Christian, Muslim and Jewish youth from all around Europe gathered in Velletri, Italy to discuss migration and xenophobia.
From 27 October to November 1 the World Student Christian Federation in Europe (WSCF-E) in cooperation with the European Inter-Faith Youth Network of Religions for Peace (EIYN-RfP), conducted a study session on Migration and Xenophobia in Velletri. It was hosted by the Protestant Youth Federation in Italy (FGEI). This event was especially memorable, not only because wonderful lecturers and workshop leaders enriched the program for 40 enthusiastic students from 14 countries all over Europe, but also because of the interreligious aspects of the conference: that was unique as WSCF-E people were joined for this conference by Jewish and Muslim students.
The preparation committee in its first meeting in July wanted to challenge the participants by the initial question, which also figured in the title of the event: Who is my neighbour? This led to more questions, that were discussed during the four days of the conference: who does our society exclude, how does faith act on social exclusion, what does it mean to love your neighbors, how much risk do we take to be in solidarity with migrants and minorities? We believe that the event continued and encouraged asking more questions and challenge more stereotypes, helping us to consider each other first of all as human beings, regardless of origin or religion. Through lectures, biblio-drama, panel discussions and workshops we were approaching the complicated theme of xenophobia and migration in Europe.
What is your identity?
On the first day, after the arrivals, the welcoming part of the event started by the introduction to the theme and to the conference in general. After getting know the venue we had a chance to get know each other a bit closer. Through icebreaking games we learned each others names, hobbies or favourite dishes, (to make a bigger appetite for the wonderful dinner that our host and a true “Italian Mamma”, Elvira, prepared for us). After the long day, we gathered for an ecumenical opening worship to start and nourish the spiritual aspect of our community. Finally, the welcome program ended by opening a space for free conversation and encounter.
The next day started by an ecumenical morning worship, which brought us together to pray for our group and our event
as well as for migrants and refugees as well as other victims of xenophobia in Europe. At the following plenary session we discussed and agreed on the ground rules that we would use to create a safe-space environment during the conference. Afterwards, the first lecture started, in which Prof. Martin Putna of the Charles University in Prague addressed the question of what does xenophobia exactly mean in the European tradition and how does nationalism relate to it. In our subsequent group discussion, we explored the meaning and cultural manifestations of xenophobia in the Europe further.
The lecture was followed by the workshop, where the stereotypes of the Other in Europe were named and reflected through an exchange among the participants. This session allowed the group to talk about their identity in small groups. Afterwards, stereotypes and prejudices were discussed and participants were encouraged to form an imaginary country with their group by the help of the values that were important for all of the “citizens”. At the end, we had a chance to get know the sunny, peaceful countries formed in this session with the help of creative and funny presentations.
The afternoon started by a lecture of Bernadett Lehoczki, professor of the Corvinus University Budapest with the title “Migration and Xenophobia. What is the connection?” Professor Lehoczki talked about the different aspects of migration in the context of the political theory and international relations. The lecture was followed by a discussion and numerous questions, like the benefits of the migration or the problem of integration. An exciting panel discussion was held afterward with the participation of Tanya Segal, rabbi at Beit Krakow, progressive liberal Jewish community in Krakow, Bashy Quraishy, Danish-Pakistani author and consultant regarding minority rights and Krzysztof Gil, a Polish Roma artist. All of the panelists introduced experiences of Xenophobia in their different European contexts, which led us into an engaging discussion about it is that prevents inclusion of certain minorities in European societies. Then, after a day full of information and new impulses, it was a wonderful experience to settle down to pray at the evening orthodox worship and get to know the Orthodox liturgy. After dinner, at the intercultural evening we could, among other things, get know fun-facts on each others’ countries, learn a Hungarian children’s poem, hear a wonderful German song and taste Georgian vine candy as well as Austrian chocolate.
What does community mean to you?
The topic of the third day focused on the theme of community. In the morning, encouraged by wonderfully serene weather, the day was opened by two workshops of interactive meditation: the participants could either join a Bibliodrama session or at Labyrinth, each welcoming them to explore their own anxieties about the unknown and their fears of being excluded. After this contemplative session, Ibrahim Mogra from Leicester, UK, gave a lecture on the role of Islam and religion in general in creating as well as overcoming boundaries in society. Imam Mogra’s presence with us allowed for an engaging discussion about his view on religious ethics and religious community in secular societies. His lecture was followed by workshops led by the previous day’s panelists, Rabbi Tanya Segal, Bashy Quraishy and Krzysztof Gil. As a counter-point to the panel discussion, each of them looked at their personal experiences in creating community and mutual understanding between majority and minority groups.
The day was ended by a participant-led catholic denominational worship, where we got know yet another style of prayers from the Roman Catholic liturgical tradition. In the evening a movie night was announced with a screening of “Of Gods and men”, dealing with the close human relationships of the monks from a Christian monastery and the surrounding Muslim village community in rural Algeria during the civil war in the 1990s.
Community from religious perspective
Theexcursion to Rome started by visiting Servizio Rifugiati e Migranti, an organisation working with migrants and refugees, whose activities in the field of promoting migrants’ rights and supporting their needs. After our lunch break, we enjoyed some self-guided time in beautiful Rome, full of impressions. In the late afternoon, we then visited a local center for asylum seekers run by the community of Sant’ Egidio. Again, we were very impressed by the professionalism and the huge difference that volunteer engagement can make in migrants’ lives in Rome. We met some volunteers and also spoke to some of the people they worked with, who came from all over the world. After a dinner out of the city, we ate tasty pizzas and had a lovely walk back to the station passing by wonderful monuments.
The last day was constructed in the search for of our responsibility. We were introduced to the world of actions by a presentation by Daniela Malec, Program and Development Consultant of Religions for Peace. Daniela shared their work experiences and ideas for best practice to challenge action against xenophobia. It was followed by the resource session, where participant led workshops helped to learn about topics like martial arts as an approach for character development in social work with young people, , gospel music as a way to build open and inclusive communities..
By the methods of brainstorming and discussion participants were encouraged to work on ideas in small groups, how to develop and share resources on xenophobia to maximize the impact of the conference in the fields of charity, education, media and campaigning as well as public relations. After the group discussions the presentation and discussion of the action plan took place. The very encouraging and motivating closing program of the event was followed by the closing interreligious worship. It was a place for free prayers and for blessings, for a Celtic song, a sung Jewish Shalom blessing, and a recital of a Muslim prayer from the Qur’an. At the end of the worship we passed around a white thread as a sign of peace and unity, that we cut and put on each others wrists to bring back home the spirit of this event on a symbolic way.
Evaluation and the work after it
The evaluation was an essential part of each day of the program, after the sessions, before the evening denominational worships. The preparatory committee evaluated the activities daily with the participants in small groups throughout the event. The small group feedbacks allowed for a free, informal feedback on the experiences, but the participants evaluated the conference anonymously in an evaluation form, too. The reflections are continuing after the conference, in follow-up reports, in a follow-up Skype meeting of the preparatory team and meetings of WSCF-E. Also the following publication of Mozaik continues the topic of the conference. In concrete action, through the campaign launched on January 2013 reflects and implements the thoughts of the event.
This conference was an unforgettable event because of the active and motivated participation of students from Armenia, Austria, Belarus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Georgia, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Lithuania, Poland, Serbia, Slovakia, Ukraine and the United Kingdom. We are looking forward to meet you in our coming events and programs!
We would like to say aspecial thanks to our donors, the Council of Europe, our lecturers and guests and our Italian Partners, FGEI and the Centro Ecumene of Velletri for making this event a success!