Successful Refugee Integration Begins at the Local Level

The civil war in Syria and the continued turmoil in the Middle East has resulted in millions of people – families, men, women and children – fleeing their homes. With communities torn apart by war and violence, refugees hope to find a better future in places where they can lead their lives in peace, security and stability.

At the recent Leaders’ Summit on Refugees, hosted by President Obama in partnership with six countries, including Germany, there was a shared understanding that the refugee response must be as global in nature as the crisis itself is. This will support policies, resources and funding for millions of displaced people worldwide.

Many refugees will resettle in both Germany and the United States. Though our national response is important, the ultimate success of the refugee crisis will depend on the integration that takes places in hundreds, if not thousands of local communities throughout the two countries. Once again, we must think globally and act locally to properly address this challenge.

Display boards at Symposium on refugee intergraion
Nine U.S. and German communities took part in the inaugural year of the Welcoming Communities Transatlantic Exchange, which culminated at a September symposium in Berlin. 📷: Constanze Flamme

This year, Cultural Vistas, together with its partners Welcoming America and the Heinrich Böll Stiftung North America, launched the Welcoming Communities Transatlantic Exchange (WCTE). Integration practitioners from five regions of Germany and four communities in the United States visited each other’s countries, and shared ideas and best practices on welcoming and integrating refugees into their respective communities. The 25 Germans and 16 Americans represented various offices of government, civil society, business, education, and other related sectors.

At the conclusion of this year’s program, the WCTE participants spoke about their experiences and lessons learned at a Transatlantic Symposium on Innovative Approaches to Integration in Berlin, hosted by the Embassy of the United States in Berlin and U.S. Ambassador to Germany John B. Emerson.

Ambassador to Germany John Emerson
The U.S. Ambassador to Germany, John B. Emerson, addresses the Transatlantic Symposium on Innovative Approaches to Integration. Listen to his full remarks below. 📷: Constanze Flamme

In his opening remarks at the symposium, Ambassador Emerson stressed that Germany and the United States should learn from each other’s integration practices – both in what works well and where challenges remain. He spoke of the many Americans who recall with pride the achievements of their immigrant parents and grandparents. Though they faced great hardships as newcomers, “over time, as they went about their daily lives, as they earned a living, as they raised families, as they built communities, as their kids went to school, … they did their part to build a nation.”

He went on to say, “All these folks, before they were ‘us,’ they were ‘them’…this is a part of our history.” This process continues today in the United States and is now becoming a part of Germany’s narrative as well.

Over the course of the two-day symposium, participants exchanged ideas and examples from their local communities that centered on what Ambassador Emerson termed as the “five pillars of integration”:

  • Linguistic integration;
  • Integration of school children;
  • Economic integration;
  • Provision of a clear path to citizenship;
  • Civic integration

As he put it, success occurs when members of a town or a city “feel that they belong, are secure in their rights and responsibilities, and share ownership in the future of their community.”

Some highlights or “pearls of wisdom”, as Kimberly Emerson, an attorney and civic leader, who moderated the symposium workshops termed them, included:

  • Community Engagement: Providing hope to newly arrived immigrants and refugees, and creating opportunities for them to contribute to and become engaged in their new communities. As one WCTE participant noted, “integration happens when everyone gets together not to do things for people, but with people.”
  • Valuing Diversity: We must stop thinking of individuals just as refugees, but rather as global talent that can enrich and diversify our communities
  • Celebrate Success Stories: Communities must recognize the individual’s power to make a difference. Positive messaging is needed to confront the fears, misunderstandings and stereotypes that exist.
  • Education: Getting kids quickly engaged in schooling and language learning to integrate them into their communities and social networks, training teachers to work with a more diversified set of students in the classroom.
  • Creating local services: To address the emotional health of the newcomers and building a community understanding for the traumatic situations the refugees are fleeing in their home countries.
  • Coordination with Federal Government: Along with expanded funding support, the federal government needs to work with local communities to better meet their individual needs.
  • Local Champions: As one American WCTE participant noted, “I have been so impressed here in Germany by how people have gone ‘all in’ and the courage they have shown to take on this challenge, sometimes in the face of violence.”
IMG_8597
Max Klasen (L), from Das NETZWERK Unternehmen integrieren Flüchtlinge (the Network for Companies Integrating Refugees) and Allie Levinsky (R), from Upwardly Global moderate the job creation working group. 📷: Constanze Flamme

During one of the panel discussions, participants from Boise, Idaho and Columbus, Ohio and from Mannheim and Duisburg in Germany shared additional thoughts on integration and their experiences from the Welcoming Communities Transatlantic Exchange.

Each of them, speaking also on behalf of their fellow participants on the exchange, highlighted the enormous value the program had provided, not only in terms of this new network of local integration practitioners they had formed, but also seeing “how thoughtful people are, the compassion people have shown, and the action plans that are being developed” to build welcoming communities at “a crucial moment in both our countries’ histories.”

Claus Preißler, Commissioner for Integration and Migration in Mannheim, Germany, really captured the overall message of WCTE and the culminating two-day symposium, saying, “Integration takes place at the local level – this is where we will achieve success or not.”

Through our exchange programs, Cultural Vistas strives to empower people to drive positive change in themselves, their organizations, and society. Together with our partners and funders, we hope that this project can continue to contribute lessons, tools, and strategies to practitioners and communities on both sides of the Atlantic, as we collaborate to address the refugee situation.

We can best confront the challenges and take advantage of the opportunities by exchanging ideas globally. It is interaction, networking, and learning from each other that will ultimately help us to drive positive change and to create communities that value, support, and thrive on cultural diversity.


The Welcoming Communities Transatlantic Exchange is organized and administered by Cultural Vistas, together with its partners Welcoming America and the Heinrich Böll Stiftung North America. The program is funded by the Transatlantic Program of the Government of the Federal Republic of Germany through funds of the European Recovery Program (ERP) of the Federal Ministry of Economics and Energy (BMWi), as well as by the U.S. Department of State, the Robert Bosch Stiftung, the Heinrich Böll Foundation, and BMW Group.

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Robert Fenstermacher

A true believer in the merits of cultural exchange, Rob's interest in study and work abroad programs dates back to his very own experience as a high school exchange student in West Berlin in 1987.
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