THE WELCOME CARD
The Welcome Card is an adaptable systemic solution to the current asylum seeking and immigration crises unfolding around the world. The initiative is currently led in Stockholm, Sweden by Veronica Polinedrio and Marie Lärka, together with the help of volunteers and support of industry experts and advisers.
Tell us about your story and how you became interested the refugee crisis?
Our team was formed in May 2016, when we participated in a workshop coordinated by What Design Can Do, UNHCR, UN Nordic, UN Innovation and Transformator Design to investigate the refugee crisis as it was happening in Sweden, and most specifically in Stockholm, where we are based. Our investigation was initially aimed at the loss of human capital during the long waiting times. Our assumption was that if we could invest in the waiting time of asylum seekers to foster their personal growth, they would be better equipped for entering the social working environments in their resettling country, once their request was approved. As we worked together we quickly realized that we shared the same perspective: the current isolated solutions needed a more systematic approach. We created “The Welcome Card” as a response to the challenges we were seeing in our community.
What were the biggest frustrations expressed by refugees about the settlement sector?
Our investigation started by using human-centered design tools to speak with the asylum seekers and refugees that found themselves stranded in the legalities of the asylum-seeking and Swedish immigration process. Their stories were very similar: most of them had been waiting between 6 and 21 months to receive an update from the immigration agency regarding their asylum application request. Others had been impatiently waiting to hear if they could put in a request for family reunification or appeal their first denial. The common element in their stories is that they had been waiting without feedback from their caseworkers and without updated information regarding the asylum-seeking process. The wait and the feeling of being unable to control the outcome of their lives left many asylum seekers prone to anxiety and depression. In addition to that, many had been restricted to the care of refugee homes, which have strict rules in place to minimize personal harm and collective violence. Refugee homes are not always happy places, and asylum seekers collectively spoke about their lack of personal development and opportunities to interact with the rest of society while waiting.
One of the first people we interviewed was Adnan, a young asylum seeker from Syria who had arrived 8 months before our interview took place. In a Swedish-English mix, he told us he wanted to become an orthodontist. When we asked him how he learnt Swedish in such a short time, he told us about his expeditions to the library in the city, where he would read children’s books to familiarize himself with the syntax and grammar. As a self-taught Swedish speaker, he said he had a hard time knowing the pronunciation and apologized several times if we didn’t understand him. Soon, he told us that his library trips came at a cost, one that Adnan had to carefully calculate before every purchase. With a 600 Swedish kronor monthly allowance, he had to evaluate what he could afford, and his choices were between a phone card (ca. 245kr per month) to stay in touch with his family in Syria, or the public transportation card (ca. 31kr per ride or 830kr for a 30-day period) to get to the library.
Inside of the refugee home, he shared a small space fitted with three bunk beds for six people, one small desk and a small TV. He was provided with three meals a day, which he could only take at the home itself using plastic spoons and forks. He tried to attend the free language courses provided by the refugee home volunteers, but these often became repetitive to accommodate the arrival of new guests in the refugee home. For this reason, Adnan commuted 45 minutes to the library, where the quiet environment made it more efficient for him to learn the language, but had to give up his meal, which he was not allowed to bring along. He also told us that one of the best way to learn for hims was watching and interacting with locals in social situations, and encouraged his roommates to do the same. However, he still commuted alone, and many of his roommates were relocated to other homes during the asylum seeking process. When we asked Adnan what would be the single most important improvement in his day, he told us having access to public transportation to travel to the library, so he didn’t have to sacrifice part of his cash allowance for speaking with his family. His biggest hope was to meaningfully use the waiting time of the asylum-seeking process, learning as much of the language and society in Sweden to be ready to start his life once his immigration paperwork would be complete.
There is a large misconception that asylum seekers and refugees live in camps or centers in remote areas. In Sweden, and in particular in Stockholm, they live in hotels-turned-refugee homes or state allocated apartments to meet the high demands for accommodation. As such, asylum seekers and refugees in Sweden are urban dwellers, who share the same advantages and disadvantages of all of us who live in urban areas: higher costs for food, personal items and public services, including transportation. Besides the long waiting times, one of their biggest worries was the cost of life: Stockholm is one of the most expensive cities in Europe, with a limited housing market and highly taxed services. For asylum seekers and refugees without a support network, this means higher costs of living. One of the other stories that really stuck with us came from Fathi, a forty-something-year old father of three, who walked from Syria with his wife and young children. Fathi used to work as a truck driver which is how he met his wife, who is originally from the Ukraine. When the Syrian conflict reached Aleppo, Fathi and his wife agreed that it was too dangerous to continue living on the outskirts of the city. With the future of their children in mind, they fled their hoe country and arrived in Sweden in mid-2014.
