Time Banks as Sustainable Alternatives for Refugee Social Integration in European Communities

  • Joachim TimlonEmail author
  • Mateus Possati Figueira
Living reference work entry


In 2015, more than a million refugees crossed into Europe, which sparked an unprecedented displacement crisis as countries struggled to cope with the influx. Two years after, people are still seeking to escape the terror of war and extreme poverty on a sea path to the European Union. Integration is the next challenge. While various governments sit on the inertia of the decision-making process, voluntary initiatives spike in many countries as creative ways to deal with what has been acclaimed as the refugee crisis. Community actions, such as in Scotland, provide cultural integration opportunities by introducing and matching refugees who are resettling to Europe with native people who have volunteered to help in adjusting to the local community; and in Sweden, where on large scale, the educational system is individualized to the specific needs of the refugees and facilitates the integration in the local labor market. In this pool of initiatives, time banking arises as a sustainable alternative for balancing social relations and improving social well-being while increasing the social capital. By redefining the concept of work and value of assets, it proofs itself as an ideal social dynamic that grounds on the equality, respect, and reciprocity values. It allows the refugee to work and be productive from the first moments in the country while absorbing the culture and social dynamics. The trade-offs are benefits that can be scaled up to the individuals involved, to the community, and to the country, to the level of empowering the sustainable community development.


Refugee Refugee crisis Equality Integration Time bank Time banking Reciprocity Social capital Social empowerment Sustainable community development 


Global Disruptive Trends

To be disruptive means to prevent something for continuing or operating in a normal way; a trend is a general development or change in a situation that affects many countries of the world. In this sense, the unprecedented displacement crisis, sparked by armed conflicts, resulting in the influx of refugees crossing into Europe, is a global disruptive trend. According to data published at the UNHCR Global Trends, at the beginning of 2014, Europe gave shelter to 1.771 million refugees plus 11,4 thousand in refugee-like situations. At the end of the same year, the number rose to 3,107 million, an increase with 74,3%, and the highest increase among other regions in the globe. The top host figures were reported from Germany, Hungary, Sweden, Austria, and Italy, followed by France, the Netherlands, Belgium, the UK, and Finland. In Italy, the catalogued population of refugees, refugee-like situations of people, and under statelessness mandate by the UNHCR were 93,715; 45,749; and 813, totalizing 140,277 people. In Sweden, the number reached 226,158 where 56,784 were asylum seekers and 27,167 considered stateless. More than half (53%) of the refugees worldwide came from just three countries: the Syrian Arab Republic (3.88 million), Afghanistan (2.59 million), and Somalia (1.11 million). The top six refugees’ destinations hosted together an overall of 6.545 million refugees. Surprisingly none of the countries were from the European Union but instead are surrounding the conflict areas: Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, Islamic Republic of Iraq, Ethiopia, and Jordan. In 2015, Turkey became the largest refugee-hosting country worldwide for the first time, with 1.59 million refugees. At the end of the same year, the total number of forcibly displaced people worldwide went up to almost 65.3 million, which means that 1 out of 113 people on earth were displaced, the highest level since World War II (UNHCR Global Trends – Forced Displacement in 2015). Thus, the displacement of refugees is not solely a European crisis; it’s a global crisis.

Integration Programs and Structural Barriers

Most societies in the EU acknowledge their responsibility to give shelter to refugees and provide integration programs, hence, also acknowledging its role in facilitating the integration process (see Fernandes (2015) for a discussion on (dis)empowering refugees and migrants through the participation in introduction programs in Sweden, Denmark, and Norway). However, there might be structural barriers or impediments that limits or hampers the integration of the refugees in the society. Structural barriers can be understood as aspects of the external environment that limits societal integration. According to Kenneth Waltz, a political scientist, structural impediments are formal and informal rules that regulate an entire system of interaction and the physical limitations of an environment. A set of formal and informal rules governing behavior in a particular sphere is commonly known as “the rules of the game” and can be found in integration policy fields (Waltz 2010). In Italy, four different governments opted for different approaches; some blamed the EU for its inefficiency to respond to Italy’s calls for assistance, and others looked for buffer solutions while claiming that the crisis was not just a passing phenomenon but a structural fact. There is still a need for the introduction programs to acknowledge but also address the important role of structures and not only overemphasize the responsibility of the individual. This might reduce the potentially stigmatizing element of the programs and the framing of immigrants as a social problem that needs to “be fixed.” Instead of enhancing and enforcing social control, “real” social change should be encouraged (see Pease 2002).

Social Empowerment

Empowerment is a multifaceted construct shared by many disciplines and arenas, such as studies of social movements and community development. Empowerment, by definition, is a social process, once it occurs in relationships among people. Empowerment is a process, similar to a path or journey, which develops when effort is given to it. Empowerment may vary according to the specific context and people involved (cf. Bailey 1992). Empowerment also occurs at various levels, such as individual, group, and community. An important implication is that the individual and community are fundamentally connected. Social empowerment can be defined as a social process that helps people gain control of their lives by fostering the capacity to act on issues they define as important and realize goals for use in the communities in which they live (cf. Page and Czuba 1999). A prerequisite for social empowerment is individual change, which makes a bridge to community connectedness and social change (Wilson 1996). Individual change enables the connectedness and for a community to complex issues that it is facing, such as the displacement crisis. If people have mutual respect and accept diverse perspectives, they can develop a shared vision and work toward creative and realistic solutions. Hence, inclusiveness of individuals and collective understanding of empowerment are essential for practices with empowerment as a goal, and the critical transition of individual change in combination with interconnectivity between individuals framed by a distinctive practice can have invaluable positive effect on refugee integration.

