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“No to Xenophobia”: the Twitter Community Speaks Up

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On May 10th, the Spanish newspaper El País published an online article titled Twitter, al Rescate del Sueño de Mandela (Twitter to the Rescue of the Mandela Dream) depicting the efforts of the Twitter communityto raise its voice against hate crimes in South Africa. Solidarity and social cohesion became loud and clear after South Africa

“My Synagogue is your Synagogue”: Muslim caretakers in India

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Photo: The Jews in Kolkata came from Baghdad about 220 years ago [Priyanka Borpujari/Al Jazeera] Could you imagine a deeply religious person in the service of an alien-faith institution, say a Buddhist taking care of an abandoned Christian Church? Well, you can now not only imagine it but also believe it. Al Jazeera’s article about

Diversity Schools in Georgia

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The Diversity School is an educational program implemented by the NGO Iris Group in Georgia in the South Caucasus.  It offers young activists a platform of capacity building and ideas execution. The program strives for a pluralistic society “focusing on educating young people to give them the knowledge, skills, attitudes and values necessary to strengthen

Foreign Migrants in Johannesburg

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On May 7, the book titled “Healing communities, transforming society: Exploring the interconnectedness between psycho-social needs, practice and peace-building” was launched in Johannesburg, South Africa. This publication was written by Professor Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela from the University of the Free State in South Africa, Dr. Ingrid Palmary from the African Center for Migration and Society and

Housing and Social Cohesion in Singapore

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On February 26, speaking at the inaugural Real Estate Developers’ Association of Singapore mentorship program for students, Mr. Chan Chun Sing, Minister for Social and Family Development said that “While the Government might build flats, achieving the aim of greater mixing across social divides called for more than this, as it entails people being willing

“No to Xenophobia”: the Twitter Community Speaks Up

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On May 10th, the Spanish newspaper El País published an online article titled Twitter, al Rescate del Sueño de Mandela (Twitter to the Rescue of the Mandela Dream) depicting the efforts of the Twitter communityto raise its voice against hate crimes in South Africa.

Solidarity and social cohesion became loud and clear after South Africa and the international community turned to Twitter to take a stand regarding the latest outbreaks of violence, which specifically targeted immigrants in South Africa mostly from Mozambique, Zimbabue, Malawi and Ethiopia. The most recent outbreaks, fueled by xenophobic sentiments, began in March in the city of Durban, but have spread throughout South Africa including Johannesburg. Twitter served as a platform for all those who felt the moral and social duty to speak up against the unfortunate series of violent occurrences. On April 14th, Twitter users started raising their voices and identified their call to social justice and human rights with different hashtags, which quickly caught on among the Twitter users and reached outstanding numbers of supporters. Among the most notable hashtags are #XenophobiaSA which almost reached 100,000  #NoToXenophobia, which surpassed 90,000 #SayNoToXenophobia is around 68,000, while #StopXenophobia has surpassed 38,000. Winnie Mandela, one of the most recognized and important figures of this Twitter movement, expressed her heartfelt sentiments on April 14th, “This is not the freedom that we fought for. I am hearth broken #StopXenophobia. (WM).”

Other media are launching campaigns to do their part to raise consciousness that aims to create social cohesion given that the great majority of the victims are from other parts of Africa. LeadSA is an organization that promotes social progress and justice. Foundation Africa 2.0 launched a campaign at the end of January through social media to reject the wave of violence that Boko Haram has created.

It became apparent that South Africans and the international community, individuals and organizations alike, felt the urge to react against the hate crimes with the aim of creating public awareness and cease the violence. As Nelson Mandela said, “We can build a society grounded on friendship & our common humanity–a society founded on tolerance.”

“My Synagogue is your Synagogue”: Muslim caretakers in India

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Photo: The Jews in Kolkata came from Baghdad about 220 years ago [Priyanka Borpujari/Al Jazeera]

Could you imagine a deeply religious person in the service of an alien-faith institution, say a Buddhist taking care of an abandoned Christian Church? Well, you can now not only imagine it but also believe it. Al Jazeera’s article about the Kolkata Synagogue keepers (“Muslim families look after Kolkata Synagogues”) presents us with a heartening reality for future developments on a Shared Societies path. Just like medieval Spain, in which Muslims, Jews and Christians lived together respecting and learning from one another’s cultures and beliefs, Kolkata in Eastern India- introduces us to a surprising panorama in which several Muslim families and one Hindu, take care of the three synagogues which are the almost abandoned Jewish heritage in their hometown.

The account of faith-based belligerency has spattered many of the pages of history books, with blood spilled in different wars in different times and between different identity groups. Such has been the impact of religions and the competition between them, that many of the conflicts alive or latent nowadays, can mostly be traced back to this kind of controversy: from the Charlie Hebdo attacks to the everlasting Arab-Israeli conflict. Sadly, the testimony of a religious person selflessly minding an institution of a different faith is an odd bird; however it suggests that there may be light at the end of the tunnel.

