A UNITES story: Transforming migrant lives in Zaragoza

2 February 2024

Magola Arias travelled from Santo Domingo in Ecuador to Zaragoza over two decades ago. She arrived in the Spanish city as part of a reunification process, so she could follow her daughter.

Her migration story was not without its challenges. “This dream you have, in your country of origin, of coming here to supposedly improve your situation, your economy, is a bit deceitful,” she says.

However, it was her unwavering determination that led her to turn those challenges into opportunities to help others.

Women leaving footprints

Her journey began when she joined a local association that provided support to migrants. Here, Magola found a space where she could share her passion for dance and art, while offering practical help to those in need.

Eventually, her commitment and leadership led her to create her own association, focused on providing comprehensive support to migrant women from various countries. Through ‘Mujeres dejando HuellaZ’ (‘Women leaving footprints’), Magola has coordinated a wide range of activities, from educational workshops to knitting groups and community events. But the most important thing they do, is listening.

“We’re here to listen, really listen, and provide that supportive embrace, giving them the boost they need to progress and offering guidance along the way,” she says. “If they’re unsure about paperwork or where to turn, I’ll pick up the phone and assist them as best I can.”

We're here to listen, really listen
— Magola Arias

Since founding the association in June 2018, Magola has helped more than 250 people in one way or another.

The House of Cultures

Last December, Magola danced in a performance to commemorate the International Day of the Migrant.

It was one of the events held by the House of Cultures of Zaragoza, which organises activities to raise awareness, promote diversity and boost interculturality in the city. This association also provides migrants with important information on topics that impact on their lives, including guidance on legislation about antidiscrimination and hate speech.

An event organised by the House of Cultures

“The House of Cultures, as its name suggests, is a ‘home’,” says Magola. “There, you can make your voice heard, by defending your own project, or supporting those coming from others that could benefit the community.”

Maria Berges, Socio-cultural technician in the House of Cultures, and her colleagues work to commemorate the International Day of the Migrant, but also the International Day of Tolerance in November, the International Week Against Racism in March, and the International Romani Day every January.

The House of Cultures is involved in many other activities, such as language courses covering Romanian, Arabic, Chinese or Hebrew, and dance classes from all over the world, like Hebrew dances, Bollywood, African dances, and dances with drums.

The House of Cultures, as its name suggests, is a ‘home’
— Magola Arias

The association also runs its unique theatre for cultural diversity, where people can develop creative ideas relating to their own migratory experiences. Each June, when the course ends, the student body prepares a collective performance.

“Migrant experiences are in the spotlight thanks to the contest for stories for people who have gone through a migratory process and want to reflect it through literature,” explains Berges.

A reunion programme

As well as its wide range of activities, the House of Cultures also helps people who want to bring family members from their home country. “Throughout this difficult adaptation process, a psychologist and an educator accompany the migrant and their family at all times,” explains Berges.

During this process, checking houses to ensure they meet health and safety requirements is key. This is all part of an integration method that starts with welcoming people but offers much more support. “Welcome is fundamental, but it is unidirectional, which is valid for an emergency, but not for coexistence,” explains Berges.

We can't just live next to each other without knowing each other
— Maria Berges

Indeed, she likes to talk about ‘living together’ instead of ‘coexistence’. “We can’t just live next to each other without knowing each other,” she says. “I believe that in the end ignorance is what leads to radicalisation.”

Why codesign

“Codesign is basic and fundamental,” explains Berges. “Creating a strategy, which is what we are going to do with the support of the UNITES project, would not make sense unless we include the views of the local migrant communities we are supporting,” explains Berges.

“We would end up making a reception of what we think they need, but I, as a person who was born in Zaragoza, have no idea of their needs at each step.”

A participatory session in Zaragoza

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, including Zaragoza.

Magola, herself a migrant, couldn’t agree more. “The most effective approach is to heed the voices of those directly experiencing it,” she says. “When someone who hasn’t lived through it, who hasn’t felt it themselves, speaks out, it often falls on deaf ears.”

“However, when someone from their own community speaks up, it undoubtedly resonates more deeply, prompting a more serious consideration for implementing improved measures or assistance.”

The most effective approach is to heed the voices of those directly experiencing it
— Magola Arias

Berges explains that the House of Cultures has always taken care of vulnerable groups, having been in operation in the local community for the past 25 years.

“After spending so much time with the House of Cultures, I’ve truly emerged from the experience feeling strengthened and having gained a wealth of knowledge and insights,” acknowledges Magola.

The action plan being developed by the city of Zaragoza, with the strategic support and input of the UNITES project, will include a series of discussions with local groups to evaluate their diversity plan and future strategy. This will ensure the organisation can give a voice to silenced groups that do not usually participate in this type of process.

To achieve a real and effective co-design approach, the House of Cultures celebrates elections once a year to select two migrant-led associations, two social entities and one representative of the Roma community. The association’s mixed management, made up of civil servants, public administration and civil society associations, ensures migrant communities’ needs are recognised and addressed.

Borderless cooperation

Berges emphasises UNITES’ support. “We meet with colleagues from other cities and exchange good practices, we are up to date. Sometimes, staying in your city with your team does not allow you to look beyond even when you try to discover what others are doing, whereas speaking with others from other countries opens new possibilities,” she says.

She feels supported because they all work on the same thing “but in another place, with other needs, but in the end what we all want is to integrate and raise awareness. It is very enriching.”

She adds: “For example, the last visit that our colleagues from Grenoble and Bologna brought us on, as part of the UNITES project, was wonderful. It was a participatory session with several migrant associations, and it helped us a lot to see other points of view, what we had done well, and what we had not done so well.”


This story is part of a series of articles that presents the experiences of migrants, organisations and municipalities working under 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.


Marta Buces Eurocities Writer
Lucía Garrido Eurocities Writer