Sustainable Community Development and Building Community Capacity

A sustainable community goes beyond the mere focus on subsistence. According to Flint (2015), such a community emphasizes long-term benefits and the means to promote informed choices that moves the community beyond the status quo of just being livable. The livability of a community refers to the social and environmental quality perceived by its inhabitants, such as residents, employees, customers, and visitors. A sustainable community, on the other hand, promotes a conscious commitment, regarding how to make choices about dealing with different kinds of challenges, such as displacement of refugees. A long-term perspective in dealing with such matters is distinguishing a sustainable from a livable community.

Sustainable community development , then, is the action of continuously improving the social and environmental quality of living. It includes human interactions among the inhabitants that, for instance, promote physical and mental health but also environmental issues. This means that the limitations of earthly elements as well as their interconnectedness of human beings are recognized. Furthermore, equity is regarded as the foundation of a healthy community, in which all socioeconomic factors are grounded and ecological, economic, and sociocultural diversity within the community are contributing to its stability and resiliency. For the development to be conquered, Flint argues that these idealistic communities would have to continuously exercise the integration of three inseparable aspects of development – ecology, equity, and economy – establishing a balance between environmental protection, social well-being, and enrichment of human relationships and economic development that improves human welfare. Typically, evolving in a sustainable community is people’s sense of well-being because there is a sense of belonging, a sense of place, a sense of self-worth, a sense of safety, a sense of connection with nature, and provision of goods and services that meet their needs within the ecological integrity of natural systems. A truly sustainable community provides for the welfare and health of the present community members as well as for future generations. Refugee integration touches upon all three pillars of sustainable community development. A distinctive feature, reflected in the case, pertains different aspects of equity, established in community in which the refugees are displaced. Here it becomes evident that people and their capacity to connect and develop together further develop a sustainable community. The result then, a kind of social capital , is created by the trust relationship that is developed among the citizens in one society (Kilpatrick et al. 2003). The more the citizens are willing to trust one another and the more connections and associative possibilities it is generated among one society, the bigger will be the social capital volume on this place, which is very well illustrated by the Befriender’s practice further ahead in this chapter.

Time Banking

The concept of time banking was invented in 1980 by Edgar Cahn, a Distinguished Emeritus Professor of Law at the University of the District of Columbia School of Law. Time banking is a way of giving and receiving to build supportive networks and strong communities by addressing unmet societal needs. His ideas grew out of discontentment with the worldview on equity and opportunity regarding people in need of help and assistance as “objects of charity.” This, he argued, would simply turn them into passive consumers of help. Instead he wanted to build in reciprocity in receiving help and use the dynamics of “pay it forward,” an expression for describing the beneficiary of a good deed repaying it to others instead of to the original benefactor, which means that the recipient of help pays it back by paying it forward. A relation between two strangers has then changed to a relation that builds social networks and communities to tackle any kind of social problems.

Time bank systems offer an innovative way in which people can participate in society both as givers and receivers of services. They operate by using time as a form of currency. For every hour that some volunteers in giving services to others, they receive an hour of service in return; I earn a time credit by doing something for you. It doesn’t matter what that “something” is. For example, an hour of gardening equals an hour of child care equals an hour of dentistry equals an hour of home repair equals an hour of teaching someone to play chess. This amount can be used immediately, be banked for future use or donated for use by other individuals. Running the system means to keep records of how much time individuals give or receive and also of what services people can offer or need and then matching up participants. Many groups have Internet sites that offer assistance to people who would like to set up new branches. All work is seen as equal because, regardless of its nature, it earns the same amount of hourly credits. In this way, time banking promotes equality and builds caring community economies through inclusive exchanges of time and talents with endless possibilities (Cahn 2000).

A study by Miller (2008) of the impact of time banks on the lives of older Japanese members shows how time banking groups can help senior members as well as society as a whole. The study shows that time banks could give people greater control of their lives and foster warmer community links. In this case, the benefits that older time bank members derive include formation of new friendship networks to replace those lost by retirement and the chance to use old skills and learn new ones. Furthermore, time banks can generate a new form of social capital that fosters traditional reciprocity, which in Japan is denoted as ikigai or sense of meaning in life. These groups can nurture alternate styles of human relationships in a complex society undergoing change. Such experimentstried at various levels of Japanese society are emerging as a significant force to bring about changes within the system itself.

How can this way of giving and receiving be used to address the displacement crisis of refugees crossing to many EU countries? How to prevent that those refugees in dire need of help and assistance merely are perceived as objects of charity work, turning them into passive consumers of help? How can reciprocity and the dynamics of pay it forward be built into integration programs? How would it strengthen social empowerment? These questions lead to the overarching one of how these inclusive exchanges of time and talents can benefit human relations and the society at large and be an alternative to the official programs for refugee integration. It would perhaps be presumptuous to think that these ideas can solve the unprecedented displacement crisis; the aim of this chapter is merely to contribute with real-life best practice stories that make sense, create solidarity and compassion, building more integrated local communities. We have found such practices in Scotland and Sweden.

Societal Integration of Refugees

During 2015, 1,321,050 people come to a EU country to seek asylum. One year later, in 2016, the situation was different. Today, the refugee crisis seems to have warded off. People are still seeking to escape the armed conflicts but now come via the sea road to the EU. Still integration challenges are expected. For instance, about 140,000 asylum seekers are waiting for decision by the Swedish Migration Agency if they are allowed to stay or not in the country.

A majority of them will most likely receive a positive decision and will have to establish themselves in the society. This means that their status as a refugee will change to a newly arrived migrant who has a residence permit and social security number, receives a daily allowance (about 30 Euros) from the government, and is enrolled into a Swedish municipality according to current legislations applied to refugee’s integration.

Yet another country to which refugees are resettling is the UK. In different parts of the country, there are different initiatives to help with integration, which are usually conducted by the third sector or origins from community groups. There is a project being piloted by the Scottish refugee council, named “peer education” which gives help to connect local people with newly arrived refugees to support with the integration. This project is piloted in four different parts of Scotland and was highlighted on a public report from the parliament with what is happening with refugees in the UK.

