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In 2013, for the first time since the Second World War, the United Nations reported that the number of displaced people worldwide exceeded fifty million. In 2017 asylum seekers and refugees fleeing from conflict are still inundating the borders of neighbouring countries in unprecedented numbers, and risking their lives to traverse the seas in search of a safe place to raise their families. This rise in global displacement has become known as the ‘refugee crisis’.

Whilst the term ‘crisis’ does well to depict the magnitude of global forced migration and the urgency in which the world needs to address diverse causes of and solutions to displacement, it also lends itself to an air of overwhelming panic, which is problematic when linked solely to refugees. Refugees are not the problem. They are the consequence of far deeper sociopolitical crises which remain unaddressed. Instead of working together to address these root causes, and in the meantime trying to accommodate refugees, many countries are fueling conflict, engaging in warfare, closing borders, building walls, and excluding those who have nowhere else to turn. Thus, what we are experiencing is not a refugee crisis but rather a humanitarian crisis, which we, as global citizens, all have a responsibility to resolve.

Amidst this humanitarian crisis, government, media, and social rhetoric have at times perpetuated misinformation and negative refugee stereotypes, resulting in refugees being homogeneously labelled as illegitimate, illegal, and a threat to national security. These labels are problematic as members of resettlement nations are building a skewed perspective of refugees, which is leading to discriminatory practices within processes of social integration. To explore effective ways to counteract negative stereotypes and enhance equitable social outcomes for refugees resettling in New Zealand, I facilitated a community painting project in Wellington city.

Amber Kale Mural Image

Source: Painted by the participants in the Wellington painting project, 2016.

The project aimed to create a space and a process for diverse Wellington residents to interact, share their experiences, and learn from one another.Eight participants were involved: Five from the host-society (defined as long-term residents) and three whom identified as former refugees (the term ‘former’ is used as these individuals are now New Zealand permanent residents or citizens).

Participants worked together to represent experiences of home and belonging in a collective mural. Whilst the diverse experiences that participants shared depicted the uniqueness of each individual and the complexity of their interwoven histories, identities, affiliations, and beliefs, there were also striking similarities in the feelings and emotions that their experiences evoked. For example, former refugees who had to leave their homes due to conflict, and New Zealanders who felt that their cities had changed around them both felt a sense of displacement and loss. Recognising similar emotions in one another enabled individuals from different backgrounds to connect through an empathic understanding which transcended language and cultural barriers and closed the perceived distance between ‘us’ and ‘them’. Thus, the opportunity to talk with people who have actually experienced being a refugee can augment, ground, and shift media constructed representations.

Participants also reported feeling more connected to one another through participating in a shared experience which they could talk about outside of the research spaces, through finding common interests, or through making future plans together. In this manner, participants were practicing ‘social citizenship’, whereby they were reaching out and supporting one another as equal and valued citizens and enjoying one another’s company. These social connections are important as research shows that individuals who are more socially connected are happier, and that happier people are more trusting of others and more likely to volunteer and contribute to society.

Due to emotional and social connections playing a central role in participants’ experiences of home and belonging and the development of cross-cultural relationships, I argue that frameworks of emotional and social citizenship need to be prioritised within processes of former refugee and host-society integration. The responsibility should not fall upon refugees to simply ‘fit in’ to a potentially hostile host country. It is up to all of us, as individuals, to work together to create societies that we are proud to be a part of, where we feel safe, and where we have the opportunities, resources, and support that we need to grow. By striving to enhance social networks and cross-cultural interaction, host societies can assist former refugees and other marginalised groups to participate in and contribute to society, in communities which are welcoming, confident employing people with diverse ethnic and cultural identities, and not adverse to diversity, innovation, and change.

For those who are willing to take action to make their communities more welcoming and accepting of diversity, participatory projects like the painting project offer a way for individuals to bridge diverse communities and to work together to share knowledge and experiences, deconstruct negative stereotypes, and contribute to a more amicable world.

The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Royal Commonwealth Society.