Social and digital networks in refugee resettlement: a brief anecdote on the uses and misuses of digitally assisted mediation

By Asher Goldstein

While in Italy last week visiting my partner’s family, a friend who works in refugee reception reached out for a favour with translating for a newly resettled Afghan family’s first meeting with the children’s new school. I have refrained from mentioning the location in Italy or their names below.

The three children, their father, mother and I went down the hill from the community where they are being hosted to meet three elementary teachers and get a sense of their previous school experience, discuss their strategies for Italian language acquisition, and their parents’ preferences for how they are be integrated into the new school environment.

From my perspective it was a real privilege to assist this group of educators to better understand the family’s wishes, and the family in order to have a better sense of the educational opportunities available to their children. Additionally, I deeply admire the welcome that my friend working in reception in Italy is able to connect to and provide, where resources and support are often stretched thin.

Up until the point where I meet the family, those working at their accommodation had occasional visits from intercultural mediators with the language skills to communicate with the family, but mostly relied on their social networks to supplement the communication gap or reverting to google translate. These social networks also shaped the possibility of our meeting with the educators, where my friend’s standing in the community and social links made it possible to meet these three teachers. Attempts at more formal approach to organize a meeting to the school’s administration via emails from my friend had gone unanswered.

I understood later in conversations with my friend that these three teachers represent a more welcoming contingent at the school, willing to change their routines in order to make space for the new children. This position that appeared to be at odds with the local administration’s formal distance.

For all parties, the session was informative, although the corona regulations meant that the meeting was taken outside with social distance and wearing masks, making the translation chain from Italian, to English, to Dari all the more awkward under the morning sun.

In bridging the dialogue, I found the educators to be empathetic, and open to the parents’ wishes to have give the children the most time possible for language acquisition, but also trying to communicate some of the practical challenges based on class-size and proximity to their siblings in determining in which class to place the students.

Reflecting with the parents after the meeting, the welcome notwithstanding, the uncertainty over their long-term status in Italy necessitated a tactical engagement on their part, pursuing opportunities and status both in Italy and beyond, which informed some of educational choices.

The insights I have taken away from this meeting are that digital tools are no substitute for engaged, in-person social networks in shaping integration outcomes. However, they can be a useful supplement atop existing social contacts, which I have benefitted from in continuing my conversations with the father since my return to Sweden with questions, short translation needs, or medium term planning.

Leave a Reply