However, the numbers of incoming refugees are tiny compared to Germany and Sweden, which gives it a completely different scale. The families are selected not from Syria directly but from refugee camps in Lebanon or Iraq. There is a careful screening process consisting of four or five interviews conducted and organized by representatives of the United Nations. Sometimes there are as much as three generations of one family. Having passed the selection process, they are flown to the UK and then resettle in different communities across the country. One such community is Edinburgh.

At The Welcoming center in this community, nearly 120 volunteers lead by seven full-time staff, along with four seasonal workers, deliver a diverse range of integration initiatives. The main activity area of the center is English language classes in order to help the refugees to overcome the language barrier and open up the gate to integration in the new country.

It’s the gateway to everything to job, to friendship, to hobbies, and so on. And that’s why we have a huge demand for English language classes at the moment.

In the Edinburgh’s community, there are structural barriers that impede integration initiatives and refugees to get a job in the regular labor market. Some major barriers are the local language, lack of understanding, validating qualifications and educational degrees that the refugees have acquired in the home countries, and even the name of the applicant. At the local center, Elaine Mowat, the director of this organization explains:

I know that people often feel they have to start all over again here even have got a master’s degree in their own country. It’s not particularly recognized, understood or respected here even so that can be a barrier. And I guess discrimination as well. And sometimes it’s difficult to know where that is happening. I know there’s been lots of research showing that people submitting job applications with different names provoke a very different response. I mean the main challenge that we see for people trying to break into the job market is, it’s not just getting jobs but is getting jobs that match their skills and experience and their qualifications.

The center is running 22 classes a week, and volunteers teach most of them. Distinctive about the program of language classes compared to other organizations is the “drop-in.” This means that people don’t book for a class, they come along if they’re able to. In addition, the teachers do not know how many people they’re going to get on each session which lacks on providing continuity between two classes. It is an interactive communicative style of teaching that each class stands alone. It works well for this kind of community as newly arrived often have quite a chaotic schedule, such as appointments in different places, and they may pick up temporary work or their schedules may change. Consequently, the center adapts the teaching for the newly arrived.

Another activity area for the center is employability support. Newly arrived looking for jobs can come and get help with their CVs. A difficulty is that many of them don’t understand what a CV is needs for and to be like for the UK market. Yet another difficulty is when they reach the job interviews, how to prepare for them and how to conduct them. At the center, they get help to present themselves in the best possible way to local employers.

A third activity area is the welcoming friendship program or the so-called befriending program, which, in practice, is targeted at the Syrian refugee community once they seem to benefit the most from it. In this case, the center was contacted by the city of Edinburgh council and asked to provide services to the Syrians that are officially resettled in Edinburgh. The background was yet another structural barrier and seemingly big frustration for many refugees: how to connect with local Scottish people?

At the center newly arrived can meet people from other countries who come to the center and instantly become part of an open friendly multinational community that is a real support to the refugees. In fact, much support is given to the refugees by other refugees.

A lot of the support they get here is not just from staff or from volunteers but it’s from each other.

However, the next step of being part of the local Scottish community with local people is often much harder to make. To make this step happen, the center provides cultural integration opportunities through a welcoming friendship program by introducing and matching the refugees with local people who’ve approached the center and said they would like to volunteer and help refugees settle in Edinburgh. When accepted by the center, they become a kind of a social worker who works for the government. However, there is a difference between the council support worker and the welcoming “Befriender.” This latter role at the welcoming friendship program is quite a new activity for the center.

In Edinburgh, we were overwhelmed at the start of the year over 100 people were left desperate to be friends with refugees but we didn’t have enough or we didn’t really have capacity to support the program because we are quite careful about how we do it so that we will select, you will interview people and check that they seem appropriate we have training, so we can only take on a certain number of people. We have monthly peer support so that people who are befrienders can come to us and share their experiences and support each other. Because, well it is sensitive work and then there is the potential for things to start going wrong so as an organization we want to feel that we are supporting people back. But yes, the numbers grow.

The interest from the local community can be related with the LOHAS lifestyle, see “The LOHAS Lifestyle and Marketplace Behaviour: Establishing Valid and Reliable Measurements”, where individuals are increasingly concerned with social ethics, environmental health, and morality, incorporating practical actions to their daily lives and seeking a balance between individual, environment and society. Working with “befrienders” is, however, a preferred way, which is although quite different to how it originally was conceived. As a small organization, it is essential to be adaptable and to learn from doing.

But that’s the way that we like to work, because I think you can only really learn as you go along and adapt. And as a quite small organization we are able to be very adaptable, we can change things quickly if we find they are not working.

Through the “befriending program,” some 40 matches have been made between local people and new families from Syria who have come through the official resettlement program as well as on their own accord.

By far the main community we are working with is the Syrian community who’ve come through the resettlement program. We also work with some Syrians who’ve come here on their own, so not part of the official program.

A public report has recently been published by a parliamentary group who was looking to what was happening with the refugees in Britain. The report identified two tiers of refugees: the ones who’ve come through the official relocation schemes and another who’ve come on their own. The report further concluded that these refugees didn’t get the same measure of support. Regardless, the center is open to all refugees.

But we are open to everyone, we will work with all people and we have our Welcoming Friendship Program, we have matched Syrians who’ve come here under their own means as well as those through the Program.

However, the center works with a migrant population that comes in total from 77 countries, such as Spain and Italy where there is no displacement crisis due to armed conflicts. People from these countries are particularly in their 20s or 30s who are not finding work at home at the moment. Improving their English is one very concrete thing they can do. This means that in an English Language course class, there may be one or two Syrians in that class, but there are probably 25 people from different nationalities. In the past, the refugee population represented only a few percent of the migrants at the center, but that has changed over the last 2 years when the UK Syrian resettlement program started, which made a big difference for the center that now is starting to work much more with the refugee population. Instead of the government sponsoring newly arrived refugee’s community groups, a provision/proposal can be put forward and an undertaking to financially support families to arrive in a local area. This new way of working comes from Canada.

