Globally connected, locally engaged: Building bridges between Syrian refugees and host societies

"I am so humbled to be part of this initiative, humbled by all of you being so positive and active after all you have been through," I tell a fellow Syrian now based in Turkey. His response strikes me. "Thank you for not forgetting about us and the homeland. It is great to see that you are so passionate about Syria, even though you were born abroad."

Earlier this month, a number of Syrians displaced by the conflict and now living in neighbouring countries and Europe gathered in Lebanon – which is home to over 1.1 million Syrian refugees – to reconnect and plan how to build trust and understanding between refugees and their new host communities in an initiative supported by the British Council. Members of the Livia Foundation and the Danish Centre for Conflict Resolution were also present.

Most of the refugees were already active to varying degrees inside Syria before and during the war, organising workshops, facilitating trainings and developing community initiatives that focused on building resilience to conflict at a grassroots level. Forced to endure and eventually flee the violence in Syria, they now find themselves eager to continue their work in their new countries, including Denmark, the Netherlands, Germany, Lebanon and Turkey.

The workshop had two objectives: to create a Globally Connected network of support between Syrians in diaspora and host communities, and to develop approaches for building trust and understanding between these groups.

Being a Syrian who was born and raised in Austria, living in between two worlds has always been my reality. Getting the opportunity to sit and unpack this with more recent diaspora members brought out the most emotional, genuine and passionate debates.

The majority of Syrians involved in the workshop had left their country within the last three years. They are already speaking or learning the language of their host country, be it German, Dutch or Turkish, and they show signs of feeling culturally attached to their new home.

During the workshop, a number of presentations were held about the situation of refugees in different host countries, including specific social, legal and economic issues linked to the refugee presence and the main challenges they are currently facing.

An informal setup encouraged participants to share traditional treats from their host societies. Turkish participants offered black tea and a Turkish welcome, while those coming from Denmark offered liquorice sweets. The sense of pride in representing our respective host countries was obvious. Similarly, participants’ strong cultural attachment to Syria became apparent during lunch breaks, when we enjoyed home-cooked Syrian food, and regional variations of the dishes were hotly debated.

During the workshop, everyone shared a strong sense of social responsibility. Many observed that Syrian refugees were either becoming more isolated and conservative in their new host communities, or they wished to completely give up their Syrian identity. The necessity of creating options to support a more moderate ‘middle way’ was deemed crucial for fostering positive social development and cohesion between European host societies and newcomers.

The workshop was therefore very action-oriented, with a focus on expanding the Globally Connected network and challenging current negative narratives about Syrian refugees in host countries. Globally Connected activities will include Active Citizens, which is a social leadership programme led by the British Council that promotes intercultural dialogue and community-led social development.

The question of how to identify, recruit and involve community members in these initiatives, and how best to facilitate and sustain them, was discussed. Other questions revolved around conflict sensitivity, for example how to work in communities where a high level of political, social and cultural tensions exist, and how to encourage a sense of citizenship for the Syrian diaspora given the legal, social and political challenges.

One proposed solution was to involve the Syrian and Arab diasporas that have long been settled in the host communities, as many are already directly or indirectly involved in supporting newcomers. They represent natural bridge-makers but are also strongly affected by the growing right-wing political sentiment across Europe.

The positive energy, readiness and urgent need to work on issues of social inclusion between Syrian diaspora and host societies means that a number of innovative initiatives will – and must – surely be implemented sooner rather than later.

You can find out more about International Alert's work in Syria here. For more on how we support the Syrian diaspora in the UK, read about the Syrian Platform for Peace.