Thirteen years ago, four women of Russian and Ukrainian origin founded Prague’s ground-breaking Agency for Migration and Adaptation (AMIGA).
Elena Tulupova, Viktoria Golovinova, Olena Beskid and Anastasia Stepanova were inspired to create the association because they realised the city did not offer mental health support for migrants.
“Even though we did not consider ourselves the most vulnerable migrants, as we were working in academia here in the Czech Republic and had been living here for several years by then, we had never heard of these services,” says Tulupova, AMIGA founder and chairperson.
Your therapist is AMIGA
As the association’s founders come from the health field, AMIGA initially focused on health promotion programmes, driven by a desire to share information on wellbeing and psychological therapy.
The support offered is focused on the specific needs of each person and often extends beyond consultations with psychologists. It also includes support from intercultural mediators, who help people to solve social issues, such as getting an appointment with a doctor or finding job skills training.
The non-profit association established the first multidisciplinary mental health and social support centre for Ukrainian refugees in the Czech Republic, named ‘DUMKA’. Supported by the City of Prague and other organisations, DUMKA mobilised support for those aiding refugees, particularly social workers and volunteers.
Launching the initiative proved challenging, but they received help from the city’s local government. “Even before it was officially registered, we got support from the municipal level,” explains Tulupova.
“The vice mayor of one of the central districts in Prague connected us with the Social Organisation Centre for Social Services, where we could start our work. This centre provides health and social services to older people, children and the vulnerable in society. The district also provided us with the office for our community centres that we rent at a special price.”
AMIGA collaborates with the City of Prague, schools, and medical professionals to address other issues, such as integration and conflict prevention.
Beyond mental health
But AMIGA’s support programmes go beyond providing psychological services, catering to people of all ages and backgrounds. This includes individual mental health support, but also group activities for integration, educational programmes, and specialised support for various groups, such as families with special needs and oncological patients.
For example, AMIGA’s oldest and longest project, ‘Volunteers with an Accent’, connects long-term migrants with volunteer opportunities tailored to their preferences. This project, viewed as a catalyst for adaptation and integration, has attracted volunteers from around the world, spanning several age groups.
Tulupova highlights AMIGA’s evolution from a solely voluntary organisation to a critical player in migrant support. Over 7,500 individuals have benefited from their programmes only since mid-2022.
AMIGA has also engaged in international projects, focusing on youth empowerment, entrepreneurship, women, and migration-related art. The organisation has collaborated with various European NGOs and in 2012 became the first migrant-led organisation to join the Consortium of Migrant Assisting Organisations, an umbrella organisation of Czech NGOs working on migrant rights.
The voices of the unheard
Natallia Allen also lives in Prague. She wanted to tackle the lack of migrant voices in local participatory processes. Together with four other citizens with migrant roots, she founded MigAct, the city’s first independent association that works to eradicate barriers and amplify the voices of people with migrant backgrounds.
Collaborating with Prague City Hall, the non-profit organisation holds participatory events where people with migrant backgrounds can shape the city’s future. These events delve into topics ranging from understanding the responsibilities of the City Hall to discussions on the local action plan for integration. The initiative aims to collect valuable feedback and opinions through co-design techniques, facilitating the outlining of an action plan for the next two years.
“All our activities are addressed to people with migrant backgrounds living in Prague, which is a broad audience,” explains Allen. “From the very beginning, we tried to involve active people with migrant backgrounds in the work of MigAct.”
Last year, MigAct conducted research on the obstacles that residents with migrant backgrounds face in the city, particularly in participation and civic engagement. “It shows many people are interested in being active, but they come across many different barriers that make it difficult to access institutions, organisations or activities,” says Allen.
“Those obstacles range from language barriers, lack of information and unfamiliarity with the context, to a limited awareness of one’s rights, rejection, prejudice, or xenophobia.”
Championing civic participation
Led by Eurocities, the UNITES (UrbaN InTEgration Strategies through co-design) project works to develop co-designed integration strategies among municipalities, NGOs and migrant communities based in several European cities. UNITES support contributed to three participatory events on co-design techniques that MigAct organised this year.
These events allowed people with migrant backgrounds to have a say in city planning for the next two years. The first event presented the work of the municipality, competencies and responsibilities, and explained how people could get involved in participatory processes.
The second gathering was connected to the action plan in integration for the following years and collecting feedback. The last event focused on providing feedback on the municipality portal, called ‘Prague for all’, which gathers guidelines, organisations to contact and practical information about integration.
“Participation is a very important part of civil society,” says Allen. “Czechia is dynamic when it comes to democratic processes, but migration on a big scale is very recent here, probably in the last twenty years. Prague is growing as a very diverse intercultural city, but there is a big gap in the representation of its population.
“People with migrant backgrounds or with difficulties understanding the language do not have the same access to participation at the city level as citizens do, which means they’re excluded from voicing any opinion on how the city should develop or look in the future.”
However, she explains, “they pay taxes and are part of their neighbourhoods in a very natural way since they live, work and have families here.”
