“It is not about either basic needs OR social integration. These two are parallel processes that can help one another”, says Mari Bjerck, researcher at Eastern Norway Research Institute and involved in SIMRAs Innovation Action (IA) in the rural area of Gudbrandsdalen, Norway.
Recently Bjerck presented SIMRA and the Norwegian IA at Social Innovation for Refugee Inclusion: A Sense of Home conference at the European Economic and Social Committee in Brussels.
The conferences theme of refugee inclusion intended to explore how innovations in living situations promote community-driven inclusion, overcoming divisions, facilitating economic opportunities, and fostering a sense of ‘home’.
SIMRAs aim to advance understanding of social innovation and innovative governance in rural development fits in here.
Bjerck presented the Norwegian project and participated in a panel on innovative cities and rural communities working on refugee inclusion.
About the IA
“In the IA we support a local branch of Norways biggest outdoor activities organisation called The Norwegian Trekking Association (DNT). This local branch is in process of implementing a social innovation that involves bridging the gap between the local community and newly settled refugees through arranging hikes, activities and trips, and such hoping to build social networks and cultural capital”, Bjerck explains.
The larger aim of this innovation action is to contribute to local development and maintain or even increase the population level, in addition trying to improve the mental and physical health of the complete rural community.
So far, social innovation for refugee inclusion has been a mostly urban phenomenon. What does it need to ‘go rural’ successfully?
SIMRAs IA only started last year but Bjerck already can mention adjustments in order to correspond with its rural context. In rural areas, the focus for example is more on social networking then on the health aspect of getting out in nature.
Bjerck and her colleague had to involve the municipality to a greater deal than in urban areas, in order to reach out to the refugees. They also aim to get the IA implemented in the obliged training program that refugees with a residence permit to Norway have to join. This could nudge the refugees into engaging with local municipalities through hikes.
The two researchers soon found out support of municipality also is essential in knowing how to handle the initiatives that come from civil society.
“In Norway, integration programmes have a local component that can be organised by municipalities, focussing on activities specific to that area”, explains Bjerck.
Yet, communities also struggle to fill basic needs such as providing housing and jobs.
Civil society can help to push or nudge social inclusion and networking in order to get jobs or create labour. “In rural areas in Norway refugees and migrants need to create their own jobs as there aren’t any jobs they can just slot into”, Bjerck says.
Advantages and challenges
Many refugees settled in rural areas may have a rural background and have both intuitive and learned knowledge of working and living in these areas. Another fact is that Norways rural areas need the refugees to even out the population decrease, to decrease the average age and to see the refugees as resources.
Advantage and weakness could be the same thing. It might be easier to recognize and get to know people in a small-scale society that is closely tied together, but it can also be harder to establish a stable social network that makes you feel at home.
Bjerck: “Civil society organisations could help to assist people in interacting with those you may not normally interact with. As for the Norwegians: it may be easier to get to know each other while walking, skiing and hiking”.
Changing the narrative
So what about showing what is possible and changing the narrative of refugees?
Bjerck: “Many projects aiming for refugee inclusion do not explicitly try to change the narrative. Yet, a more positive narrative often is an unforeseen consequence of successful projects.” The best way to change a negative narrative of refugees is to make sure that people meet people and make connections to each other.
Key takeaways of the conference will be compiled in a post-conference report, and in addition the rich discussions and perspectives from the conference will inform a larger MPI Europe report on social innovation for refugee inclusion, which will be released in the coming months.