It is important to remember that each individual faces a distinct set of challenges and barriers to integration and language learning when they reach a new country. By pairing refugee women with mentors who have a shared background and interests, they can find support from someone who can relate to and understands their unique experiences. Coming to a new country can also be a daunting experience, and being mentored by someone with whom you connect and can communicate easily can be very comforting.
I am glad for the mentoring. I need to talk, and laugh and have a nice time with somebody that speaks my language and understands my culture. I think it was perfect my mentor was a Spanish Native speaker.
The mentors can commit to helping their mentee develop a personalised set of goals and aspirations, and the one-to-one sessions ensure that their needs are met in a way that is meaningful and culturally relevant. By asking the mentees what it means to feel integrated, the programme becomes tailored to their needs. The first stage of the one-to-one sessions that our project partners held involved identifying the specific needs of the mentees; this involved understanding their family stability, well-being, financial management, education and employment. They also assessed their needs in terms of supports regarding meetings with authorities, social services, schools and housing departments.
My mentor is very good. We have conversations. She brings newspapers so we talk about that one. She brings me books to read and explains to me.
The mentors provide help in a wide range of ways; sharing their personal experiences and knowledge of local life can help mentees to overcome a variety of barriers to their integration. They can assist in accessing essential services such as health and social benefits, as well as teaching local culture and customs. As part of the FATIMA project, our mentor pairs have been involved in a variety of additional activities which have helped in this process; cooking classes and talks on local culture have all played a strong part in assisting cultural exchange and helping refugee women to feel connected to local culture. Our project partner Panorama in Poland, in particular, have been holding a series of events entitled “A Cup of Culture’: talks on significant Polish figures which teach mentees about Poland’s history and culture. The mentoring programmes also include one-to-one sessions as well as social events where mentors and mentees can get to know each other in a fun, informal setting; Panorama, for example, held a barbecue for its mentors and mentees in June.
Fostering strong personal relationships, especially between women with similar life experiences, has been shown to be an essential part of fostering empowerment and resilience. Friendship, as the vague and untechnical term as that may be, is an incredibly powerful tool when it comes to learning and development, as it allows individuals to build the confidence they need to explore and expand their knowledge, as well as encouraging one another to achieve their goals. Mentoring also provides refugee women with role models; mentors can take on this position as they build a relationship of mutual trust and respect with their mentees. There is evidence to show that having a role model is a key part in gaining confidence and self-esteem; the newly arrived can aspire to become mentors and leaders in their own local community and having a person that they admire guiding them towards this goal can be instrumental. In building confidence and providing a solid basis for social relationships, the mentoring process also helps female refugees to develop their resilience, which will continue to help them overcome barriers throughout their lives; the long-term benefits of the process are evident.
Whilst there has been previous research evidencing the value of mentoring for integration into the labour market, this has been mostly male-dominated. It is important to recognise how mentoring can help individuals gain confidence and skills in all aspects of their life; it is a holistic approach to integration and for women, in particular, the process of building solid relationships in a new country can be profoundly valuable. There can be localised barriers to mentoring but through communication, these can be overcome. Our project partners Senara in Spain found that they, in particular, had difficulty as first in introducing mentoring into the Chinese community within their classes. They identified the root cause of this localised barrier as being the reluctance of the mentees to have one-on-one encounters with someone from a different cultural group. By working to build trust within the Chinese community in Madrid they were able to involve them in mentoring activities and help the mentor pairs to develop relationships of mutual trust and understanding.
The value of the FATIMA project is that it shows the value of mentoring for women who face a distinct set of challenges and barriers to integration. By providing personal integrated support through the holistic mentoring approach, we can help refugee women to develop themselves and achieve their goals, all whilst fostering a sense of empowerment, which is so valuable for them.