Friendship of families – Lithuanians became teachers to the refugees

Journalist Ieva Šepetytė

A project – Community Bridges – has been launched in Lithuania to help refugees arriving with children. Lithuanian families have become their teachers and, most importantly, friends, who participate in events together with the foreigners, engage in educational activities and help the newcomers feel welcomed both by integration organizations and the Lithuanian community.

   Ten Lithuanian families became mentors for the same number of immigrant families. They will be divided according to the interests and hobbies of the refugees. Every Saturday various meetings and events will be held during which foreigners will develop their language skills and get to know the local culture.

   “Why families? We always have individual volunteers who get involved in helping. They mainly help children, and through them they also become close with the parents. Just as we all have our personal friends, we also have those with whom we make friends as families.

   We have learned about this need from people who have been granted asylum in Lithuania and who are very eager to create and nurture a connection with Lithuanian families. Such friendship includes informal Lithuanian language lessons and cultural exchange,” says Šeida Kauzonė, social consultant of the Foreigners‘ Integration Program of Vilnius Archdiocese Caritas.

The Caritas community was pleasantly surprised that many Lithuanians expressed willingness to join this project.

Exceptional integration of parents with children

   Foreigners often flee from unfavorable or even dangerous living conditions in their country not only for their own sake, but especially for the well-being of their children. In this way, parents seek to ensure a successful future for them in a safe state. Such large families come to Lithuania from refugee camps and travel with young children in conditions no less dangerous than single immigrants. After obtaining a residence permit and starting the integration process, parents have a greater responsibility to find housing, provide healthcare not only for themselves but also for their children, as well as send them to educational institutions where their kids would not only receive education but also feel secure and respected by the school community.

   The life of foreign families in Lithuania begins in much the same way as those who came here alone. The first stop is the Migration Department, where foreigners have to apply for political asylum in the country. After receiving a residence permit in Lithuania, they usually move to the Rukla Refugee Center, where they spend about three months. Later, they can choose which city or municipality they would like to stay in for a longer period of time, which is usually Kaunas or Vilnius. Once they have found long-term housing, settlers start the integration process – it takes longer for parents with children.

Š. Kauzonė

   “A single person receives an allowance, consultant‘s assistance, translation and other services, depending on his needs, for one year. If immigrants are parents who have minor children, they are considered a vulnerable family, so its integration takes three years, – says S. Kauzonė, – the process involves various areas: allowances, material services. We help children find kindergartens, schools, mediate with their staff, resolve conflicts with teachers and principals. We also help parents to look for work, to register with employment services, and sometimes accompany them to job interviews and medical institutions.”

Integration program specialists provide the necessary assistance individually, taking into account each family‘s situation. For that, there is a special risk assessment table to assess the vulnerability of each family. Counselors take into account the family‘s social needs, state of health, as well as the skills acquired while living in home country. For example, whether the parents know how to use e-banking, or whether they can go to medical institutions on their own. After this, it is discussed with the family what they would like to learn in the near future and which documents should be arranged for them. Counselors often provide advice, but the focus is always on the needs expressed by families themselves.

   It is common for newcomers to even set their goals too high and pursue them with diligence, while those lacking motivation are rare.

   “According to a clause in the agreement, it can be terminated if the immigrant avoids attending Lithuanian language classes on purpose. To implement the requirements of the agreement, it is important to follow the integration plan, which we review every six months. We assess the achievements of the goals that the families have set for themselves, and in the coming period their allowance depends on how well they have succeeded in accomplishing their aims and improving their skills,” says Š.Kauzonė.

According to the integration specialist, this plan is good in that it can be realistically adapted to each family member and individual abilities of each person can be taken into account. A husband who goes to work will need to learn the language faster and attain a higher level, while a wife who decides to stay home and take care of the children may set herself more modest goals, since she has to spend a lot of time on the household. Language and educational institutions for children are the most common goals of parents at the beginning of their integration period. Teenagers care about finding a summer job and earning extra money at least during the season. Counselors always strive to help newcomers set goals that are realistic to achieve over the next six months.

