Sediqa Nawrozi, a 29-year-old Afghan refugee, works as a cultural mediator in Fundão, Portugal, helping fellow Afghans to settle in the area. © UNHCR/Ana Brigida

As an intercultural mediator, Sediqa helps acclimate her compatriots to life in a small Portuguese city that is committed to welcoming refugees and migrants

By Jenny Barchfield in Fundão, Portugal

For Sediqa, her work back in her native Afghanistan was more than a job. It was a calling.

The 29-year-old spent seven years at an NGO dedicated to defending the human rights of some of the country’s most vulnerable women and girls. When, after the 2021 takeover by the current de facto authorities, Sediqa suddenly found herself plunged into that very category and escaped to safety via a humanitarian flight to Portugal, her heart broke for the women and girls she was leaving behind.

“As a woman, I lost everything – my rights, my job, my education, everything,” she said, adding that the “future was dark.”

“Every day, I was crying,” she recalled.

While Sediqa was lucky enough to be reunited, in the small Portuguese city of Fundão, with her mother and three of her sisters, she worried constantly about her father and other relatives who were still in Afghanistan. She also worried about how, in this distant country whose language she did not speak, she would ever manage to find work – let alone meaningful, satisfying, and impactful work like she used to do back home.

“When I came here, everything was new for me,” Sediqa recalled, speaking in the office where she now works as an intercultural mediator, serving Fundão’s small-but-growing Afghan community of roughly four dozen people.

Sediqa in her office in Fundão, where she helps fellow Afghans settle in the area. © UNHCR/Ana Brigida

Dwindling population

She is one of eight cultural mediators in Fundão, all hired by the municipality as part of a push to help attract new residents to this remote region in eastern Portugal. Like many other rural swaths of the country, this city of 30,000 has seen its population dwindle since the 1960s, when a pattern of rural-to-urban migration began and has continued, largely unabated, ever since.

“We have lost almost half of the population” since 1960, said Fundão’s mayor, Paulo Fernandes.

Because young people are the most likely to decamp, in search of better opportunities in the big cities or abroad, Fundão’s remaining residents are disproportionately elderly. The dearth of working-age people means that local businesses have long struggled to recruit and retain personnel.

Sediqa’s uncle, Enayatullah (centre), and brother-in-law, Nematullah, pay a visit to her office in Fundão. © UNHCR/Ana Brigida

As a result, the city is hoping to attract refugees and migrants by building a multipronged support structure aimed at easing new arrivals’ often-rocky transition period and helping them put down roots in Fundão. The team of cultural mediators to which Sediqa belongs has dedicated staff that serves the city’s Ukrainian, Brazilian, South Asian, African, and Afghan communities, helping new arrivals negotiate administrative hurdles and access both documentation and jobs, as well as such basic services as schooling and health care.

In addition, Fundão has turned a sprawling former Catholic seminary on the outskirts of town into a multi-purpose “migrant centre”, where recent arrivals can stay while they find their feet. In addition to room and board, the centre also provides childcare, counselling, and a host of cultural activities for some 200 refugees and migrants – many of whom find work in nearby farms and factories.

Holistic approach

Fernandes described the initiatives as part of “a holistic, intense” approach that was bearing fruit. Fundão regularly receives relocated refugees and asylum seekers, as well as others who seek out the city on account of the services that help ensure their arrival is as smooth as possible. Today, fully 7 per cent of residents are foreign-born, the mayor said, adding that this demographic shift marked a substantial change in a city that until recently had been overwhelmingly Portuguese.

He also suggested that the experience for so many families from Fundão of seeing relatives seek better lives abroad had helped make residents here uniquely receptive to foreigners.

Sediqa greets the mayor of Fundão, Paulo Fernandes, who is leading efforts to attract refugees and migrants to the city. © UNHCR/Ana Brigida

“We want to give opportunities for people to build a life…”

Paulo Fernandes, mayor of Fundão

“We are a land of emigrants and, as such, welcoming and receiving those in need is for us a moral imperative,” said the mayor, adding, “we want to give opportunities for people to build a life project in our community. [That they can] not only recover, physically and mentally, but are able to access a decent home and a decent job and become complete citizens of our community.”

Fundão is a shining example of how both refugees and the communities welcoming them can benefit from inclusive policies and practices, boosting the self-reliance of new arrivals and reinvigorating local economies.

Promoting such inclusive approaches will be a major theme of the Global Refugee Forum (GRF) in Geneva from 13-15 December. The GRF is the world’s largest gathering of politicians, diplomats, refugees, businesses, charities and foundations, faith-based groups and many others to address the challenges and grasp the opportunities faced by those forced to flee their homes, and by those who host them.

Filipa Batista, coordinator of the local migrant centre, says the new arrivals have changed the fabric of Fundão, breathing new life and colour into the city.

“It’s amazing to see how our small city has become an embracing land – a place that warmly receives people from all over,” Batista said. She added that local residents have overwhelmingly greeted the new neighbours with curiosity and empathy, with many life-long residents reaching out to newly arrived families to lend a hand, bringing over meals, donating furniture and other basics, or helping out with childcare.

Sediqa shares a joke with Filipa Batista, the coordinator of a center that houses some 200 refugees and migrants in a former Catholic seminary. © UNHCR/Ana Brigida

“Now I am able to help other people.”

Sediqa, Afghan refugee

Sediqa, who as part of her job regularly makes house calls to check in on families and accompany them to doctors’ visits or other important appointments, says she and her own family are grateful for the warm reception they and other refugees have received.

“The community here in Fundão, they are very kind. People are very helpful,” she said with a smile.

She is also grateful to have been hired as a cultural mediator, saying that the job has once again given her life meaning.

“I came from this situation (and) now I am able to help other people,” she said, referring to the difficult experience of being forced to leave home and build a new life in a completely foreign context. “I feel proud.”

Originally published by UNHCR on 2 November 2023.

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