1945. London, Warsaw, Nagasaki and other cities across the globe have been reduced to rubble. The haze of intercontinental warfare has begun to rise, and a weary world sets about remaking itself. Soon though, the true toll of the war becomes clear. It is not defined just by the crumbled roads, bombed out buildings, collapsed bridges, and twisted railways, but in the full scope of the horror of the Holocaust. The Nazi campaign in Europe has resulted in the murder of an estimated six million Jew and several million additional victims including prisoners of war, and other ethnic, political, religious, and LGBTQ populations. Millions more around the world have been displaced as result of the conflict, and in the coming years, the inhospitality and violence toward refugees necessitates an international response. From the establishment of the International Refugee Organization in 1946, to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, to the Geneva Convention on Refugees in 1951, the international community tries to establish a basic set of guidelines defining the status and rights of refugees.
Looking back on this devastating chapter in world history, it is hard to fathom that in 2016 there are more refugees and internally displaced persons around the world than there were during this bleak period following World War II. And yet this is precisely the case. With 65 million refugees world-wide today, the International Federation of Settlement and Neighborhood Centers hosted their annual conference with the theme of exploring the role settlement houses can play in addressing this refugee crisis. Just over a month ago I had the privilege of representing UNH at this conference in Berlin, titled “On the Move —At Home in the World.”
It is not surprising to me that IFS believes there is a role for settlement houses in addressing an international crisis of such magnitude. Settlement houses, after all, have been on the front lines of providing essential human services in their neighborhoods for well over 100 years. For just as long, they have been advocates for social justice, seeking to change the conditions that lead to the poverty and exclusion of immigrant, ethnic and other communities.
Over the course of four days, conference attendees learned about the causes and impacts of migration in Europe and Africa, as well as models for immigrant inclusion and engagement. As a participant in a three-day settlement house worker exchange immediately preceding the conference, I also had the opportunity to interact directly with dedicated professionals from Israel, Canada, Russia and Germany. From presentations by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, a diplomat from the German Foreign Office, and a university professor with an expertise on the European Union, to visits to settlement houses throughout Berlin and a refugee center housing more than 1,500 people, this week-long immersion in refugee resettlement left me with three distinct observations:
1) settlement houses are critical players in the service-delivery ecosystem,
2) settlements houses can and should be vehicles for advocacy, and
3) there is a need for all people to speak out against intolerance, oppression and violence.
Settlement houses are critical players in the service-delivery ecosystem
While visiting Templehof — the decommissioned military airport doubling as a popular public park on the outside, and a makeshift refugee center on the inside — we learned that settlement houses, despite not holding the contract to house the refugees, are the key social service providers. Through creative use of a “volunteer bus,” the settlement houses have set up a mechanism for local community members and refugees to share their skills and talents with each other for the collective good. The settlement house staff are also providing case management, clothing, food, and meeting other key needs, including German language instruction and job search assistance.
Outside of the refugee centers, settlement houses are also helping resettle refugees. Over the course of 2015 alone, Germany accepted over 1 million refugees, with a further 250,000+ in 2016. These individuals and families require support to successfully integrate into their new communities, and settlement houses are key sources of that support. In addition to availing themselves of the same services native Berliners do — youth programs, food programs, senior programs, etc.— refugees are also able to study Germany and look for work with the assistance of settlement house staff. The whole-family approach of settlement houses makes them particularly well-suited to meeting the needs of refugees. In a foreign country with limited to no proficiency in German and little resources for travel, a settlement house that can provide multiple services makes life easier for newcomers.
Settlement houses can and should be vehicles for advocacy
During the three-day settlement house worker exchange, each participant had the opportunity to deliver a presentation about youth services to their peers. As a policy advocate, I chose to focus mine on how UNH and our member settlement houses proactively engage youth in advocacy efforts; specifically, the Campaign for Summer Jobs (CSJ). From the process of recruiting and training youth to participate in our annual Youth Action Day in the state capitol, to helping prepare them to testify at hearings and lead legislative meetings, the exchange participants were impressed by the creative and empowering way settlement houses in New York City are engaging youth. The benefits of giving youth a platform to speak out were immediately obvious to the exchange participants, and many left feeling energized to bring the ideas back to their home cities.
In addition to the personal development benefits experienced by youth engaged in advocacy (self-efficacy, leadership skills, relationship building, etc.), the importance of advocacy was also reinforced by a lecture delivered by Professor Dr. Nivedita Prasad, titled “Social Work as a Human Rights Profession.” Dr. Prasad spoke at length about the challenges social workers face when they operate essentially as arms of the state. For example, when the government funds programs for refugees, they get to dictate the terms and conditions of those services, and can also inform the nature of interactions and relationships between social workers and refugees, which can sometimes be disempowering to the newcomer. She challenged social workers to push back against these practices and be advocates for the rights and dignity of their constituents. Her remarks were a timely reminder to both social workers and others within the settlement house movement to be advocates for justice.
The need for all people to speak out against intolerance, oppression and violence
This last take-away from the conference for me was perhaps the most important. And that is that intolerance, oppression, and violence affect us all, and we must be relentless in our struggle against them. Many of the people I met in Germany spoke about a national consciousness that is sensitive to the needs of persecuted and displaced peoples as a result of Germany’s own national history. This is why they work to reduce conflict and have taken in so many refugees from countries like Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Still, there are groups of people within the country who push back against the acceptance of refugees, and in some cases spread hateful rhetoric or engage in violence against them. Vigilance against this intolerance is a constant for settlement house workers in Berlin and beyond.
Given the escalating rhetoric and acts of violence we have seen against ethnic, religious and other groups in our own country over the last year, is incumbent upon all of us to use our voices to push back, and articulate alternative visions for our communities that are inclusive of all people. This work must happen at the same time as we continue to proactively help these communities access the services and supports they need to succeed.
Really, I suppose, the unifying lesson of these three observations — that settlement houses are critical players in the service-delivery ecosystem, that settlements houses can and should be vehicles for advocacy, and that there is a need for all people to speak out against intolerance, oppression and violence — is that settlement houses today are as relevant as when they were first founded at the turn of the last century. They are at once bedrock institutions in their communities that help individuals and families of all sizes and types thrive, while also vehicles for powerful advocacy with and on behalf of those same communities. As conflict and persecution around the world continues to drive people from their homes, the United States and New York City in particular will continue to be a destination and place of refuge. We must take that reality and responsibility seriously.