Fathi was still struggling with Swedish and did not speak English, but he was fluent in his wife’s native language. With the help of an Arabic translator, he told us that he was having a hard time dealing with many aspects of his living conditions: he missed his home, his country, his food, his people, speaking his language, working and continuing his hobbies, having a conversation that wasn’t about his asylum application troubles, and having control over his and his family’s future. He admitted that his biggest worry was providing for his family and making sure that his children would be able to study and have a happier future than his. When we asked him what was preventing his asylum application from moving forward, he said that no one, from caseworkers to volunteers, was able to tell him what was happening, and that he only met with the immigration agency once for 20 minutes. We learnt that Fathi’s biggest concern was keeping his identity and living while in limbo, and that the single most important improvement in his day would be knowing what was happening with his asylum application so that he could plan for his family’s future.
Through our interviews with asylum seekers and refugees, we understood that they felt lost and disconnected. On the other side of this situation, volunteers, local governments and national migration offices were not only aware of the situation evolving around them, but also felt lost on how to handle it. Our team saw that what was affecting one group was reciprocally impacting the other, and that a holistic planned solution that simultaneously resolved all stakeholders’ challenges was the answer.
How can human-centered design break the structural injustices which encourage a lack of compassion?
Human-centered design is a methodology that was developed from traditional design thinking, but contains one important principle that makes these solutions impact greater: empathy. It requires that those who are designing actively listen to those they are designing for, understanding their battles and identifying together the best opportunities for change. It’s a methodology that allows to create a dialogue between individuals who might be very different in terms of gender, age and socioeconomic status, or who might have experienced a similar situation through different perspectives. Such a process opens up the possibility for not only building strong relationships between people, but also for creating trust and sharing points of view.
Veronica: It’s my opinion that there are several obstacles that prevents us from breaking injustices, and these obstacles are emphasized by several factors, including a failure to effectively communicate with each other, a fear for change and a lack of trust in one another. In 1944, Arthur Koestler wrote his essay on compassion, or lack thereof, titled “On Disbelieving Atrocities” where he concludes with, “For as long as there are people on the road and victims in the thicket, divided by dream barriers, this will remain a phoney civilisation”.
As we fast-forward to 2018, we have made some improvements in our support network, but our achievements are being threatened by those “leaders” that tell us we need to put ourselves first over the well-being of others, because the well-being of others will lead to our own degradation. Such way of thinking presumes that breaking structural injustices is impossible, because the cake cannot be shared: if you get what is mine, then I no longer have it. Such beliefs are the direct consequences of our failures to take the time to understand each other and building trust, as well as a generalized inexistant fear of change of our own situation for the worse.
Bringing back the question of how empathy can break structural injustices, I refer again to Koestler’s essay, where he makes the example of a lecturer who would lock himself in a room, close his eyes and imagine in detail that he was one of the people killed in Poland during the Holocaust: how it felt to be suffocated by chloride gas or to dig his own grave and then face an imprecise machine gun. Koestler ends his essay, saying “I think one should imitate his example. Two minutes of this kind of exercise per day, with closed eyes, after reading the morning paper, are at present more necessary than physical jerks and breathing the Yogi way. It might even be a substitute for going to church”. This is what would be called an empathy exercise, the practice of taking time to first get informed and second imagine ourselves in that context.Exercises in empathy are extremely important in our times to be reminded of our common shared humanity.I would argue however that the best judgement of character would be what happens next, which is acting upon our newly acquired knowledge, ask ourselves “What must I do?” and lead change.
Are we totally out of luck then if we lack the compassion and empathy to break the systemic injustices we have contributed to so far? I think such a question goes beyond social entrepreneurship and human-centered design. It’s a matter of moral compass and I believe that the past year’s political climate has shown that those of us who understand the context will not go down without a fight. I do believe these movements are creating dialogues publicly and privately, which can only lead to a greater sense of compassion and action for change.
The Welcome Card allows newcomers to have update information about their new city and status of their application. How did you come to understand this newcomers didn’t have this information and the need for technology to bridge this gap?
We started our process in the same way many start: making assumptions. As humans, we have the tendency to extend our needs and wishes over to others, presuming that “if this is something I need, then you certainly need the same”. We initially pushed to create a solution that identified loss of human capital as the main issues during the long waiting times. The reason we likely assumed that was because, in that precise moment in time, we were professionally-driven individuals, with a good academic background, and social network. In specific, we shared a similar lifestyle that prevented us from assuming that anyone else would want anything different than the continued personal growth we were seeking. In other words, we were designing for ourselves.