Lack of funds and time

When it comes to family integration, S. Kauzonė sees several problems. According to her, the refugees themselves mention that the three-year period is too short:

“According to most newcomers, this time is definitely too short. Three years is already an extended integration program, but foreigners still complain that they do not manage to learn Lithuanian in order to find a better job, do not manage to integrate and use the support.”

Another aspect of concern is the lack of funds. With better funding, more training, education, therapy and trips for refugee families could be organized. Foreigners often need translation services, but do not always have the money for them, so we are forced to carefully calculate the hours of this service and provide it only when absolutely necessary.”

Children become translators of the Lithuanian language for their parents

   As in many other areas, it is the easiest for children to integrate into the community. They are are the fastest to learn Lithuanian, and even in schools where they meet their peers it is apparent that a new generation, much more tolerant and open to racial and ethnic diversity, is growing up. The biggest challenge for children is learning according to the “immersion program”, when they, having almost no knowledge of the Lithuanian language, start attending a Lithuanian school. Educational institutions are committed to helping such students, providing additional teaching to them, but not every school carries out these responsibilities. Although such programs cause a lot of stress for the children, their achievements are obvious. It is often the kids who start interpreting for their parents and helping them to communicate. One such example is the family of Halima Kede. After agreeing with the woman to talk about family integration, her daughter sat next to her, who, speaking Lithuanian without any accent, translated the journalist’s questions into her native tongue and provided her mother‘s answers in Lithuanian. The student is about to go to the seventh grade at Vilnius Maironis Progymnasium.

   Halima Kede came to Lithuania with her husband and six children from Syria, Idlib province. Both parents of the family are employed, but the woman says she still finds time to participate in all the events and activities organized by Caritas. H. Kede admits that the integration period was difficult for the family and claims that one of the biggest problems at the moment is that she does not yet speak Lithuanian. The woman says she would not hesitate to attend additional classes if an opportunity arose.

Women often bear the largest burden

   Observing refugee families, it can be seen that, despite common projects, integration eventually takes place on an individual basis and depends on the roles parents play in the family. Children get immersed into the community in educational institutions, while the process of integration of the parents depends on whether they are employed. According to Kęstutis Danielius Rimkevičius, a foreign integration specialist of VA Caritas, a husband usually goes to work and his wife takes care of the children.

   “Families are big, they have children of similar ages, so mothers usually stay at home, while fathers work and support the family. There is no one-size-fits-all answer to which type of integration is more successful. When the mother stays at home, she interacts less with the environment, but meets with the children’s teachers and educators. Of course, social interaction remains limited. Sometimes mothers will communicate with each other, but they do it in their native language. Regarding learning opportunities, we can observe the opposite situation. It is harder for parents who work to find time to attend classes. Our teachers really adjust to those who are in the period of integration, classes take place both in the morning and in the evening, but after it ends, they have to look for learning opportunities themselves. So, sometimes it is harder for those who work. Mothers who do not work can also learn remotely.

   However, our experience shows that women who stay at home find it more difficult to learn Lithuanian. Caritas highlights this issue. For those who have come from Pakistan, Tajikistan, Iran and speak Persian, we have a teacher who communicates in their native language. We really pay attention to women who bear the burden of the household,” says K.D. Rimkevičius.

   Mothers who combine the integration process with work and childcare have the opportunity to join the International Women’s Association of Vilnius (IWA). The association unites both Lithuanian and foreign women who not only receive material support, but also have the opportunity to participate in events dedicated to them. In this way, foreign women make friends with the Lithuanians, a cultural exchange takes place. IWA organizes charity events, women’s run, cozy coffee mornings every first Friday of the month and group walks in Lukiškės Square, Vingis Park and Valakampiai. Participation in such organizations is especially important when newcomers face intolerance and hostility in the Lithuanian community. This activity, bringing together both Lithuanians and foreigners, helps them witness a tolerant and bright Lithuania. International Women’s Association of Vilnius is an organization dedicated to women from Lithuania and abroad to foster cultural exchange and socialize.