By Salima Punjani
According to a 2015 report from the International Organization of Migration, over half the world’s population lives in urban areas. This is in part because 60% of the world’s refugee population and 80% of internally displaced people have migrated to cities, raising the question of how to build a sense of social connectedness for these new citizens in their host communities.
Rony Jalkh is a placemaking activist, Senior Fellow at The Project for Public Spaces and a Visiting Professor at Pratt University in New York. Jalkh recently visited multiple cities in Canada with Cities for People and its partner organizations as part of The City as Commons discussion series. We spoke with him about placemaking for peacemaking and how this can be applied to welcoming newcomers to Canada.
According to The Project for Public Spaces, placemaking is “both an overarching idea and a hands-on approach for improving a neighborhood, city, or region. Placemaking inspires people to collectively reimagine and reinvent public spaces as the heart of every community.”
For Jalkh, an essential aspect of placemaking is participation. “When you invite people to participate, this creates trust and trust leads to peace. This is the logic behind this. When you bring two people together for one cause, they see and work with each other. It creates trust and understanding.” Jalkh believes tension arises when people do not know each other, but once they do, they can find a lot of things in common, such as food, entertainment, and the arts.
Jalkh had the opportunity to lead workshops and conversations in Lebanon with Syrian refugees destined for Canada. These conversations — along with his personal experience teaching and facilitating placemaking for peacemaking projects in Lebanon — inspired him to come up with practical recommendations on how to use public space to welcome newcomers into their host communities.
When Jalkh first arrived in New York, he recalls connecting with people and creating friendships with other parents through his children. This was the motivation behind his recommendation to create child-friendly spaces so that parents and children can connect with each other and other families. Jalkh also emphasizes the importance of creating informal playgrounds for children to spark their creativity. “Children need space where they can have an imagination and remind them of the space they left behind. It is very important to not impose toys on them but let them create something. You will see they will be very creative.”
“Culture is something we have in common,” Jalkh says. “People have been forced to leave their country, and without culture in a new country, people can feel like they lose their dignity.” In support of connecting through culture, food related activities give newcomers a chance to showcase their culinary skills and meet people. Jalkh points to the example of a woman from Burj el Barajneh, a Palestinian refugee camp, selling dishes from her culture in Beirut’s popular Souk el Tayeb market as well as through catering events. This helped create a sense of pride, self-expression, social and economic benefits for a group of Palestinan women. Jalkh also supports the organization of fairs so that newcomers can celebrate their cultural richness through music, art, fashion and dance.
Civic activities such as community clean-ups can also help guide newcomers to feel like citizens through providing them with the opportunity to show they care about their host cities. “When you invite people to participate in creating and reshaping their own public spaces they will feel a sense of appropriation of the space. They will take advantage of it and care for it well,” explains Jalkh.
When Jalkh was speaking with Syrian refugees in Lebanon, they were perplexed about why they couldn’t bring plants with them to Canada. “A lot of Syrian refugees come from rural backgrounds, so they have a good connection to agriculture. When they come to Canada, they feel like they lose this connection,” Jalkh explained. By providing newcomers with the opportunity to grow plants and work with land in Canada, it can help them feel a sense of connectedness to others and to their roots. Jalkh says this is particularly important for elderly people so they can be included into society and can feel more at home.
Another way to create a sense of home for newcomers to Canada is to leave cultural materials in public spaces such as books in public lending libraries or board games in parks. “If people see a small corner with this type of game, it will attract them and they can show others about their games,” says Jalkh. He remembers the way people connected over Dominos in Brazil, or chess in other parts of the world, and feels this can be a great way to welcome newcomers and build a sense of togetherness.
Finally, Jalkh recommends using public space for art therapy sessions or photography workshops so that people can creatively translate their emotions. Jalkh explained how his wife used to work with an organization that taught people how to take photographs and asked them to photograph public spaces. “Through the pictures you see what is interesting for them in the public space, is it the tree, bench, playground etc. When you have your camera you focus on something you like to take a picture of. It’s a therapy for them to externalize the feelings they have inside. It reduces fear and concerns they have of coming to a new country.”
While Jalkh agrees that refugees need to take steps to integrate into a community, host communities, he argues, also have a responsibility to create inclusive public spaces. “Canadians should try to understand that people were obliged to come, it wasn’t a choice and newcomers have a lot of fear and concerns.” Jalkh hopes his recommendations can help appropriate public spaces to create a welcoming environment for newcomers and overcome social isolation and fragmentation.