From a blog by Apolitical
How do you reach migrant families that stretched social services do not have time to relate to?
In Berlin, nearly half of 300,000 inhabitants of one district are from a migrant background, and in some schools, up to 85% of pupils don’t speak German as their first language. Integrating such high numbers is a challenge, and it’s critical to start early. Daycare and kindergartens are crucial spaces to learn German, meet children from other communities, and get on the state education ladder – but many immigrant and refugee parents don’t send their children.
“Immigrants who come to Berlin are usually not familiar with the education system and its rules. There’s a great need for information in their mother tongue and for ways to bridge the gap between new families and the city’s institutions,” said Alix Rehlinger, Director of Social Affairs and Integration at the non-profit Diakonie.
Traditional social workers struggle to help – it is hard to gain the trust of families in close-knit ethnic communities, and the language barrier is a perpetual challenge. So, instead, the district trains mothers that are long-established in Germany but are themselves from immigrant backgrounds. They step in and bridge the gap between local government and these hard-to-reach families.
The programme is based on the “backpack” project, familiar throughout the Netherlands and Germany, where migrant mothers receive a short training course then go and disseminate language learning materials to new families.
Berlin’s programme takes the idea to a whole new level. The district trains unemployed mothers that speak good German in a six-month program that covers 10 topics, from education to sexuality and violence. Most are from Turkish or Arab backgrounds.
“While they’re training, the mothers get to know all the official institutions and opportunities for families in the district. They go and visit advisory and health centres and even talk to people from the district offices – they get to know the system. Then, they go to parents – mostly mothers – in their own communities and give information and advice on topics like bilingual education, children’s rights, and healthcare,” said Rehlinger.
The mentoring starts with an informal session over a cup of tea, then each neighbourhood mother usually meets the new parent around 10 times to discuss their needs, challenges, and to give information about the support and services available in the district. The main focus is early years education. The neighbourhood mothers help with communicating with teachers, filling out applications for schools and doctors, and even accompany parents to appointments.
In the last 10 years, almost 11,000 families in the district have been supported by more than 400 district mothers. The current crop of 70 speaks 10 languages. The benefits are not just to new immigrants. The neighbourhood mothers are all women who have struggled to enter the main labour market, and the initiative provides an opportunity to develop their workplace skills and CV, as well as to earn some money.
“For many of these women, it’s their first ever chance to earn their own money – they’re very proud of having this job. It’s also the first time many of them have participated in a broader public, beyond their families and their own community – it’s very much an empowerment project,” said Rehlinger.
The German government funds a number of programs like this on what it calls the “second work market” to help the unemployed into the main labour market. The neighbourhood mothers work 30 hours a week and are paid £1000 a month by the state – more than welfare payments.
The project in Berlin has received £10 million from the local, state and EU governments since it was launched in 2004, and is funded at least until 2019.
There are now many replicas of Berlin’s Neighborhood Mothers scheme in other cities across Germany, including Cologne and Bremen. A similar scheme has also been set up in Denmark.
“You need to cooperate with so many schools, kindergartens, neighbourhood centres… It took a long time to build the network, to get accepted by all the relevant institutions. We have been told the same thing by people in other countries and cities – for it to succeed, you have to find people with political and financial influence to fight with you,” said Rehlinger.
Seems to be a win for isolated families, for children, for Neighbourhood Mothers and the community itself.
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