Selecting the kind of program relies on a mix of criteria. Firstly, there must be a need to be fulfilled, such as the English language program. Secondly, the center is dependent on funding. For instance, in the last 3 years, the funding has been received from a climate fund, which is a Scottish government fund to help tackle carbon emissions and to help people live a more sustainable eco-friendly lifestyle. As a consequence, the center opened up a whole new stream of activities. One of the key programs became the home energy advice where an adviser goes to visit people in their homes and help them to understand how to use the home heating system and how to get a good energy supply. Although it may not be the most obvious activity in terms of integration, it actually seems to work well particularly for refugees coming to Scotland as preheated systems often are very different from those in warmer climates, such as in Syria. The newly arrived can waste a lot of money by spending poorly on home heating, but this advice helps them to save money. In addition, the home energy advice sessions are an opportunity for the refugees to raise all kinds of other issues. The home energy advisor is a kind of private counselor. It is a good way to help engage with people because the advisor enables the development of trusting relationship with people, opening up different opportunities to support them as well. However, this person is a different one from the one who is assigned to a family in the Befriender program.

Most recently the Faculty of Advocates in Edinburgh, Scotland’s top lawyers, who are a powerful and influential body of people, contacted the center. They wanted to connect with refugees in Edinburgh with the help of the center. Their idea was to put on a Burns supper with a “haggis,” which is a certain local traditional event that is celebrated on the 25th of January, the birthday of the national poet Robert Burns. The center invited the whole new Syrian community in Edinburgh, and the advocates themselves took on the role of volunteers at that event.

We had some Syrian music. We had people sign ‘Old Lang Syne’, do you know? In Arabic, (laughs). There were many nice conversations between the local Scottish people and the Syrian community so that felt like a very special and nice event.

This was a unique event due to the mix of Syrian and Scottish culture. But even more interesting, the center has been able to follow up to help create some useful connections for some of the Syrians in Edinburgh.

For example, that day of the Burns Super, one of the Syrian women started saying to me ‘these are my colleagues’, and I couldn’t figure out what she’s was saying and then I realized what she said. I hadn’t realized that before. She used to study law in Syria and I think she only had time to do four months before she had to leave the country. But she identified hereself as a lawyer and here she was in the middle of the Scotland’s most influential lawyers.

The event provided an opportunity for a Syrian woman, enabling her to meet and speak to different lawyers. Together with a representative from the center, she then went to visit the faculty on a separate occasion. This resulted in an invitation to her to take part in seminars with a possibility that she might start to study in the law library. However, she’s not yet ready to pick up law studies because she’s still learning English. Nevertheless, this young Syrian woman has now the chance to become a lawyer in Scotland thanks to the contacts, the encouragement, the kind of investment, and the generosity, creating an environment in which she can achieve her potential.

I think it’s always the unexpected things. I think so long as we as an organization are open to working with other organizations we can help connect and that’s a big responsibility and a privilege but also such a joy to be able to do that.

It’s human conversations, how important it is to have personal contacts in the new country. We always say don’t we, you know it’s all about who you know. That’s one of the major challenges for newcomers in the country. They don’t know anyone. You don’t have your auntie who knows your neighbour’s cousin, who can put you in touch with… you know all those bigger social networks aren’t in place for you.

Social networks are important, and for newly arrived who don’t have them in place in the new country, it is even more important to develop new ones. So, one of the most useful things that newcomers can do is start to put into place those social networks that then can serve them on their personal and professional lives. Here the center plays an important role of providing the conditions for this to happen. Like the relational project environment that is suggested on the chapter “Relational Building Teams,” the social networks facilitated by the Befriender also comes as a response strategy to the social and environmental impacts that is often disregarded by the industry. With shared vision, values, and a common objective to generating human activity and bonds, both mitigate these practical outcomes, showing the industry the importance of shifting from a transactional to a relational team structure that is people-centered.

Another initiative to integrate the refugees where the center played an important role is Bikes for Refugees. It is an organization with an idea to collect bikes that are not being used by local people, fix them up, and then distribute them to refugees. Meaning that refugees instantly can be independent and empowered and enjoy discovering the city and have a completely free of charge way of getting about. This can lead to all sorts of other things, for instance, they can start to get connected with the cycling community in Edinburgh. One of the volunteers at the center, who’s Syrian, got a bike from Bikes for Refugees and has now joined a local group, which is called the 20 Milers. Whereas before all his activities would mainly be with the Syrian community, now he’s branched off and on; he’s the only Syrian in this group of cyclists and it’s all thanks to Bikes for Refugees being able to get him the bike to connect him into these communities.

A third initiative aligned with the two abovementioned is called “Code Your Future” which started in London and has now moved to Glasgow and Edinburgh A group of IT professionals wanted to support the refugee community, and created a 6-month course that would help refugees develop professional skills to take on jobs on programming. It’s worked really well in London and they’re just starting a course in Glasgow, which some people in Edinburgh are participating in. This initiative is not just about gaining the technical skills of programming, but it’s about being connected to the community. As a matter of fact, the volunteers running the course all have good jobs in the IT world, and they’re able to make introductions and get people to work placements. And suddenly people have got a new career.

Common for all these initiatives is that they are cost-effective, flexible, and friendly models that can adapt to the needs of the refugees. There is trust, reciprocity that facilities sharing among and contributing, a huge amount of professionalism, among people who make things happen, resulting in a huge amount of satisfaction for doing what they’re doing. There is something really important about trust and reciprocity and how social capital works both ways, everyone gets something of it, the refugees who engage get the chance to build their networks and get to know different kinds of people, but also, the volunteers get a huge amount of interest and satisfaction from meeting people from all over the world. A common denominator for all the volunteers who come into the welcoming is that they have had an international component to their lives. Maybe they grew up abroad or worked abroad and came back to Scotland, but they just loved being surrounded by people from different countries.