Overcoming language barriers
The city of Prague has developed its municipal website to ensure it is more accessible for all visitors. Jan Janoušek, who is a Specialist for the Integration of Foreigners for the City of Prague, highlights the importance of improving communication channels to inform migrants in the city.
As well as Czech, the city’s website and Facebook page are currently available in four languages: Russian, Ukrainian, English, and Vietnamese. The languages that have been selected are based on the demographics of the migrant population in the capital.
“Those nationalities are the most numerous in Prague,” says Janoušek. The objective is not only to reach a wider audience but also to gather valuable feedback on the effectiveness of these channels.
Understanding the diverse linguistic landscape of Prague’s migrant population, MigAct adopts a bilingual approach at its events, conducted in both Czech and English.
“Most of our events are in Czech and English as an attempt to make it more accessible to people of various backgrounds,” states Natallia Allen.
According to the Ministry of the Interior, as of 30 November 2023, there were 341,000 people residing in Prague who have long-term or permanent residence permits and 93,600 people with temporary protection fleeing the war in Ukraine. This is 430,000 people in total out of Prague’s 1.4 million population.
However, people who have been naturalised, non-registered EU citizens or those not officially residing in Prague are not included in these statistics, so the actual numbers of people with migration backgrounds are higher.
“The number of people with migrant backgrounds in Prague is quite high, and they’re very diverse, coming from very different countries. They often choose English as this a connecting language that can make things easier, as many people we work with do not speak Czech at a very advanced level,” adds Allen.
Language is indeed a barrier to participation of all kinds. MigAct ran an acceleration programme last year to mentor and support non-profits and civil initiatives to overcome this challenge and ensure access to opportunities.
The organisation boosted the work of six intercultural teams through different educational activities, such as workshops on project design, sessions on types of fundraising and NGO’s financial management, and mentoring based on teams’ needs.
Allen explains that “80% of the acceleration programme is also in English to make it accessible to different multicultural teams,” making it unique since “we have a lot of different incubation and startup programmes, but they’re always in Czech. So many people from the communities we work with remain excluded from these opportunities.”
MigAct evolved through discussions and community engagement for a year and a half, shaping its mission to focus on supporting civic and political participation among people with migrant backgrounds residing in Prague.
The association’s core activities are capacity-building, networking and education. “Citizens, representatives from institutions and those working in NGOs can meet and discuss to connect and check if they have common interests,” adds Allen.
UNITED across Europe to co-design
UNITES is the umbrella under which Prague, as a participant city, and organisations led by and working with migrants, such as MigAct and AMIGA, develop their activities.
“Our main goal is to deepen cooperation with active migrants and migrant organisations and find new partners in the civic sector,” explains Janoušek.
The goal is not just to expand the field of organisations the municipality works with, but also to provide a base for communications and feedback, and cooperation “not only concerning the development of our integration strategies, but defining concrete actions for our plan,” says Janoušek.
Prague intends to expand collaboration with other stakeholders, city departments, and districts to work on cross-cutting issues. This includes cooperation with city departments covering social affairs, healthcare, education, youth and sport.
Janoušek stresses the importance of maintaining support services for migrants, especially when considering the prolonged stay of many people. The UNITES project in Prague is a testament to the city’s commitment to fostering a sense of community and support for migrants.
By prioritising systematic cooperation, improving communication channels, and drawing on international experiences, the project aims to create a more inclusive and supportive environment for active migrants living in Prague. As the initiative evolves, it will seek to address challenges and continue its mission of enhancing the overall well-being of migrants in the city.
UNITES partners gather this week. #Cities exchange knowledge about co-designing #integration strategies with Yorkshire&Humber Refugee Integration Strategy and Forum @migrationwork @pragueEU @cityofAthens @duesseldorf @zaragoza_es @oulunkaupunki @GrenobleAlpes Zagreb, Bologna pic.twitter.com/t7NC8ci2cA
— Integrating Cities (@IntegratingCTs) May 23, 2023
Through Eurocities, Prague has had the opportunity to learn from other cities like Athens, sharing experiences, strategies, challenges and successful implementations. This exchange was particularly beneficial in shaping Prague’s response to the influx of refugees and inspired initiatives, such as the one-stop-shop project for Ukrainian refugees.
Looking ahead, in February representatives from Prague will also take part in a UNITES visit to the city of Oulu in Finland. They will join colleagues in Zagreb to look at innovative approaches and possibilities for collaboration.
“When Ukrainian refugees started to come to Prague, we were quite overwhelmed. We wondered what to do and what the practices of other cities facing the influx of refugees were,” states Janoušek.
“They shared their experiences, activities and projects that they were developing, and it was really inspiring,” he adds.
This story is part of a series of articles that presents the experiences of migrants, organisations and municipalities working under the umbrella of the UNITES project in Europe, co-funded by the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund (AMIF).
UNITES (UrbaN InTEgration Strategies through co-design) trains and accompanies local authorities to co-design integration strategies with other stakeholders and migrants.
UNITES works with eight cities to help them develop local integration strategies through co-design with stakeholders and migrants. In planning and implementing their actions, they will receive guidance from colleagues from other cities and migrant organisations in peer workshops and peer visits to each city.