Practical recommendations for starting up a project with and for refugees, asylum seekers and migrants


Home Away From Home, a project co-funded by Erasmus +, has been looking for inspirational examples of projects and initiatives that contribute to the integration of asylum seekers, refugees and migrants in European societies and are executed with the involvement of young people. HAFH aims to support and bring together young people, share knowledge and expertise and stimulate peer learning. Five organizations participate in this project. These are Tumult, from Belgium, the World of NGOs from Austria, Forum ZFD from Germany, the Centre for Peace, Nonviolence and Human Rights from Croatia, and the University of Westminster from the UK. The research for this project exists out of desk research, two study visits (one in Berlin Germany and one in Mechelen Belgium) and a training week in Zagreb Croatia with 25 participants. In total we interviewed and had focus groups with 90 experts from the field. These experts are volunteers and/ or professionals who work in the field of migration. This article focuses on making recommendations for starting up a project with and for refugees, asylum seekers and migrants. The recommendations that are discussed here come from the interviews and focus groups with the experts from the field we spoke to.


WITH the community not FOR the community

Projects for refugees, asylum seekers and migrants are often thought out and written without the input or involvement of the target group. The advice experts from the field would give to people who want to start up a project for this target group is to involve them from the beginning. This way the needs and barriers the target group faces, are known from the start. Involving the target group from the beginning is empowering and gives a sense of purpose and responsibility, making their involvement deeper and strengthening the project.


“I think many organisations fail in the same way: they will have a great idea

for a project and they completely work out a plan for this project and then at

the last step, they will contact the target group for which the project is

meant. And I think it is most important that the target group is involved in the creating of the project. It is important that they know that their input is valuable.

So do something with the community, not for the community. It is such a big difference when they know they have a responsibility. We need to work more

from bottom up. This way you will also learn much quicker what the real

needs and problems are.”  (Professional who supports different projects organized by people with migrations backgrounds)


“People who startup projects (and in general) should stop paternalizing

people. ‘We are finished with everything now and we only need to find a

refugee who will tell his or her story.’ That is the biggest problem.” (Professional who supports different projects organized by people with migrations backgrounds)


Involve community leaders

Experts from the field agree that in order to reach target groups it is important to work with key figures and community leaders. Work together with community leaders to address delicate topics that can become problematic, such as taboos and racism.


“We should focus on integration and what is beneficial for communities.

For example: gender based violence or LGBTQI are topics that are difficult

to discuss with refugee communities. But I think that as a federation we have

that responsibility to reach tools or make these topics a point of discussion.

This of course should be handled with sensibility and we should adjust tools specifically for these groups. But we should make an effort on such topics.

Ask the community leaders how we can discuss these topics. ’Keep in mind

that there is diversity in diversity and there is discrimination within the diversity.’”

(Professional who supports different projects organized by people with migrations backgrounds)


Bring diversity into the team

Diversity within the team was mentioned as an asset. Diversity on different levels such as: age, education, social background, migration background and gender. For example a colleague with a migration story will have a better understanding of cultural appropriateness and can help a team with cultural sensitivity. Having a diverse team will also be beneficial for practical purposes of communication. Not speaking the same language can be a barrier and having people on the team who can talk to beneficiaries in their own language will help in dealing with this barrier. A diverse team is also beneficial for beneficiaries of projects. They see their community represented, they can have role models (especially for younger beneficiaries) and know that their community is equally valued.


“It is necessary to have a diverse group leading. So everyone’s interests are represented. It is important to have those with a refugee background involved.

They know better what other people their age or people with a refugee

background want as projects.” (Young professional who organizes events for people with a migration background)


Diversity within a team of volunteers or professionals was often seen as an asset, but it also brought new challenges. Team members with a migration background might need a different kind of support than team members with local roots. Keep in mind that the support a team member needs depends on their personal context. People with migration and refugee backgrounds might not have the same cultural, familial, social and economic situation as local members of the team. These challenges need attention and thoughtfulness.


“…sometimes we, as white people, didn’t understand issues. If a problem would arise we wouldn’t have understood, but a volunteer who is from Iran and has lived in Austria for six years can bring a different understanding. But at the same time it is also challenging to have a volunteer in the team who has a migration background because very often for native speakers of Arabic or Farsi, they have extra pressure – it can be difficult for them to navigate. They still belong to this group. This also made it hard for people like me to know how to support them.” (Volunteer who worked in an emergency shelter for asylum seekers)


Learning on the way

Many of the volunteers and professionals had in common that they didn’t receive enough training at the start of their commitment. One of the ways of coping with this is learning on the way.


I received training on how to work with traumatized people, an introduction to asylum law and one on intercultural work. I brought it back to the my team of volunteers. I learned a lot through informal learning too. As we grew as a team we learned how to set up structures so we could survive. With the volunteers, not a lot of training happened. It was more: ‘you have to do this and be careful about it.’”  (Volunteer who worked in an emergency shelter for asylum seekers)



Make connections with the right people and organizations. One of the participants who organized a benefit where locals and newcomers were brought together gave this advice to people who want to start a project:


“Find enough people with whom you can cooperate well and find partners              that can support you with material and location.” (Volunteer who organizes events where locals and new comers can meet)


Invest in Time

Another practical recommendation for starting up a project is to take your time to get to know the target group.


“Invest in time. Take time to explore and get to know the target group with whom you work. Don’t over rush, people will feel that you focus on results. Don’t pressure, focus on problem solving. You can only make a difference if you connect.” (Youth worker, who works with youngster with a migration background)


Power in solidarity

Our encounters with volunteers and professionals show that their workload was very high. Many told us, they often perceived it as too high and the stress of their work could weigh on their wellbeing. What was offered as a solution for this was solidarity among their colleagues or other volunteers.


“More collaboration between colleagues is necessary. If it is too much for me,                   I could ask a colleague.”

(Professional who supports different projects organized by people with migrations backgrounds)


“I find it incredible that they get together a random group of 30 people and                         just provide this service. And we had to organize beds and food every day.                       It’s like everything. And medical – we had doctors there and a small pharmacy – everything – and language courses and legal advice – and I find this really                  impressive what out of nothing you can create with a bunch of people who are                 really into it – this is the main strength to see what humans and the population                can just do if they wanted to.”

(Professional who supports different projects organized by people with migrations backgrounds)


Do you want to start or join a project with and for refugees, asylum seekers and migrants? Get inspired at!


Text by Roos Bastiaan


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July 9, 2019