Ivan Seifert raises concerns over the growth of right wing populist movements who seem to undermine democratic and humanistic values. As war and terrorism displace refugees into new communities, there is an urgent need for community building initiatives and finding new ways of building community cohesion.
We live in a world where civil wars and terrorism seem to threaten the very existence of local communities. In some parts of the world, local communities have been destroyed by bullets and bombs, while in others, local communities feel threatened by those who flee those destroyed communities. As refugees settle in new local communities, some natives express fears ranging from increased social welfare expenses, loss of identity, to fear of terrorism.
In communities, where fear governs, residents shift towards community division. That is because they prefer to stick to the familiar in-group members, blame the out-group members for general problems in their community, and are unwilling to put in the effort of getting to know the other. Optimistic phrases, such as Merkel’s “Wir schaffen das!” (“We can do it!’) in response to the millions of refugees who arrived in 2015, seem to reaffirm their fears because it does not address their concerns. As a result, right-wing populist movements can capitalise on their fear because they can present themselves as the only party who takes the concerns of residents seriously. In other words, it seems as right-wing populist movements benefit tremendously from community division.
But if right-wing populists were in power, what would happen to those who are seen as out-group members? How can they find peace and move on with their lives? I doubt that right-wing populists have answers to these questions. I worry that as they gain popularity, they undermine our very own democratic and humanistic values. Therefore, there is a desperate need for community building initiatives and to find new ways of refugee integration into local communities. The question is, how do we establish trust and build community cohesion without disregarding the fears of natives?
The answer: Define a common goal and work together towards achieving it.
In 2016, I have collaborated with an organisation which defined and implemented a common goal: The Syrian Volunteers in the Netherland (SYVNL) (http://www.syvnl.nl/). They provide an invaluable service to local communities in The Netherlands. Their vision is to empower refugees by teaching them tools to become active members of their new local communities. By doing so, refugees do at least three things simultaneously: they give back to their communities, they provide a counter-narrative to people who believe that refugees are threatening their communities, and refugees develop their skills which they can use for both, to apply for jobs and to rebuild their country one day. In that way, SYVNL’s rather simple vision to support and empower active refugees becomes quite powerful because it changes facts on the ground. Refugees are no longer a burden to local communities, but suddenly become active members who are giving back and contributing to the social order. My personal contribution to this organisation is to make sure that the world knows about it. In 2016, I had the honour to collaborate with Mohammed Badran on several projects, who is on of the co-founders of SYVNL. The most recent project I contributed to was launching SYVNL’s crowdfunding campaign (https://onepercentclub.com/en/projects/syrian-volunteers-in-the-netherlands). This campaign does two things. First, it raises money for the organisation. The money will help to professionalise SYVNL’s service and fund 12 local initiatives in 2017. Second, it provides a counter-narrative and frames refugees as people who want to work, give back to society, and to develop themselves.
In the long term, I believe it is not enough to only debunk right-wing populist or violent extremist narratives because facts do not necessarily change emotions. But success stories of refugee initiatives, such as SYVNL, have the capacity to change emotions. They do that by establishing trust, by bypass political divides, and by simply solving problems on the ground. Therefore, success stories, such as SYVNL’s, matter because they contribute to building community cohesion. In times of rising polarisation, we need more initiatives which work towards building inclusive communities. Working for SYVNL has given me hope and makes me optimistic about the future because I believe in their vision and I see their potential in driving positive change in local communities. The example of SYVNL shows that getting involved is not hard, it is just something that needs to be done. But it also shows that community cohesion should not be taken for granted, but is a result of volunteering and giving back to the community where you live.
Ivan Seifert (24) is an MA student at King’s College London studying Terrorism, Security and Society at the War Studies Department. He did his undergraduate degree at Amsterdam University College in International Relations and Psychology. He got involved with the Syrian Volunteers in Netherlands (SYVNL) in the beginning of 2016. Besides working on the communications team for SYVNL, Ivan has also worked on other projects aimed at promoting community cohesion, such as organising a TEDx event or producing videos aimed at reframing zero-sum perceptions. Some of his works include a documentary about Mitrovica in Kosovo (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p3Prqd9FVQo) or a portrait of the daily lives of a Syrian and Dutch student in The Netherlands (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bvdZS9n19Gg&t=18s).