Much of the work at the center is characterized as a learning process. This occurs as learning processes regarding challenging circumstances. For example, with the befriending, there is a peer support and development sessions where some of the volunteers have provided training on mental health for supporting people who’ve experienced torture. This means that the center is growing, not size-wise but in terms of knowledge- and understanding-wise from the more of this kind of work. This builds the capacity to support other people in the future and for the volunteers at building their capacity and their adaptability for different kinds of work.

(We) are … truly, truly a learning organization that is always seeking to question assumptions and to learn where it can. I think it’s really important to notice your capacity to learn and adapt as an organization particularly when you’re working in challenging circumstances, when you are really busy, or you feel under threat because you might lose your funding. I think sustainability and development is an ideal that you’ve always got to be striving to work towards. And you’ve got to hold yourself account to make sure that happens because, you can easily miss opportunities along the way for that.

When is then a refugee integrated? A first step is to master new language to the level of getting a job to support oneself and the family. However, for some refugees, they might start to feel integrated when they look around and think “I’ve got friends here,” “I’m starting to feel at home.”

With our befriending program, we were talking at a recent session “how do we know we’re truly friends”, you know because it’s a very contrived relationship and it was interesting to come up with some examples. One was the Syrian I am working with, she was teasing me on WhatsApp the other day and I just thought oh my god we’re friends because it’s an indicator of a friendship… (and) when we first started thinking about our befriending program one of our participants said something… I think this is a lovely quote: ‘friends make you feel at home’.

However, friendship is an individualist matter, in particular, if people have special interests.

In the case of the Syrian girl who met faculty members of advocates in Edinburgh at the Burns supper local event, it would be when she had the opportunity to visit them while reflecting and seeing her present as a natural continuation of her past with a feeling of belonging in that community. In other words, having the opportunity to choose to stay or not.

I am thinking about the Syrian girl. She had the opportunity to visit their kind of the lawyers from city, and she was ‘ok now I belong here, I saw my reflection of my future, I have a perspective. I don’t see only my present and my past, but I see also a perspective of future here’. There might be something important around choices like when you first arrived particularly as a refugee. You’ve got no choice in your life anywhere. You’ve no choice to arrive here. But the minute when your life starts offering you choices I suspect, and that would be a really interesting thing to research, you know does that start to feel like. You’re more integrated because you can either go this way or that way you can live there you can live there.

It’s when people conquer freedom probably: “ok I’ll be integrated now I can go anywhere.”

Reflection Questions

Disruptive Global Trends

As a disruptive global trend, the unprecedented displacement crisis, sparked by armed conflicts, has resulted in the arrival of large number of refugees to many European countries. Shelter was given to more than one million refugees and in refugee-like situation. Many major European countries as well as smaller ones hosted these refugees who essentially came from Syria, Afghanistan, and Somalia. Notably, however, a country like Sweden with a relatively small population gave in 1-year shelter to 140,000 asylum seekers, which was the highest number per capita among the EU members. The numbers of incoming refugees in the UK are tiny compared to those in Germany and Sweden, which resulted in the displacement crisis causing a scale effect, that is, the displacement of the refugees is not in proportion to the size of a EU member country and its capacity to cope with the integration of them. Today refugees are still seeking to escape the armed conflicts but now they come via the sea road to EU.

The displacement of refugees is by many leaders as well as news people, perceived as a crisis. But perhaps in the drama there is an opportunity encapsulated in “immigration will help companies to grow and ensure long-term prosperity, which is good for economic growth.” For instance, with Europe’s lowest birthrate, rapidly aging population, and skilled worker shortage, Germany could lose its position as the powerhouse in Europe and one of the world’s leading economies. Without significant immigration the working-age population will likely decrease from around 49 million in 2013 to almost 34 million in 2060 according to a government estimate. But it seems that the refugees will not plug the labor gap neither in Germany nor in Sweden. A major reason is the relatively low level of education among the refugees. Both Germany and Sweden have an advanced labor market with demands on well-educated workforce. Statistics show great difficulties for newly arrived to get a job on the regular labor market. In 2006, about one quarter of the labor force in Sweden was newly arrived. Ten years later, this group was for the first time the majority of unemployed. The most common reasons for the failing integration, like discrimination and lacking flexibility in the labor market, can only partly explain the exclusion of newly arrived in the society.

Integration Programs and Structural Barriers

Most EU member countries provide integration programs to facilitate the integration process. However, there can be structural barriers or impediments that limit or impede integration initiatives and refugees to get a job in the regular labor market, such as the local language, lack of understanding, accepting qualifications and educational degrees that the refugees have acquired in the home countries, and even the name of the applicant.

The case from The Welcoming in Edinburgh illustrates an engaged sustainability practice in the form of individualized language education for the refugees. Every week the center is running classes where volunteers teach English to the refugees. Distinctive about the language classes is the “drop-in,” that is, the refugees don’t book for a class but come along when they are available, and the “ad-hoc,” that is, neither is there a preset amount of students nor continuity between two classes. Despite this very untraditional way of organizing education, it seems to be working quite well.

However, the displacement of refugees also results in an askew distribution of refugees among the European member countries. A relevant question is therefore if practices that work in one country that receives relatively few refugees also work in countries that receive relatively many refugees in relation to its population and integration capacity? In other words, would the language teaching practice in Scotland also work in, for instance, Sweden? This question introduces the notion of scale and individualization, normally a paradox, or, more specifically, what kind of “rules of the game” favor scalable solutions that can be used for societal integration of the refugees adapted to their individual needs.

