In conversation with Keire – the person who made RPM’s restructuring possible

In conversation with Keire – the person who made RPM’s restructuring possible

By Francesca Celenta

Last summer, Keire was involved in the research project that led to the restructuring of RPM. After she voiced some concerns about the structure and goals of RPM, Nathalie asked her to carry out a two-month research for RPM to address the gaps of the organisations and better meet the needs of refugees in Maastricht.

How did the research work out in practical terms?

Over two months I did around thirty interviews with refugees, volunteers, RPM staff. I tried reaching out to as many local actors as possible. And I especially tried to hear from refugees.

How did the interviews with refugees go? What kind of things came up?

I conducted formal interviews but then I was also talking to them informally and a lot of interesting conversations happened. Some of the questions I was asking were: ‘what are the needs?’, ‘what kind of services are available?’, ‘what are the gaps?’, ‘does RPM meet these needs at the moment?’ and ‘what is the quality of the services?’, ‘how do we incorporate the voices of refugees into our programme?’. 

It’s important to say that I was conducting interviews in English so the sample was limited because I could only talk to refugees who could speak English, so there is a sample bias to consider. Mostly it was refugees who had learnt English here. We also talked about their parents and siblings who were in different positions from them so, in a way, I was able to reach refugees who don’t speak English indirectly.

Although the Netherlands tries really hard there are still gaps in the integration system. And the problem is that you don’t know what you don’t know. There are so many things we take for granted, for example ICT skills. A lot of refugees who arrive don’t know how to use a computer. We never thought of teacher computer skills because we assumed everyone already knows how to use a computer.

 What are some of the findings of the research?

The most important needs were language skills, computer skills, learning how to cycle and swim, social needs – many of them are lonely when they arrive, and that’s really the gap that RPM aims to fill, to get people out of their rooms. There is a lack of career guidance, but also a lack of understanding about the way we think about work and what our aspirations are. In the Western world, since we’re babies, we are taught to think about our careers, our goals and what we want. But if you grow up in Syria for example, it’s not about what you want. Your parents tell you what you want. Our way of thinking about goal setting is new to them. I think this is a big gap the Dutch integration system fails to see.

Dutch culture and society are particularly hard to adapt to. The Dutch are the most straight talking, the least hierarchical, the most comfortable with negative feedback and all these things are likely to be opposite from the cultures refugees are coming from. It’s important to acknowledge these things.

What are the main suggestions that came out of the research?

The first one was to clarify the goal of RPM. A lot of volunteers had different views of what RPM was trying to do. For some it was about running activities, for others it was about building relationships, for others still it was about providing services. It’s important that everyone has the same goal and that we’re working together to achieve it. Even I wasn’t clear about it, for me, as the English team leader, the aim was to teach English. But actually, the English and Dutch classes should be a way of recruiting people into the RPM community. Languages are a front door entry into the community. People will turn up to language classes, but they won’t turn up to a social event where they don’t know anyone. If the goal had been clearer, I would have known that I should have been going to social events and encouraged refugees and volunteers to do the same.

One of the big things I wanted was to provide intercultural training to refugees. We provided training to volunteers, but refugees are even more confused about different cultures, especially if they come from very homogenous communities. And if we start recruiting refugees then they will be able to give the same training in different languages and reach refugees who don’t speak English. Bringing refugees into the structure of RPM is very important.

The structure of RPM was also something we tried to change. We had all these volunteers working for separate teams and no one was communicating and that means losing potential. If you have collaboration and flexibility and you’re working together then you’re able to achieve better things. Team leaders especially need to work together and have clear goals and expectations. Another suggestion is to give more responsibility to volunteers and empower refugees.

What do you think of the new intercultural training?

I’m familiar with the book that it is based on, it’s a very good one*. It aims to increase awareness of the different types of cultures and the ways in which they can differ.

For me it’s really good to have a training where you understand specific cultural norms. For example, Arabs force feeding you, having to say ‘no’ three times before you accept. Or you know, having to ask them three times because they have to say ‘no’ before they accept. There are a lot of things that can lead to misunderstandings.

It’s important that student volunteers understand the background from which refugees are coming. Refugees who arrive in the Netherlands are deeply traumatised. It’s important to help people understand the mental and cultural place refugees are in so that they can then determine the rules and what they are comfortable with.

I hope we achieved all that. I would have loved for my lecture to be longer. But I think having the country context is very important. You have to meet them halfway, it’s not all about refugees coming to your country and learning about you. You have to learn about where they’re coming from, what they’ve gone through, what’s important to them.

Thank you so much, any last comments?

I think the important thing is to work with refugees, to create events together and to allow refugees to be an integral part of RPM.

*The intercultural training was based on ‘The Culture Map: decoding how people think, lead and get things done across cultures’ by Erin Meyer