Integration removes the barrier

Cultural orientation and language classes go a long way in making migrants less of strangers

British Olympic champion Mo Farah
British Olympic champion Mo Farah

How would you cope if you were thrust into an environment where chaos and injustice re the order of the day?

Have you ever asked yourself how someone who has never seen a society with a justice system is supposed to adapt to that all over sudden?

Africa tends to be stereotyped as a landmass that is home to ‘savages’. Over the years, the media has painted a picture of war, hunger, natural calamities like floods and drought, and disease among many other negatives. And while to some extent this is the case, the fact that Africa has a developed face to it is more often than not tends to be overlooked.

I can attest to the social divide in the continent where slums and skyscrapers coexist next to each other. I grew up in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi, a city famous for being the only capital in the world next to a natural wildlife reserve that draws millions of tourists to the city and the country in general annually.

The interesting fact though is that Nairobi is a clear portrait of the gap between the rich and the poor in Africa. You go to one area in the city and all you see is affluence, while in Kibera, the biggest slum in the continent found in Nairobi, people live on less than a dollar a day. Sadly, this is the picture shown more often than not in international media.

I felt the profiling first-hand when I arrived in Malta, because people would ask me questions like ‘How come you are from Somalia and you speak perfect English?’ or ‘How come you are from Somalia and you are educated?’, and ‘How come you are from Africa and you know all these things?’

When you say the word ‘refugee’ to the ordinary man and woman walking the street, there is a stereotype that already comes with the word: black, arriving undocumented by boat, dependent on our taxes, uneducated, uncivilized, etc... Every time I walk into a shop, for example, I see eyebrows being raised. I can read the questions they are asking in their heads through their eyes: “Is he going to steal something… can he afford to walk into this high-end shop?”

My native Somalia has been engulfed by civil war since 1991,when the government of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre was ousted. Since then, the country has been held ransom by one political outfit or the other. This has paved the way for the deterioration of the social and economic fabric of the country. Somalia used to be a food basket but since the war started, people dying of hunger has become a thing of the norm. The Central Bank there collapsed, leaving the economic environment of the country in shambles. Today the Somali shilling’s value has been so eroded, that people carry it in big bags to shop for necessities like milk. Generations are being caught up in the cycle of poverty making it even harder to break.

I consider myself among the lucky few Somalis who are privileged to have seen first-hand the benefits of law and order, having grown up in Kenya.

Most Somalis that make the decision to flee the country due to the chaos and make it to the shores of the developed world like Malta, have no idea of the culture shock they are about to find themselves in. The war in Somalia over the years has moved from tribal to religious extremist, with groups like the Al-Shabaab that are affiliated to the terrorist Al-Qaeda quickly amassing power. This has led to a whole generation that is uneducated and sees fighting as the only means to conflict resolution.

But some services that are ordinary to you, are extraordinary to someone coming directly from a warzone. Things like traffic lights appear to be a foreign idea, when someone who is not used to them is expected to make use of them as a safe means to crossing roads. This came out clearly when a young Somali refugee lost his life recently near the Marsa footbridge. He was involved in a fatal car accident when he was hit by a vehicle as he was crossing on foot at the tarmac, instead of using the bridge.

Countries like the United States have a cultural orientation programme that gives refugees who have qualified to be resettled there an insight into American culture. This is done to insulate the refugees from cultural shocks upon arrival. It would be highly beneficial if Malta could take a leaf out of the American book, and offer this to new arrivals while in detention as they wait for their asylum claims to clear.

Education is the other option that can unlock peoples minds. Some NGOs and the authorities are already on the ground with free English classes. This aims to help migrants break the language barrier, in order to move to mainstream institutions like MCAST.

A lot of work needs to be done though to cleanse segregation from learning institutions. A recent research carried out by KSU had stressed the importance of closing the social divide between migrants and the Maltese. The research also showed students’ views of migrants, and although most of it was positive, more needs to be done to completely clear out stereotypes.3 9% of the participants had a problem with having an immigrant as a neighbour. 74% called for further integration of migrants in Maltese society. In total, more than 400 students took part in the research.

There is a lot of potential in migrants especially in the technical field. If given the necessary know-how, migrants can contribute to sectors like agriculture, increasing food security and generating income. This would change the ‘migrants are a burden’ picture painted in most minds.

As examples have shown, proper integration can be highly beneficial to both parties if implemented. The UK celebrated a gold medal at the 2012 London Olympics courtesy of Mo Farah, when he won the 10,000m race. Mo Farah is a Somali-born immigrant that moved to the UK, and managed to integrate. If given the opportunity, migrants can bring Malta its first gold medal from the Olympics.

Only recently a refugee won the Malta half-marathon, proving that this is not a far-fetched dream. Ibrahim Hussen Ahmed is a 25-year old born in Sudan to Eritrean parents. He fled Sudan for Libya in 2012 where he took a dinghy to Malta. He recalls dreaming of making it big in athletics from a very young age. He lists running sensations like Ethiopian Olympian Kenenisa Bekele as his icon.

Since coming to Malta he has scooped the 2012-2013 Malta Amateur Athletics Association Road Running League apart from winning the half-marathon. He looks forward to a bright future even though his hopes of making it to big events like the Olympics are limited by the fact that he is not a citizen of any country.

Eritrea does not recognise him as a citizen because he was not born there, while Sudan refused to grant him citizenship because his parents are not Sudanese.

His hopes lie with Malta. But with its tight citizenship laws new challenges are raised.