Imagine what happens when you get a new opportunity to live. What kind of energy is released? Imagine a coil, compressed for years, that springs open when one is safe. That is exactly what happens to many refugees; in their first years, most are coils springing forth, full of energy, eager to prove themselves. They have energy, motivation, and ideals, and this combination has the potential to move mountains. Soon, however, they face many difficulties understanding the complex bureaucracies of their new countries. This is especially true in strong welfare states – such as the Netherlands – where bureaucra­cies are considered to be flat and accessible, but are layered and complex in practice.

Getting a good start when motivations are high (by learning the language, studying, gaining employment, and so on) is essential for refugees’ long-term inclusion. However, research shows refugees’ self-determination and active participation can be undermined by decades of deficit-based welfare policies focusing on their shortcomings instead of their qualities and talents. Because of this fo­cus, many societal and organisational policies aimed at inclusion actually exclude refugees in practice. This is exemplified by the growing number of unemployed migrants and refugees in the Netherlands and Europe.

Reflection on the images, assumptions, and biases that often block inclusion is needed. This requires innovative infra­structures that unsettle taken-for-granted biases in minds and in practice. Through connecting academic and local knowledge, engaged scholarship can facilitate reflection and transformative action toward inclusion. With this idea in mind, prof. dr. Halleh Ghorashi (together with dr. Elena Ponzoni) initiated the Refugee Academy in 2017. The Refugee Academy is envisioned as a horizontal learning/reflective infrastructure, a kind of capaci­ty-building, that connects existing knowledge and perspectives on refugee inclusion from multiple positions.

Sarah: rediscover the forgotten story

An academic-engaged project focused on refugee inclusion brought various stakeholders (refugees, policymakers, HR managers, NGOs working with refugees) together to debate issues of diversity, power, and inclusion. The most profound example of this project came from Sarah, who had come to the Netherlands as a refugee 10 years prior. When Sarah was asked to describe the moment in her life when she felt strongest, she answered, “I don’t think I have such a story”. After encouragement from the group to think about which aspects of her narrative she would consider as powerful, she remained silent. “I don’t know”, she confusedly answered. […] After several sessions of silence, Sarah ended up telling an astonishing story of herself as a young woman fighting for her freedom, and that of other women, in an oppressive, male-ruled environment in Eritrea, eventually joining the armed fight for the freedom of her country, leaving her family, social position, and her daily certainties behind.

Stories such as Sarah’s show the urgent need to improve the reflective capacity of relevant stakeholders in positions of power (including academia) through connection with the lifeworld of refugees. Documenting and analysing refugees’ narratives about their struggles toward inclusion, and engaging with those narratives within infrastructures such as the Refugee Academy, help us in identifying taken-for-granted sources of exclusion and co-creating conditions toward inclusion. This engaged methodology helps us bring the policies, research, and initiatives for change closer to the lifeworld of refugees. Only then will we be able to co-generate sustainable structures for refugees’ dignified survival and inclusion.