To cope with the integration challenges, a majority of the political parties in Sweden have united around necessary efforts to be implemented in order to strengthen the establishment of newly arrived in the Swedish society. It has been suggested that rules and regulations in this respect should be simplified in order to increase the flexibility and thus facilitate the establishment in the regular labor market. A real need has been identified as finding better ways for low-educated newly arrived to receive professional education so that they can establish themselves in the regular labor market. The possibility to introduce educational duty for people who come to Sweden in the latter part of life and who have not achieved elementary school level education has been raised.

At present (2017) in Sweden, there are almost 300,000 newly arrived with, at the most, elementary school education who face difficulties to enter the labor market. This group of newly arrived poses the greatest integration challenge in Sweden. A relatively large number of the newly arrived has never attended a school or only a few years. They cannot read or write in their own mother tongue and have difficulties to assimilate information that is not concrete and specific, in particular, if it is in Swedish. A majority comes from countries where the everyday life, norms, and values are different from Sweden. Many situations are new and foreign. They may find it difficult to understand the current context, don’t know what is going to happen and what is expected from them. Yet, newly arrived without school education and knowledge about the Swedish society are sent to different kinds of professional education and work life projects and programs that they cannot accommodate. The real challenge is, thus, how to integrate newly arrived and in particular those with none or relatively low level of education; a challenge that is increasing as digitalization and automation make even simplistic jobs more knowledge intense.

Folkuniversitetet, the public adult educational association in Sweden, offers about 38,000 places. Out of those who receive a study, only 16 percent finds a job after the study or continues to further studies; the rest remains inactive or in unemployment. In the public debate, discontent has been voiced over this situation, arguing the unsustainability in public efforts and official programs resulting in a majority of the students that end up inactive or unemployed. In addition, the queues to adult education at Folkuniversitetet are strained to the extent that the school law is violated in many municipalities, a pressure that is estimated to increase in the coming years.

In 2015, more than 70,000 children and juveniles in the age between 0 and 18 years applied for asylum in Sweden. The year after, the number was merely 4,000 students. A new kind of preparedness and knowledge has been required among the municipalities in order to receive and swiftly offer school placement to the newly arrived students. This could include a preparedness to introduce them to sustainability issues. Recent discoveries in quantum physics and neuroscience show that human values, which can play a significant role in achieving a sustainable society, are intrinsic to human beings and hardwired to our brains. How education can be an opportunity to plant a seed of sustainability in young minds is discussed in chapter “Education in Human Values” by Rohana Ulluwishewa.

The SSI has recently published a report about the language education programs in the Swedish high schools criticizing the use of standardized approaches for all students regardless of their schooling background. An eminent risk is therefore that students are losing knowledge they already have gained in their former home countries and that their knowledge progression is delayed. From the SSI report, it is evident that mapping is done by the schools of the students’ knowledge but seldom encompasses other subject knowledge and abilities. Furthermore, the mappings are not shared to everybody working with newly arrived students and are not integrated and systematically used in the education. As a consequence, significant problems appear in the transfer of information about the students’ knowledge levels if they change schools and/or municipality. For instance, in the program for language introduction in the high school, many students receive too little educational time. Full time can vary between 13 and 25 h. On several occasions, the syllabus is governed by the access to teachers and facilities rather than by the students’ needs. Newly arrived students need a good overview and orientation about the offer, choices, opportunities, and ways forward in for them a completely new educational system. However, students’ health and vocational guidance are not integrated into the education in sufficient degree.

Many newly arrived students have good subject knowledge from their previous home countries. It is reasonable to assume that they would benefit from stimulating varieties in the education that are equivalent to their level of knowledge. However, many schools face challenges with recruitments. The lack of accessible teachers and study supervisors in the students’ mother tongue is today a critical factor that may make it difficult for the schools to provide the newly arrived students with individually adapted and varied education. If the Swedish schools cannot offer this, then there is a risk that their knowledge development progression will be delayed. Despite the difficulties some schools have gone through, systematic development of the education for newly arrived students within their traditional quality work found a well-functioning way of working and succeeded in accomplishing increasing variety and flexibility in the education.

This way of working involves how the mapping of newly arrived students’ knowledge and how information about the students are being used. Newly arrived students meet many teachers, student health staff, and many others during their schooling. It is common that they change between classes, groups, and schools. Here it is of utmost importance that information about the individual students is passed on in order to avoid thresholds in the schooling and that training time is lost. Hence, much work has been done with integrating newly arrived students to the Swedish school system. However, there are shortcomings, which make it reasonable to assume that certain students today are studying on a too low level not equivalent with their level of knowledge, whereas others need more basic knowledge and support. As a consequence, their learning and knowledge development may be hampered and provide them worse conditions to continuous education and transfer to the professional life. There are good initiatives to provide individually adapted, varied, and stimulating education to newly arrived students, but the width, variation, and flexibility to fully meet their varying needs can be improved, and follow-up studies are needed. Initiatives to introduce sustainability models, such as circular economy (CE) and cradle to cradle (C2C), in business education, are discussed in chapter “Teaching Circular Economy: Overcoming the Challenges of Green-Washing” by Helen Kopnina).

Suggested solutions and enabling practices in the professional life and school system.

Many municipalities in Sweden have made huge efforts when it comes to the reception of newly arrived students. Most of them receive the students within the statutory time limits. Despite shortcomings (see above), the majority of the municipalities map the students’ knowledge within 2 months. Some chief executives have argued that their organizations have been strengthened as a consequence of many newly arrived students, for instance, through competence development and new forms of cooperation. This is positive and important. However, in order for the newly arrived students to quickly receive good and equivalent education, the municipalities can do more. Firstly, the education is still not sufficiently developed to meet the newly arrived students’ individual conditions and needs. Newly arrived students have very different school background, subject knowledge, language skills, and experiences. Yet many schools apply standardized collective solutions. For instance, standard decisions are common when it comes to the placement of students in preparatory classes. In addition, when it comes to the planning of the education, students who do language introduction in the high school are offered the same schedule and student pace regardless of previous knowledge.