The caretakers’ accounts are truly hopeful for a comeback to communal coexistence: “My father raised me by working here, and today I have the same job. It is God’s home, and it is my livelihood. I would give my life for this place”. Moreover, they shed an encouraging light on our awareness of the nature of religious wars: “The Quran, the Torah and the Bible have similar origins. How then could we be fighting?”

Living in the Synagogue’s compound and taking care of both the wellbeing and respect for the prayers, as well as acting in the capacity of “on-site” rent collectors for many of the Jewish property owners who have fled, has also provided these people a unique point of view that, if shared and agreed upon by their neighbours and countrymen, could prompt new developments, leading to a Shared Societies reality of peace and communal understanding: “The wars are taking place in other countries. If the Jews had any issues with our religion, they wouldn’t have hired us. Religion has its own place, while we have ours. This is something that we never think of. The Jews respect us and we respect them”

There are still many problems, in which a Shared Societies approach would struggle, as one of the caretakers stated: “Communal coexistence has been common across India and hence we don’t think of it as important. Yet, there is also a problem in becoming conscious about it”; however, their insider view could be vital for a better understanding of events.

Diversity Schools in Georgia

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The Diversity School is an educational program implemented by the NGO Iris Group in Georgia in the South Caucasus.  It offers young activists a platform of capacity building and ideas execution. The program strives for a pluralistic society “focusing on educating young people to give them the knowledge, skills, attitudes and values necessary to strengthen a tolerant Georgian society.”

More specifically, the Diversity School Programme aims to increase the inclusion of minorities while promoting equal opportunities in school and youth employment. On the program’s website the organization stated the main objectives and values, among them:

  • to promote a pluralism of identities enabling members of different social groups in Georgia to better understand each other” and;
  •  “to empower young people to use the potential offered by diversity to shape Georgia’s future as a country with space for a variety of ethnic groups, each possessing a broad range of aspirations and beliefs.

To participate in the Diversity School activities candidates must be aged between 18 and 24, have an affinity with ethnic minority issues, be active in the local community and have an interest in diversity education and youth activism.

The NGO Iris Group was founded in Tbilisi in 2010 as a non-profit and non-governmental organization with a main purpose “to support young people to figure out their potential, use the strength of diversity and contribute to the development of their society by active participation.” Prior to 2012, the activities of Iris Group were mainly focused on the South Caucasus region (Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan). Since then Iris group has started to implement activities in Russia and Turkey working with ethnic minorities and strengthening them to become full members of the society.

Through workshops and specific material the organization provides resources for project management, mentoring, non-formal education and development of Educational Programs in the field of active citizenship. One of these training activities was published in an article in the local newspaper Georgia Today, where one of the participants mentioned that “Diversity School taught me to write, gave me experience as a project manager and taught me to overcome hardships (…).”

As stated in a European Parliament report[1], Georgia is the most ethnically diverse state in the South Caucasus. Its minorities constitute 16% of the population including large Armenian and Azeri minorities, each speaking their own language. Georgians themselves are divided into four separate groups: Georgians proper, Megrelians, Svans and Laz. The report highlighted that minorities are poorly represented in the political system and state structures. In the 150-member Georgian Parliament there are three Armenians and three Azeris. Insufficient knowledge of Georgian, the national working language, among minorities hampers more active participation by them in the decision-making process of the country.

The Diversity School program alludes to one of the fundamental components of Shared Societies Project, the creation of a shared vision of society at local and national level through projects in schools and other institutions in order for young people to think about their society and their place in it and the place for other identity groups. Initiatives such as the project implemented in Georgia encourage young people to envisage a shared society for the future.

The Club de Madrid has had a long interest in Georgia as one of the countries coming out of the Soviet Bloc, and at present is considering a more active involvement to help the government and people to work on diversity issues.



[1] Directorate General for External Policies, European Parliament: “Minorities in the South Caucasus: New visibility amid old frustrations”, June 2014.

 

Foreign Migrants in Johannesburg

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On May 7, the book titled “Healing communities, transforming society: Exploring the interconnectedness between psycho-social needs, practice and peace-building” was launched in Johannesburg, South Africa.

This publication was written by Professor Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela from the University of the Free State in South Africa, Dr. Ingrid Palmary from the African Center for Migration and Society and Professor Brandon Hamber at the International Conflict Research Institute in Northern Ireland. It offers personal reflections about precarious life in the city of Johannesburg for foreign migrants.

According to the book, migrants in Johannesburg are facing “opportunities, challenges, moral orders and relationships in this iconic and complex city”. The book analyzes those challenges through their interaction with organisations, such as churches, brothels, shelters, political movements, counseling services or art projects. From a mental health perspective, the publication describes in-depth case studies on how migrants seek support beyond traditional mechanisms for those in distress. Those case studies cover a diversity of groups of people in Johannesburg including refugees, homeless people, sex workers and former soldiers from across the African continent

In addition, a recent report on the effects of migration on urbanization in South Africa, posted by the research body, African Centre for Migration and Society, on May 2015, roughly 4.4% of the South African population was born outside of the country and 3% of the population within South Africa has moved across internal borders. These population movements have resulted in rapid growth of urban areas and a challenge for social cohesion at the local level.

