It was a dreary morning in Lisbon. Grey clouds looming above and the rain gently patted on the grass.

Annoyed, people clung on tightly to their raincoats and umbrellas, as they hurried to their destination. 

It was an uncommon sight and weather for the typically warm and sunny Portugal. We settled into our chairs at a local quiosque near Cais do Sodre. 

“Hi, my name is Ziauddin Samadi. I’m living since five years in Portugal.”

A tall and slim Afghani introduced himself as he held a cigarette in one hand. Tiny beads of water condensed around his glass of “caneca”, a small beer mug. 

Ziauddin is the Vice President of the Association of Afghan Community in Portugal. His friends call him “Ziau” for short. 

“My brother was living in Portugal. He requested to us to come to Portugal. First, we came to Turkey to take our visa. We arrived in Portugal in 2017. We bought tickets of aeroplane.”

“We fly to Portugal in Lisbon airport. We arrive, we watch our brother after long times. When we saw him last, he was a child. But here, we face with the young man.” 

Ziau and his family were fortunate. Ziau’s brother is an Olympic boxer and an IOC Refugee Athlete scholarship recipient, Farid Walizadeh.

Without Farid, Ziau and his family would not have the right connections or the know-how to flee with minimal risk. 

Today, both Ziau and Farid continue to advocate for refugees’ integration, rights and support. 

A family on the beach watching some workers pulling net and debris out of the sea.
Photo by @eric_masur on Unsplash

The State of Refugees Today

According to the UNHCR refugee declaration, refugees may leave their country of origin, apply for asylum in another country and resettle. 

Based on The Convention Related to the Status of Refugees (1951), a refugee is a person who crosses international borders because of a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion”. 

Asylum seekers are those who apply for recognition as refugees under the Convention.

Resettlement can take place in the country of asylum or transferred to another one where refugees are accepted. 

For the first time in human history, there are over 100 million refugees and asylum seekers, equivalent to 1 in 78 people or one refugee in a double-decker bus full of passengers.  

Many refugees come from places of war. For an estimated 1% of the human population, the only reality known to them is fear, violence and death. 

Many flee persecution because of practicing the wrong religion or being born of the wrong ethnicity or sexual orientation. Surrounded by human rights abuses, many have no choice but to leave their homes behind. 

Since 2010, the number of countries in conflict has doubled. Yet, only 23 countries host approximately 850 million forcibly displaced people. Portugal is one of them.

Portugal is a signatory of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees. 

According to UNHCR Refugee Statistics, there are approximately 2,651 refugees and 2,162 asylum seekers in Portugal by the end of 2021.

Some people (we see their backs) holding up rainbow signs supporting refugees integration and arrival in their city.
Photo by @radragon on Unsplash

Refugees’ Troubles Don’t Stop with Resettlement

The rain began to subside, and Samba played on a loudspeaker hung above our table. Ziau took another puff off his cigarette and a sip from his caneca. 

“When I first time when I arrived in Portugal, I was thinking every problem has been finished. Now, I’m starting a new life. But the problem was not finished. We are also faced with a challenge, especially economic challenge. First of all, there’s not more jobs, and you must learn Portuguese to find jobs. But I had no information about seeking jobs and about social benefits.” 

Both refugees and migrants face various stressors upon arriving in a new country. 

Lack of language skills in the host country, limited economic resources, and loss of or fragmented social relations and networks are some of the challenges they encounter. 

Unlike other migrants, refugees may continue to have memories of violence, suffering and human rights abuse that disrupt their transition, adaptation and integration in the new country.

Language Learning and Cultural Shock

Learning the local language is a crucial component of refugees’ integration.

Research indicates that gaining cultural knowledge and understanding the local language helps to facilitate intergroup relations that enable better adaptation. 

Most importantly, learning the local language allows refugees to solve problems independently, such as finding employment and making friends. 

Without this knowledge, every interaction can become a source of stress and anxiety.

From navigating public transportation to shopping at the local supermarket and negotiating bureaucracy, these daily activities are the norm for residents, but can be a frightening experience for refugees.

To add to the complexity, some refugees never stepped into a classroom in their entire lives.

They may not know how to read or write in their language. So, learning a new language without knowing their own is a considerable barrier to integration. 

Additionally, the country of resettlement might be their first time abroad. Thus, it is inevitable that refugees may experience culture shock when things most familiar to them are no longer accessible. 

