How can migrant volunteers help you roller-skate through Zurich by night, see fireworks over the lake or enjoy some stargazing with your children at the local observatory? Well, they won’t take you by the hand, but they could furnish you with MAPS , a guide to cheap or free cultural events that is published online and in print in 16 languages. About 30 volunteers, both migrants and locals, work alongside two paid staff to bridge social gaps and make sure that no one is left out of the city’s cultural programming.
In Zurich, volunteering works both ways. Local volunteers dedicate their free time to helping migrants integrate, and migrant volunteers work to improve their new communities by providing services to locals and to other migrants. The VALUES team, including representatives from Ostend, Sheffield and Terrassa, saw plenty of examples of this on the project’s first visit to Zurich.
The city runs a welcome desk with an open door policy, meaning that anyone can present themselves without making a reservation. One core value of this desk is that every member of the municipal integration team spends some time working at the desk, so they all have a chance to meet and get to know the local migrant population. This stems insights which help the team perform their work, such as the fact that regular communication strategies are far less effective among migrant populations than word of mouth, which means that trust and consistency are essential to successful integration initiatives.
Zurich also cooperates with AOZ, an independent organisation which is connected to the national and local government. This organisation follows refugees all the way through their journey from asylum seeker to a resident with full status. Many local volunteers participate in AOZ to offer accompaniment and help migrant to get oriented in their new city, to offer language lessons and to take part in social projects.
Many of the refugees involved in AOZ also volunteer for social initiatives, including an Eritrean refugee who runs Radio Brhan, an integration-focused radio programme for local migrants. Migrants in Zurich also volunteer with global NGOs, such as the Red Cross, for example by offering accompaniment to elderly locals who need assistance doing their shopping.
One of the exciting examples of volunteering among migrants and locals is ‘Autonomous school Zurich,’ an autonomous organisation funded by the municipality. The school is entirely staffed by volunteers, both locals and migrants, and gives lessons in languages, mathematics and computing. The clientele, also made up of both locals and migrants, can also benefit from activities like capoeira, yoga, and concerts. The school has a strict policy against enquiring as to the status of its students, preventing discrimination even against undocumented refugees.
Another innovative organisation that is doing great work on the ground is ExpoTransKultur, another autonomous organisation that benefits from municipal funding. Entirely volunteer run, the goal of ExpoTransKultur is to bring migrants and locals closer together through culture. This means the exchange of stories, customs, ways of life and life ideas to promote mutual understanding and enrichment. Here, integration happens through a two-sided dialogue developed over exhibitions, workshops and more.
With all this incredible volunteering activity going on, Zurich wants to strengthen its role as coordinator. Through the project VALUES, the city will develop its local integration plan and organise meetings between stakeholders so that make gaps and overlaps more apparent and allow synergies to blossom.
The other cities on the visit took home plenty of great ideas from Zurich, and also gave some constructive suggestions. Ostend recommended strengthening the link between volunteering and the labour market. If the skills that migrants gain through volunteering are given official recognition, then volunteer positions are more likely to yield jobs in the future. The city also pointed out that volunteering can be a great context in which to gain language skills, so volunteer opportunities should be opened to refugees immediately, not always prefaced by language training.
For more information on VALUES, or the work going on with migrants in Zurich, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org