One of the fundamental mindsets of human-centered design is empathy, which encourages you to listen, let go of any assumptions and understand the complexities of other people’s lives. And so we did: we made the core of our solution be what the people we were designing for wanted, and in order to do that we asked the asylum seekers and refugees we talked with one particular question,
“What would be the single most important improvement in your day?”
Thanks to this approach, we learnt the experiences of all the stakeholders involved, including not only refugees and asylum seekers, but also the national immigration authority staff and case workers, and local and regional municipalities. The key in the success of the solution lies in the approach itself, where it keeps the very people the solution looks to serve at the heart of the process.
We think of The Welcome Card not only as a human-designed solution, but also a systemic adaptation. In the challenge we were facing, there was a dualism of contexts. What asylum seekers desperately wanted – faster information and handling times in their application process – was mirrored by a specific need on the side of the immigration agency – reducing unnecessary requests and fostering digital communications. We saw these challenges as opportunities to change the situation for all stakeholders, relying on the use of existing infrastructures and tools.
Thus, The Welcome Card primary focuses became developing a ready-made package of essential services for asylum seekers to be deployed at the time of registering a request for international protection, and providing a platform to change immigration processes, giving control of one’s case status directly in their hands. In the future, we hope that the concept will also become available to other categories in our communities, expanding on the impact of social benefits, to target at-risk groups with tailored services, from the elderly and unemployed individuals, to single mothers and people with disabilities, to name some examples.
The Welcome Card also incorporates a focus on encouraging newcomers to join social activities – how do you think this helps the psychological pressures of resettling in a new country?
Feeling a sense of belonging is one of the strongest and most intrinsic human emotional needs. This is part of the human experience that many of us can relate to. After the traumatic experience of fleeing a conflict zone and their home, asylum seekers and refugees often experience loss of identity. Such feelings lead in most cases to anxiety and depression, which can be augmented when one also experiences isolation and loneliness. In the wake of the refugee crisis, many of the hosting countries have witnessed both a public outcry to escalate support for refugees, and opposition to keeping borders open. Several of the individuals and families we spoke with had at one point or another experienced violence during the asylum-seeking process, from physical confrontations to arson attacks on their refugee home. From our perspective, it is vital that not only do we create laws and a safe environment to pursue perpetrators, but that we also stand by our international protection policies to include guests at our table.
One of the two components of The Welcome Card focuses on creating a support network for asylum seekers and refugees that encourages them to join our communities, while we open our front door to make them feel welcomed. Developing a sense of belonging in a new country is the first step of the resettlement process. Sweden and Stockholm have already proven that connecting and encouraging newcomers to take part in social activities is a long-term investment that helps hosts and guests to get to know each other and build trust. There are many powerful initiatives that have started in our community, and our team is especially a big fan of Invitations department (or United Invitations, which connects locals and newcomers over home cooked dinners. The idea is simply brilliant, and Ebba and Lina are two wonderful and powerful leaders in the world of welcoming. Initiatives like this one allow any and every citizen to take a personal lead in our commitment to include and protect those who are seeking shelter and relief.
Our project has identified that although initiatives exists, sometimes there are obstacles to take part in them. We have identified that hurdle in the access to public transportation for asylum seekers who cannot work while waiting and newly-registered refugees. Our commitment has been to deliver access to public transportation as the first resolution to promote social interaction. However, we should not forget that one significant obstacle to psychological well-being is the asylum seeking and immigration process itself. Social activities only help relieve the anxiety felt during the waiting time. As such, The Welcome Card proposes to be not just a platform for checking a case status or a card with services, but both simultaneously. The importance of having a solution that affects the system at the core cannot be understated.
Sweden received 16,2877 asylum applications in 2015 – What moment sticks in your mind for demonstrating how individuals can overcome differences to include newcomers?
Veronica: When I was 9 years old, a Bosniak family was resettled to my neighborhood following the 1992-1995 Bosnian conflict. The Muslim family of five was the first, and for a while, the only non-Catholic family to live in my small neighborhood, which attracted long stares and baffled looks.