In the framework of the Shared Societies Project, this book alludes to one fundamental goal of SSP: working with leaders and organizations to help them confront challenges to coexistence. As reinforced by the authors, by ensuring that individuals have equal access to economic and material resources in order to satisfy their social, physical and economic needs, as a result they are able to play an active part in the development of the host country.

Cities like Johannesburg, which is one of the biggest in the African continent, are true laboratories of political and social innovation. Here, political leaders have a great responsibility to use this social transformation capacity to build Shared Societies and provide models of good practice.

Housing and Social Cohesion in Singapore

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On February 26, speaking at the inaugural Real Estate Developers’ Association of Singapore mentorship program for students, Mr. Chan Chun Sing, Minister for Social and Family Development said that “While the Government might build flats, achieving the aim of greater mixing across social divides called for more than this, as it entails people being willing to interact and foster strong community ties. Good design and careful planning can help foster this.” During the event, housing and social cohesion issues were discussed by the Minister, architects and real estate developers, as reported in an article in the Singapore newspaper, The Straits Time.

According to the 2010 Singapore Census of Population[1], ethnic Chinese constitute the majority of the population with 74.2 per cent; ethnic Malays 13.4 per cent; ethnic Indians 9.2 per cent; and other ethnic groups, including Eurasians, represent 3.2 per cent. Due to his, the Government introduced the Ethnic Integration Policy in order to prevent the formation of ethnic enclaves and, more generally, to promote racial harmony. Under this policy, each of the main ethnic groups has a maximum quota of homes that may be rented or purchased by them in each public housing block and neighborhood. Once the maximum quota has been reached for a particular ethnic group, no further sale or rental of apartments to members of that group will be allowed, unless the transaction is between members of the same ethnic group.

On March 2011, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance published a report about Singapore in which it was stated that “common spaces and shared facilities such as playgrounds or fitness corners enable all communities to regularly interact and to gain entrance into each other’s world of food, festivals or social customs.” In particular, the Special Rapporteur’s attention was drawn to the “void decks” situated on the ground floor of each public housing block. These shared open spaces, where weddings, funerals or group games frequently take place, were highlighted as representing an important element of multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-cultural life in Singapore.

In addition to this, the United Nations Human Settlement Program, UN-HABITAT, noted in a report published in 2011 that “As Singapore is a multi-racial, multi-cultural society; social harmony is a very important factor for stability and growth. Thus, the Ethnic Integration Policy has been established to ensure that racial enclaves are not formed within public housing developments”, adding in conclusion that “public housing policies in Singapore are convenient, efficient and effective tools by which the government could employ to achieve its social and economic goals.”

This public policy shows the benefits of working with planners, architects and academics identifying how our physical environment impacts on social cohesion. This is one of the commitments (Number VI) and fundamental components of the Shared Society Project. As reinforced by the different reports, the Singapore Housing Policy encourages mixed communities, enabling local authorities to ensure opportunities for building Shared Societies..



[1] http://www.singstat.gov.sg/

I am an immigrant

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On 9th April, the BBC News website published “Election 2015: Campaign seeks to put pro-immigration case”, an article describing an election campaign based on the migrant population´s contribution to the UK.

As a consequence of  the rising arguments putting pressure on immigrants and their impact on public services during the current general elections campaign, the nonprofit organization Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI) has launched the “I am an immigrant” campaign. This campaign is made up of first hand messages on the immigrant’s contributions to the British society, specifically to the welfare system.

The JCWI is spreading the campaign nation–wide, using real migrants’ pictures and their own experiences as workers and citizens.  It is designed under an encouraging premise: “Our campaign seeks to challenge the negative rhetoric against immigrants, celebrate them and provide them with a platform to share their story.”

The BBC article  interviewed the people who are the faces of the campaign including Mr Chelvan, who arrived in the UK from Sri Lanka.  He said “the reason for this is that various political parties felt they were losing the debate on Europe on other issues, so migration is the easiest way of opening the anti-Europe debate”. Mr Chelvan says many of those who are against immigration “fear difference” and often blame migrants.

Saira Grant, legal and policy director at the JCWI stated that their campaign is not party political, but argues “it is absolutely ridiculous for parties to put a specific cap on net migration”.

In the framework of the Shared Societies Project, we are convinced that initiatives directed at embracing diversity and cultural identities have a particularly crucial part in societies where negative stereotypes and fear of strangers are being used to gain political advantage. Steps such as the one explored in the article encourage respect and appreciation of cultural, religious and ethnic diversity, and understanding of the contribution that diversity can bring – basic premises in building social cohesion.

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