raised is that immigration tends to dilute a country’s sense of cultural identity. We see this even in the ongoing polemic about Islam in State schools. 

H: For me, personally, I don’t agree with the teaching of Islam in church schools. I’m a Muslim, but I know it’s not a good idea so I can’t support it. I feel it’s a distraction from more important issues.

M: [nodding] There are much bigger things to worry about. There are people who have been here a long time, and are willing to integrate and contribute.... show them they are welcome, and they will boost the economy of this country. They will do a lot of stuff. But we end up talking about Islam in schools. It is detracting attention from the bigger issues...

Fair enough, but how would they respond to the concern that immigration represents a threat to a country’s identity? 

H: For me, if you had to look at it from a rational perspective: in all Europe, the percentage of refugee arrivals is 1.6%. If this 1.6% is going to change the culture of the remaining 98.4%, we are in very big trouble. Migration is not new: it’s a process that’s been going on for centuries. Each country has conserved its culture till now, so I can’t imagine how this 1.6% is going to alter the whole continent...

All the same, migration has had an impact on host communities in the past. In many parts of Europe (arguably in Malta, too) there are concerns with ghettoisation: occasionally these tensions spill over into riots, public unrest, etc...

H: But that comes from lack of integration... and the way of dealing with those people. Because there is no integration, they don’t feel part of the community.  But I personally feel that countries need immigration, whether they realise it or not.... or whether they admit to it or not, because they want to please their citizens. The reality is that they are in need. If you look at the baby-boomer issue, it raises questions on the sustainability of pensions. In Malta the ratio is 1:4. Four people have to work to pay for one. And in time it can only increase. Migration can play a part in solving this issue. Yesterday, I was at the Prime Minister’s public dialogue meeting, and he was asked a question about pensions. He, too, said we had to look towards migration for a solution...

To do that, one would presumably have to start thinking of an integration policy. How would Spark 15 set about planning one if it were given the task? What would Houri and Mohamed propose?

H: When talking about integration, there are many sub-headings. Education, employment, documentation, healthcare... the list goes on. Each section should be tackled based on the situations that people are facing on the ground: not on what is on paper. Sometimes there is need for the government to take into consideration what the NGOs are doing. Because they are always looking at them like they are the enemy. But in reality, if you look closely at what the NGOs are doing, they are better than government because they are the ones working hands-on at ground level...

M:  But first, I would tear down all the fences around the camps, and relocate them to the centre of towns. Remove anything that isolates refugees from the rest of the community. Marsa is a good example. Some of the people there have been there for 15 or 16 years. Last year, Haji died under a bridge. He had been here for a long time: he was one of the first groups who had arrived. And he died under a bridge. People are being isolated, and that is what will create ghettos. I don’t think it’s a good idea to go to Marsa after midnight, especially Aldo Moro street. You can see a lot of Maltese youngsters, and other nationalities, who go there and throw stones at the residents. Or bottles, eggs... I’ve experienced that once. Some of my friends who lives in the open centre experiences it every day, especially walking back home at night. They always take the longest way to avoid the main street. This creates resentment and anger....

H: None of this is necessary. With a proper integration strategy, we can create a win-win situation. Refugees will be empowered to get an education, to work and pay taxes, and the country will benefit from their input. But if we do the opposite, if we push them into the corner and ignore them... no one will benefit from that.

As one of its first public activities, Spark-15 is organising a football tournament to be held at MCAST on 29 April. Interested parties are invited to send an email to sparkfif@gmail.com.

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