SINGA: Unlikely connections form a powerful community

9 November 2015, by Romy Faulkner

  • Romy Faulkner

As the sun sets in Paris, its warm glow reflects off the windows of majestic palaces, gold-encrusted bridges and breathtaking cathedrals. However, for thousands of asylum seekers, daily life in Paris is an endless underground journey in the under-ventilated metro, traversing the enormous city to reach various administrative offices that administer the asylum process. Asylum seekers are looking for places to sleep, eat and shower, all the while struggling to pay the price of a metro ticket. This is a very different Paris to the one that appears in travel guides and has that uncanny ability to woo tourists with its enchanting beauty.

For the asylum seeker who has recently fled conflict or persecution, making it through each day in Paris represents a new challenge. This person seeking safety must navigate her way through a vast web of bureaucracy in a language she doesn't understand, and in a bustling metropolis with which she is not familiar and in many cases does not feel welcome. Without a community to which the asylum seeker or refugee can reach out, the task of obtaining stability and social connectedness is a significant challenge.

A community that can empower a refugee to improve her situation is exactly what SINGA France has been building in Paris since its inception in 2012. SINGA is an organisation that supports refugees with their socio-economic integration in France through a variety of projects. At the same time, SINGA is positively shaping the public discourse on refugees in France, by demonstrating how refugees enrich French society. The following are some of the key principles that drive this innovative organization.

Agency through project development

SINGA is not a support agency for refugees in the traditional sense, with an agent-client service relationship. Rather, the organisation generally acts as a liaison, connecting refugees with resources and people (often found within the SINGA community itself) who can help them improve their own situations and drive their own projects. SINGA supports refugees starting up their own businesses by putting them in touch with a small group of buddies or mentors with skills and experience that are relevant to the particular entrepreneurial venture – be it food trucks or exercise classes. Members of the SINGA community have started projects related to art, music, cooking and social development, to name a few. One refugee who fled Chad has been able to sell his artwork in top galleries in Paris and plans to hire an unemployed French person as his manager. Another lady who fled Sri Lanka is now running her own catering business. A group of Sudanese people is working to support others who arrive from their country and face the challenge of avoiding homelessness. In many cases, it would be easy to retreat into isolation and despair, but the common thread amongst project leaders is an impressive drive to improve their own lives and the lives of those around them by engaging actively in French society.

The aim is for refugees to lead their own projects and businesses autonomously, and to have a network of people at their fingertips who can share knowledge related to the local context (such as the business and legal environment) and help them with issues along the way. People in the SINGA community build mutually-beneficial relationships, founded upon equality and complementary expertise. The person running their project (the refugee) gains an understanding of the local context, and shares their own expertise and skills, from which other community members can learn. Being able to use one’s skills and experience is such a fundamental aspect of a person’s identity - a person might be much more likely to identify themselves as an artist or a chef than a ‘refugee’. SINGA therefore helps people to choose which aspects of their identity they most want to promote, rather than forcing them to identify themselves first and foremost as refugees, as is so often the case in resettlement societies.

SINGA does not create a dynamic of ‘us’ welcoming ‘them’ into 'our' French society. Rather, it creates a platform for people (whether refugee or not) to work together to improve French society through positive social and economic activity. A project that epitomises SINGA’s approach of equal partnership is the ‘C.A.L.M.’ (Comme A La Maison) project, which teams up refugees looking for accommodation with people who are happy to have another person living with them. The system works like couchsurfing, where the idea is not to inspire charity, but rather to facilitate human connection and social interaction. A person opens their house to another person not because they see them as a victim who needs support, but rather because they are somebody with whom they would like to share their social environment. Thus, the person moving into the home is not just provided for, but is empowered through the social connection. Within 2 months of the C.A.L.M. platform being launched, SINGA has already received over 12,000 offers from people in France that were opening their homes.

Open community

SINGA is officially an organisation, but above all it's a community. It's a group with a seductive energy and an inspiring ability to foster social connectedness that enriches the lives of everyone involved, regardless of their background. The SINGA community is founded upon such a simple concept: that forging human connections helps to break down barriers of misunderstanding and allows people to actively share, learn from and help each other, which ultimately improves lives. It is, however, a simple concept that is all-too-easily overlooked in the bustle of metropolitan lives.

Anyone who is interested in improving socio-economic cohesion is welcome to join the SINGA community. And I use the phrase ‘join the SINGA community’ loosely - there is certainly no structured joining process involved. Anyone who attends events is already part of this unbounded community, or they can be involved more intensively, for example by becoming a ‘buddy’ to a refugee.