To this day, some of the neighbors still question why the four women of the family do not wear a hijab. As I like to tell my neighbors, “You should ask them yourself!” The mom, Megy, told me she and her husband, Vado, had always been big fans of the band KISS, and together collected vinyls and cassettes to stay up to date with their latest singles. Their three daughters, Arijana, Armina and Vanessa, are fluent in their native language and Italian, and even chew a bit of that Venetian dialect that my sister and I thought them in the hot summer evenings between a game of soccer and Un-due-tre, stella! Still today, I count Arijana, who is one year younger than me, as one of my closest and most inspiring friend, and although the distance (she is about to move to Germany with her husband and 5 year old son) has kept us physically separated, we keep each other updated thanks to messaging and social media.
I do not know why some people seem to more easily open up their hearts and minds to newcomers, but I have certainly witnessed more situations in which people of different ages, genders, cultures and nationalities realize that they have more in common than differences. I do believe that having had the opportunity to knowing Arijana and her family during my childhood has contributed to my personal global perspective.
Sweden, like the rest of Europe, has experienced both waves of anti-immigration sentiments and public outcry to welcome refugees. Although the media coverage of these instances often depicts a public disastrous image, we have seen that the most sentimental and inspiring moments happen in private situations, outside of the public eye.
We know of unaccompanied minors who have turned 18 years old (at which point in their asylum-seeking process they are faced with resettlement from their unaccompanied minors home to a refugee center to continue with their application) and have been taken in by local Swedish families, where they were able to continue school and access the local support network that they had already built. We have met young Eritrean women living with elderly Syrian women in state allocated homes, sharing traditional recipes and learning Swedish together. We have seen communities mobilize to include and encourage refugees in leadership positions that broaden their networks and build self-esteem.
Canada’s settlement services have been criticized for the lack of feedback mechanisms on settlement systems – how would you incorporate this challenge into the Welcome Card app and extend it further to understand how inclusive a society is?
This is a tough question to answer while we continue to develop our project, but one that is very important to both assess the impact of a solution and understand the sentiments of all stakeholders involved. Among the mindsets of human-centered design is iteration, the practice of creating, testing, developing, testing again and developing again in order for a product or service to be relevant and to effectively target the people you are designing for. Through iteration, designers work with users, bringing them back and again into the process to receive their feedback and incorporate it for development. As a team, we have been using, and plan to continue to use, such practices, involving our users from the start, but we are aware that we need to be able to assess the effectiveness of our solution along with the changes our users undergo.
When working with users-driven solutions, it’s also important to remember that what works for some may not work for someone else. We need to be able to create solutions that tailor not just for mainstream cases, but also for those at the extremities. With a process that iterates and looks at extremes, we can develop products and services that stay relevant and collect feedback for continued development. As we continue expanding The Welcome Card, we plan to use digital tools and analytics to understand our users behaviors on the platform, and social impact measurements to assess the effectiveness of services in their personal integration, from usage of simple resources such as the library card to more impactful ones such as public transportation.
What is the best part of taking in design challenges focused on social issues?
Veronica: This is the time and place for designers to show that our research methodology includes not only investigating the evidence to produce a solution, but also empathizing and listening to those affected by a problem to challenge the brief. The latter is the most important and transformative aspect of design, where those applying the methodology are giving the people they are designing for the megaphone to voice their experiences.
Traditionally, we have seen organizations, from for-profits to NGO and governments, adapting existing solutions to real life problems, ignoring the opportunities that a human-centered design approach could offer to actually solve a problem and create innovation. In a social context and especially in the globalized lives we lead, we have seen that we no longer have the luxury to simply patch over an issue: it’s now time to dig deeper, understanding the systemic root of the problem and applying solutions that truly meet the challenges.
Empathy has been identified as one the leading principles of human-centered design and applying this methodology on social issues emphasizes its true purpose. Working on social issues means meeting the people affected by them: this is not only a deeply intimate experience, but also a powerfully poignant one. One of my favorite quotes comes from “To Kill a Mockingbird”, where Atticus says: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… until you climb into his skin and walk around in it”. This couldn’t be truer of the several crises we are witnessing in front of our eyes, from the refugee and immigration crisis, to violence against women, healthcare and education accessibility, poverty and climate change. The action we take for social issues today is a judgement of our character and moral compass. And while we do that, we continue to innovate ourselves, both from a social standpoint, as well as from a technological and creative viewpoint.
As with any relationships, it takes courage to lower one’s shield and let another person in, building a mutual sense of trust. We have certainly witnessed the impact of compassion and empathy in the private leadership that the people of Sweden have taken to rebuild the response to the refugee crisis. We have also seen this in other parts of Europe, from Greece and Italy, to The Netherlands and Germany. As we see leadership in our communities develop, our belief that change can occur from the bottom continues to be strengthened by example: any informed citizen, with the courage and empathy to demand dignity for everyone, can make a difference in someone’s else’s life