Every new environment or social interaction might challenge their pre-existing beliefs and understanding of the world. Tremendous effort is required to understand and reconcile differences between the old and the new. 

A group of Afghans and Afghans supporter, protesting the Taliban regime and declaring the status of refugee is by force, not choice.
Photo by @mettyunuabona on Unsplash

Discrimination Undermines Refugees’ Integration

In their new country, refugees may also encounter threats in their daily interactions, such as isolation or xenophobia. One of the most common stressors in a new country is discrimination. 

According to Dovidio and his colleagues, discrimination is “a behavior that creates, maintains, or reinforces advantage for some groups and their members over other groups and their members.” 

Generally, refugees are perceived to belong to a socially devalued group, and so they may face discrimination daily. 

Discrimination negatively affects refugees’ quality of life. When there is a strong sense of discrimination, the likelihood of integration decreases because people are not motivated to learn and adopt the local culture

“One problem or misunderstanding is because both sides, the people are living here and the people who are immigrating, they don’t have information about the culture of each other. Especially neighbours and the associations who are they working, they must to concentrate or focus on the culture.” 

Ziau continued, “(We) should always start making friendships because they don’t think we lost our country. They must think we are in a country with humans.”

Forms of (Subtle) Discrimination

Discrimination can creep up in subtle ways. Decisions or actions by organizations and their leaders may ensure the continuation of unequal treatment and deprive people of opportunities. 

Subtle discrimination can manifest in the form of micro-aggression, exclusion, and unnecessary bureaucracy. 

In essence, subtle discrimination is the “negative or ambivalent demeanor or treatment enacted toward social minorities on the basis of their minority status membership that is not necessarily conscious and likely conveys ambiguous intent.”

Ziau acknowledges that blatant discrimination is rare in Portuguese society. Yet, subtle discrimination still exists. 

“It’s almost not among the society…. But I think in some work areas, secretively this kind of discrimination is there. For example, in Ismaili centre, because I am Ismaili, there is one group from Mozambique who are Ismaili… they are not able to join any (of our) programs. (The reason is) they must (become a) decision maker … To be part of this community. They complain that they have a little discrimination.”

Plenty of hands, with the palm facing the reader, painted and displayed so that a red heart shows.
Photo by @timmarshall on Unsplash

Why is Refugees’ Integration so Difficult?

Across various social sciences, the term integration carries different meanings.

Broadly, integration is the “increasing the participation and inclusion of groups or people who are initially distant and excluded from a dominant society”

Yet, integration should not rely solely on refugees.

The challenging work of refugees’ integration requires everyone’s engagement, from the locals, host societies, social institutions and local government. 

Even when such support is available, misunderstandings between refugees and locals arise. 

Ziau believes raising awareness and education is key to helping refugees integrate and for locals to embrace and include refugees in society. 

“In here, we have to make some courses about language and about cultural information. Lots of things for the refugees are new. For example, for one refugee in Afghanistan, they don’t have Metro, they don’t have ships. They don’t understand about the social (situations) and public areas and life (which is) independence in here.”

Integration is one most important thing that both sides must think. I think we were able to integrate refugees step by step. But those who are in a hospitality situation, they must think I’ll have to train for their workers.”

Without awareness and education, refugees’ need for employment cannot be achieved.

Even when they are highly competent and experienced, opportunities are limited because they lack local language fluency.

“I have graduated in agriculture in 2010 in Afghanistan. Then I worked in agriculture in the home development network. (I) also worked in a bank as a head teller supervisor. When I came in here, I was thinking I can find my work and my qualification or in my experience. But I was not able to because of the language. I was needed to start as fast as to find some money.”

Refugees’ Integration Contributes to Diverse Human Resources

Even when finding work is challenging, the ever-optimistic and resilient Ziau continues to help other refugees and migrants adapt and integrate into Portugal life. 

“I put myself as a volunteer to help new refugees, especially if new refugees who are coming in here. And then in community also, I have different groups that people are calling me.” 

“I’m sharing information, ideas on how to show them the places or areas where we are helping. We are making social services, where is Loja Cidadão, making the NIF number and which associations are helping. In this case, we are glad to help everyone.”

If refugees or migrants do not return to their home country, many have a desire to remain and integrate into society.