A suggestion is therefore a compressed and adapted elementary school education targeted at a specific group of newly arrived to provide the kind of competence enabling short-term educated people to qualify for a regular job. More specifically, such an education could encompass lessons in Swedish combined with everyday life and social orientation in the mother tongue in addition to lessons in mathematics and, if needed, to improve the mother tongue. Normally such an education would take 3–6 years, which is costly. However, it would be a significant improvement compared to the current situation where it takes on average 8–9 years for newly arrived refugees to start working if they do it at all. It can be speculated that the majority of the people in this category still will not be able to complete such an education. Most likely it will be the younger and the most motivated who will do it. For the majority, the optimal solution might be a combination of a somewhat even shorter, compressed elementary education and less qualified job.

Also when it comes to unaccompanied juveniles with an inadequate school education, it would be a benefit if they could be offered an adapted education. Today they are integrated early in regular business operations, where a majority fails. A solution could be to give them some kind of study payment slightly above the (försörjningsstöd) government support and connected to the presence at the job. Especially for women without government support, who often remain at home, this could be an incentive to enter the professional life. To use current means, which today often result in fruitless activities for newly arrived refugees, for an alternative elementary school education for newly arrived analphabets and those with relatively low education and unaccompanied juveniles would mean huge savings of social costs. In addition, more would be integrated and have a chance on the regular labor market in Sweden. Yet another benefit with less qualified jobs would be that the newly arrived would have a job to go to and then become a positive role model for their children.

Exercises in Practice

Corporate and Citizens Social Investment: Scaling Up Community Initiatives

The Welcoming Association evidences that through the Befriender practice, reciprocity plays its role in society by conserving social norms, enhancing well-being, and increasing the exchanges within an environment. Those exchanges result in optimizing the utilization of idle resources, them being material or intellectual. Initiatives like those have always been a part of society, with the clear majority of them relying on financial support from government, corporations, faith institutions, or private funds. In the case of the time banking, reciprocity replaces the financial payback expected from those outcomes, and time is the currency mediating the relations between the individuals involved. Reflected on the learning acquired in this book chapter and exploring your maximum capacity of thinking outside the box, elaborate ideas and resolutions on how both private and public sectors can scale up and disseminate the practice of time banking within a certain society. Consider the two samples below to be inspired on some of the possibilities in both private and public sector.

Private Sector Initiative

NEFEJ co. is a private company from the luxury sector that decided to transform its business identity and renew its brand identity. Aiming a more sustainable organization, the company decided to transform its corporate social responsibility department into “private social investment on the community – PSIC.” The head of this newly formed department started off by approving a series of adjustments on the corporate policies. One of them allowed its employees to convert up to 10% of monthly contractual hours into community projects managed by the organization. After some months of the policy, they decided to partner with a local time banking program that works with the integration of Syrian refugees on the same city as its headquarters. Distributing its more than 500 employees involved into teams, each department had the accountability of a project:
  1. 1.

    Skill mapping: HR departments mapped each of the time bank’s account holder skills and capability to identify where they could be more productive.

  2. 2.

    Quality and training: These departments were put together to setup training courses that could fulfil the company’s demands or lack of skills in high seasons.

  3. 3.

    Production KT (knowledge transfer): The production team was assigned with a group of refugees mapped by the HR department. This group of refugees possessed vast experience with a fabric that the company is starting to use, and they were designed to collaborate on trainings and support the initial months of the production.


Public Sector Initiative

The city of Polisburg is a state of the art city. Centered on the sustainability principles and balancing its economic, social, and equity pillars, it recognizes and rewards initiatives for a better quality of living of its citizens. Recently a group of citizens grouped to found the first time banking chapter of the municipality. The idea emerged when the city was appointed to receive a huge number of refugees along the year. The mayor was very concerned initially with the budgetary limitations and to the impact that those refugees would cause to the local community. Seeing no way out and embracing the challenge, he studied some failure and success stories and came up with a plan to support this integration process. His thoughts were that money would never be enough when dealing with a situation that goes beyond budget and reaches the social and individual well-being. He decided then to empower local citizens to participate on the decisions and for these citizens to have a saying on the integration process.

After recent studies, the city mayor found out that the public costs in a variety of departments dropped systematically. Some departments claim that there is a slowdown on the aim for public services and an improvement on the living conditions of citizens in that municipality. Some of the initiatives were:
  1. 1.

    Co-sharing of public infrastructure and local assets – The time banking community in that place could utilize public building to conduct time banking initiatives. The first project approved allowed them to conduct language courses and additional skills training on classrooms in public schools over the weekends.

  2. 2.

    Utilization of big data for mapping the skills of each region – Once the time banking system was implemented, the evaluators saw the tool as an opportunity for the selection of the best professionals in the market. The public departments use this tool to map and assign skill demands in different areas of the city. This has helped the municipality to assign refugees to areas with the increasing aging population that is in need of caregivers or from where to relocate or assign skilled professionals in a moment of crisis such as mechanics and other handworkers for natural disasters, for example.


