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International research: Living in cultural diversity: Samen Inburgeren

Our global search for good examples of institutions and people successfully navigating cultural diversity for this year’s Reinhard Mohn Prize led us to Mechelen, Belgium, home to the Samen Inburgeren project. The project advances the experience of living together in diversity by bringing together local long-term residents with newcomers with non-Belgian origins. The project works with an open concept of “newcomer” in which everyone, regardless of background, whether they’ve come to Belgium for work, as a refugee or Erasmus student, is welcome to participate in exchange and help build new friendships.

Erwin Wauters and Lamine Sambou met in 2013 in Mechelen at the Samen Inburgeren project, which loosely translates as “integrating together” or “living in diversity – together.” In the last four years, the two have become good friends. 

The city of Mechelen launched the Samen Inburgeren project to promote peaceful coexistence in a context of cultural diversity. The project is not your “typical aid-oriented or integration project,” as coordinator Katrien Vleugels says. Instead, the project focuses on the fun that can be had in establishing new contacts and sharing recreational activities that draw upon mutual empathy and shared interests.

It was Erwin Wauters’ curiosity for other cultures that brought him to the project – a curiosity that he’s always had, he says. For the Senegalese-born Lamine Sambou who came to Mechelen in 2012 after several years in Spain, it was his desire to learn more about the city and meet people that motivated his participation.

Lamine Sambou and Erwin Wauters
Lamine Sambou and Erwin Wauters met in 2013 in Mechelen through the Samen Inburgeren project.

257 intercultural friendships in 5 years

The city of Mechelen aims to facilitate and foster the development of new friendships across cultural divisions through the Samen Inburgeren project. And it has proved a resounding success: the project celebrates its fifth anniversary and has helped 257 intercultural friendships grow over the years. The stories behind these friendships are being shared through film and other media with the public through a traveling exhibition in various locations – from the city’s cultural center, to the public library, integration offices and city hall. Building on this strong start, the project just entered its second round in October 2017.

Samen Inburgeren is designed to ease engaging in cultural exchange by providing those interested a six-month organizational framework in which to participate. Signup periods are offered for Mechelen residents every six months. The process begins with a one-on-one interview with potential participants in which they receive details regarding the project to see if it meets their expectations. To ensure participants are appropriately matched, issues such as hobbies, familial status and availability are discussed during the interview. In a second step, participants are brought together at an event modeled on the “speed dating” concept. This format worked well for Erwin and Lamine, who established a rapport with one another from the start.

Poster of the Samen Inburgeren project
Samen Inburgeren celebrates its five-year anniversary with a traveling exhibition in Mechelen of the intercultural friendships that began with the project.

Building relationships through shared activities

When two participants hit it off, they can start exploring the city together and sharing leisure activities. The project provides both with a starter pack that includes recommendations and vouchers for various activities such as museum tickets, though the decision as to what to do is left entirely up to the participants themselves. Some meet to cook a meal together, others meet with their children at the playground in a park. The project suggests that participants meet twice monthly and that they interact in Dutch so that the newcomers can develop their Dutch language skills.

During these first six months, the project provides each participant a contact person to answer any questions or to help address problems, explains Katrien Vleugels. Two group activities for all participants are also organized during this period and are designed to allow everyone the opportunity to share their experience. A Facebook group also helps foster networking opportunities and ongoing contact with each other. At the end of each six-month period, the project hosts an event in which all participants are given a certificate honoring their participation in Samen Inburgeren.

Once the six months have come to an end, it’s up to the participants themselves to continue their newly acquired friendship. Ideally, genuine ties have been built over the initial period that no longer require the project’s support. Erwin Wauters and Lamine Sambou are a good example of how effective this approach can be. Their friendship has been sustained over several years and they’re shared activities are no longer limited to Mechelen. In fact, Erwin traveled in December 2016 with Lamine to his country of origin, Senegal, where he could gain first-hand familiarity with his friend’s cultural roots.

Research for the Reinhard Mohn Prize 2018: What’s next?

This year’s Reinhard Mohn Prize topic, Living Diversity – Shaping Society, underlies the global search conducted by our team for best practices in cultural diversity.

All the information and experience gathered by the project team is being integrated into the project and its activities. We’ll be reporting soon on details regarding further examples of best practices in living diversity. Next up: a report from the United Kingdom!

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