For some nations, refugees’ integration is the goal of migration management. Refugees are rich human resources that can help a nation develop economically and socially.

Making Friends and Finding “Angels”

A girl dressed as a angel, facing back and looking at a blue sky. It wants to symbolize those people who, through, genuine friendship, help refugees integration happen
Photo by @sommi on Unsplash

Apart from finding employment, another major challenge for refugees is making friends.

Even if refugees live, study or work in the same places as locals, it is not enough to improve intergroup relations. 

Still, being in common places helps to increase the opportunity for contact, which remains essential. Without it, there will be no chance to establish friendships between refugees and the locals.

“It is hard to make friends. People don’t know you, and it takes a lot of time to make friends. One of these problems or language maybe? The other is I think the economics situation of the people in our situation or living in our situation is also not good. In this way it’s hard to find friends.”

Through friendships, locals view refugees more favorably and hold positive attitudes toward them. In other words, friendships help refugees to better adapt and integrate with society. 

When asked what makes some refugees adapt or integrate better than others, Ziau replied.

“Different angels are helping refugees. For example, ACM is responsible to bring refugees and to issue the documents. Some associations such as JRS, Red Cross, and some other smaller associations are helping to integrate refugees.” 

“In here, we have some complaints. Someone says our process going fastly, someone says or processes being later. For example, one have a house in the first month and other have has house after one year.”

“So when you get house after one year, one year of school of your children is wasted. You cannot learn language. But the support of government is for 18 months. When you are one year waste have only six months, you cannot do anything.”

Ziau pronounces the acronym “NGOs” in a way that sounds like “angels”.

“Angels” make the transition and integration of refugees easier, reducing the anxiety and uncertainty of the new environment.

In a similar story to Ziau, Kateryna was lucky enough to find her “angel” in a Czech florist, who helped her settle in her new home.

What Every Refugee Wants You to Know

Ziau, advocate for refugees' integration and active point of contact for Afghan refugees in Portugal, sitting and smiling at the camera. On this back, there are the Portuguese, Afghan, European flags.
In the photo, Ziauddin “Ziau” Samadi

With regards to the refugees situation, Ziau’s message is…

“When a person lost his house, he is not complete in mind. He is not normal in psychological. As a host, we should to be kind. With high capacity, we should be helpful. Refugees are human. When travelling, they are not happy to leave their country. Anyone is not happy to leave his country. It’s because of the situation; we have to be kind and helpful to refugees is because they are part of society.”

Homogenous communities are no longer the norm. Everyone needs to wake up to the reality that societies have always been diverse. 

The way to an inclusive and harmonious community, where everyone has a place to belong, is through your actions. 

Start a Conversation, Rethink Refugees’ Integration

Have you looked down upon someone lately? Have you ignored or dismissed someone because they were different from you? Who have you judged to be undeserving of your time and attention? 

Reach out and connect. If you meet migrants or refugees, start a conversation and if possible make friends. With care and nurture, a life-long friendship may blossom beautifully. 

Your worldview will expand, and your life will be enriched. 

Ziau and his family are awaiting news of their citizenship application in Portugal. He looks forward to calling himself a Portuguese one day.

“I close the darkness now. I pass the dark days.”

If you wish to volunteer, donate or support the Afghanistan community in Portugal, contact them at Associação da Comunidade Afegã em Portugal.

If you’re a refugee or migrant and wish to start learning or practicing your Portuguese, sign up with SPEAK. Join a language group in your city or online, meet new people and share your world. 

Author: Ling Ling Tai

Ling Ling is a Malaysian-born social and cultural psychologist with a research interest in refugees’ adaptation and integration. She is also a learning and development professional and was formerly an electronics engineer. Having studied, worked and lived in 8 countries, she now calls Lisbon her home. Connect with her on LinkedIn or subscribe to her personal blog.

7 Replies to “A Long Journey Home: On the Road to Refugees’ Integration

  1. Whether it’s refugees or locals, especially when it comes to differences to classifying the majority and minorities, it makes me uncomfortable and afraid.

    I haven’t read all of the above, but I can imagine how claustrophobic they feel.

    Where it is influenced by lack of knowledge and literacy, even communication which became a trivial activity used to be a tough challenge.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Galih!

      Indeed. We take our native and daily spoken language for granted and forget that migrants and refugees struggle with the new language. Without language fluency, simple things like shopping or asking for directions can be a big challenge.

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