Time Is Not Always Money

Early morning Mrs. Pozzato patiently waits for the ring of the doorbell. She has been struggling with her boiler on the cold winter and she couldn’t find any available plumber nor counted with the expenses of the services after the house acquisition. Luckily, she is part of the time banking community in her hometown, which gives her access to a list of skill masters offering a varied portfolio of services. There she spotted Mr. Lucco, a retired army sergeant that received full-mechanical training and enlisted to time bank to exchange a varied set of skill. He looked at the engine and soon after, eureka! “It seems your boiler’s pressure was low, let’s see if it works now!” Mrs. Pozzato, worried with her budget, asks for the cost of the service, which is promptly responded by Mr. Lucco: “One hour and a half.” Mrs. Pozzato processes the payment from a cell phone app, evaluating Mr. Lucco’s service in a range of aspects and recommending him to some friends. The app deducts from Mrs. Pozzato exactly one and a half hours she acquired by cooking on a nearby school. In fact, she is very active on the community and counts with a very positive social contribution factor, providing much more service than receiving. She enjoys participating of the time banking community because she has accesses to learning and sharing experiences she never would due to the budget limitations. In there, she finds it easy to meet and connecting with people she wouldn’t naturally meet on her social cycle. Some time ago, she met Ms. Gonzalez, a Spanish teacher and actress that recently moved in to her town in Italy to accompany her husband that was transferred from work. Ms. Gonzalez encountered on the exchanges a possibility of connecting with the local community and makes a productive use of her time while she is not working. Through time banking, she managed to coach students on a play while learning how to cook local meals with Mrs. Pozzato and storytelling for kids in hospitals while joining a yoga class conducted by a skill master, and, through that, built a good reputation with the community. Her integration problems are being minimized since she is fully skilled in Italian language and currently count with some savings and her husband’s support. The stories above are shared among citizens with common cultural backgrounds or with cultures that assimilated easily. Now imagine that this community receives a new member, his name is Mohammed and is father of three bright kids. His wife is on the last weeks of pregnancy and currently staying on the shelter they are living most of the time due to her locomotion limitations. Their family recently crossed into Italy from a long journey from Syria through the Mediterranean Sea and is experiencing all sorts of issues in this new homeland.
  1. 1.

    Imagine the following aspects of a human life: thought/feeling, choices, body/health, social context, and soul. Now identify the issues and barriers Mohammed and his family is encountering on each aspect to the integration into this new country.

  2. 2.

    How can Mohammed’s family benefit from “opening an account” in the time bank?

  3. 3.

    What benefits can Mohammed’s family bring to the community?

  4. 4.

    What are the main barriers that can be encountered by refugees on participating of the time banking scheme?

  5. 5.

    What would be the actions to be taken to overcome those obstacles?

  6. 6.

    On a political and global perspective, how can the country benefit from these exchanges?


Engaged Sustainability Lessons

This book chapter focused on how social initiatives can support government’s actions to tackle the refugee crisis. Independently from the origins of the crisis and how the government structures have chosen to deal with this, local communities we forced to come up with fast solutions. Integration, which is a key aspect, raises as the first logical step for the increasing the quality of living of these citizens, enhancing the social well-being in that environment and, while doing that, bringing that whole community to a different way of living. But for that to happen, barriers from different levels of complexity must be overcome. Social barriers are the main causes of integration problems, and it attenuates its nuances on welcoming minorities within a formed social norm. For refugees the challenges are maximized, from communicating within that new environment to finding a job and start being productive, to be respected and has its differences acknowledged, accepted, and respected.

Those barriers can only be overcome when the individual is placed at the center of the priorities without diverging from the equality and reciprocity values. Due to this fact, more standardize initiatives as those usually provided by public services fail to fulfil those refugees and society needs of cost-efficient and community involving initiatives. The bigger the volume, the closer to standardization those initiatives get and, beyond that, the increase need of utilization of national funds to finance them, which has the potential to lead to contradictory public opinions, extremism, and inertia.

Through community involvement in practices such as the Befriender by the Welcoming Association, Code Your Future, Bikes for Refugees, and others, citizens can contribute to the construct of a more sustainable community. These communities transcend from the current social dynamic and invite us to reflect on this model where reciprocity and equality lay as a common ground of the value shared among citizens. On the Swedish initiatives to cope with the volume and the increasing impacts to its labor market and by consequence the economy, time banking aises on this pool of public and private actions as an alternative. Due to its potential to connect and share, it involves the whole community to act on a solution of a problem that impacts them directly. Its core values are essence for the sustainable solution of the refugee crisis . It redefines work by honoring equally the citizens’ contributions, assets by shifting the focus to the individual, seeing everyone as potential assets, and recognizing that everyone has something to contribute. It promulgates reciprocity by implying that help works best as a two-way street. It respects by following the principle that everyone deserves to be heard and that conflicts must be avoided. It stimulates the social capital of the communities by grounding on the belief that together we can do much more than alone.

Citizens can participate by solely joining the reciprocity circle and adopt a positive behavior on employing its best skills and abilities. By doing that, refugees on that context get a chance to understand the social protocols of this new environment, get in contact with the local culture, and expand the limits of its social networks by transitioning from a virtual and, sometimes, isolated and segregate world to the reality of a community living. On the current society, these actions result on enhancing every participant psychological need to feel affiliated and appreciated. In a shared economy model, it has the potential to fulfil even the most basic human needs. Everyone is welcome to join a time bank, but thoughts grounded with economic, political, or religious values are not.

Chapter-End Reflection Questions

  • Is it possible that this unprecedented displacement of refugees that has manifested in lackluster, mixed and at times outright inhuman responses to help people seeking refuge at European shores and borders, which has revealed deep underlying rifts within Europe, lack of solidary and commitment between member states, paradoxically, will make Europe a stronger and more cohesive union?

  • How to go from shirking to sharing responsibility among European member states to handle the displacement of refugees? Can a country’s capacity to host refugees, wealth, population, and unemployment rate be used as basic common sense non-complex criteria to give each EU member country their fair share? (see “Amnesty International”)

  • How to reframe immigrants as a social problem that needs to be fixed but rather as an opportunity?

  • What are the practices in which refugees provide contributions that are valued by local communities and how can they be created, promulgated, and shared across nations (cross-national practices) in Europe?

  • How can communities of practices develop and launch courses that help refugees to develop professional skills to take on jobs and at the same time being connected to and integrated into a society? What are cost-effective, flexible, and friendly means that can be adapted to the various needs of refugees?



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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.RonnebySweden
  2. 2.ArceburgoBrazil

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