Terminology: erasing unproductive divisions

SINGA intentionally brands itself as a community of people, to try and break down divisions between refugees and non-refugees - these social and legal categories that might be necessary in some contexts but can be highly destructive of positive social connectedness. Being a refugee is merely a temporary legal status, it does not represent who a person is. Why, then, do we so often hear 'she's a refugee' rather than 'she's an artist' or other markers that we often use to describe people that we meet. The 'refugee' label creates a barrier that can block natural human interaction. There can be a number of causes of this blockage, including uncertainty that people sometimes feel about whether they should interact differently with refugees, for example showing greater compassion or discreetness. Rather than simply interacting as they would with any other person they meet, the ‘refugee’ label can cast a shroud over communication from the moment it is mentioned. As soon as the word 'refugee' is used, a piece of person's personal story is exposed, without the person being able to divulge their story organically, as and when they feel comfortable. By its very nature, the term 'refugee' is a divider - it categorises and separates one human from the next and undermines our ability to engage comfortably and naturally with each other. This is why, whenever possible, SINGA avoids using the 'refugee'' label and focuses on the community of people.

In German, there are actually two words that can be used to translate ‘refugee’. One is ‘flüchtling’, which refers to people with refugee status and is most commonly used term to refer to refugees. The term does not imply that the person had agency over the decision, and is also now commonly being used to refer to all migrants entering Germany. The other word is ‘geflüchtete’ which refers to a person who is displaced but still has agency over their own life and decisions. Unlike ‘flüchtling’, geflüchtete’ is not related to legal status. The difference might seem minor, but the former word focuses on a neutral legal category, whereas the latter word focuses on the person, still embodying their inherent human dignity. SINGA adopts the latter approach and encourages societies to focus on the person, not the dehumanising legal status.

Of course, eradicating the ‘refugee’ label is difficult in practice, when there is a need to attract people to the SINGA community - including refugees, people who want to work with refugees, and people who seek to fund refugee support initiatives. Co-Founder of SINGA, Guillaume Capelle, said that the organisation tries to picture whether somebody seeing the word ‘refugee’ in a particular context would feel isolated by the term, and tries to use alternative terminology wherever possible when this is the case. Of course, the organisation is riding the learning curve. Perhaps a more neutral term could be systematically used. For example, another innovative organisation in Australia, the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, employs the term ‘member’ for asylum seekers, which allows the organisation to distinguish between people for necessary practical purposes, but with less stigma than ‘asylum seeker’ or ‘refugee’.

Solutions-driven approach

SINGA is not in the business of charity. The organisation does not seek to be on the last page of a glossy corporate brochure as the partner for companies’ tick-the-box corporate social responsibility. Rather, SINGA works towards mutually beneficial partnerships and realistic, implementable solutions that help facilitate the contribution of refugees to French society. For example, SINGA organised a social entrepreneurship incubation challenge in partnership with Viacom (the company that owns MTV). Refugees who were developing their own businesses presented their ideas to employees at Viacom and the group then workshopped the business plans together. SINGA is engaging in a number of creative private sector partnerships that generate mutual benefits.

When SINGA highlights the contributions that refugees are making to French society and presents forward-focused, pragmatic solutions to isolation and livelihoods issues, it is difficult for even the harshest critics of refugees to complain.

Start-up, entrepreneurial mindset

SINGA is small, energetic and nimble. It is comprised of a few dedicated permanent and temporary staff who are there because they believe in the cause. The organisational culture is one in which people drive their own ideas through to fruition because they have the flexibility to be creative. In fact, limited funds means that they are forced to be creative. With very few limitations imposed by bureaucracy, SINGA operates with quite a do-it-on-the-run entrepreneurial mentality, which has its advantages. I was astounded by the number of programs being run by a team of 7 people. This also highlights the beauty of the SINGA community: the small team of staff members hope that projects can eventually be driven purely by members of the community. The SINGA community now stands at more than 3,000 people, including about 300 active volunteers, so the impact will be much wider when the drive comes from so many engaged, talented people.

Pulling power

SINGA has an incredible power to draw interested people into its fold. I discovered SINGA online, and was drawn to find out more because I already had a strong sense from social media of the vibrancy and energy of the organisation. To put it simply, SINGA is cool. It epitomises the sort of social connectedness from which we can all benefit, and reminds me of the principle of 'ubuntu', that no human being exists in isolation:

…”I am what I am because of who we all are”.[1]

SINGA is also in Morocco and Quebec, and planning is underway to establish SINGA in Germany and Australia soon. If you're interested in getting involved in the SINGA community, check out the website: www.singa.fr.


[1] From a definition by peace activist Leymah Gbowee.