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The cultural heritage opens doors for refugees in Barcelona

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The cultural heritage opens doors for refugees in Barcelona

ABUAB, a project supported by UNHCR, organizes cultural activities to promote the inclusion of refugees and enhance their emotional well-being.
27 February 2024
Refugees in Barcelona visit Park Güell, design by architect Antoni Gaudi, during one of the activities organized by ABUAB.

Refugees in Barcelona visit Park Güell, design by architect Antoni Gaudi, during one of the activities organized by ABUAB. 

When refugees flee from war, violence, or persecution, their primary concern is finding safety. Basic needs, protection, and shelter become urgent necessities when life is at risk. But what happens when they arrive in a safe place to start a new life? 

That's when other latent concerns begin to surface, affecting mental health: loneliness, the unfamiliarity of a new country, the aftermath of trauma, and sometimes, discouragement.

ABUAB, a project to integrate refugees through cultural activities, was created to counter these barriers and foster connections with the host society. This initiative takes advantage of Barcelona's cultural heritage for the inclusion and well-being of refugees and asylum seekers. Launched in 2019 by the NGO Heritage For Peace, with support from cultural entities like Apropa Cultura and the Museum of Catalan History, its third edition received support from UNHCR through the Social Entrepreneurship Grants For Refugee and Stateless Led Organizations. With volunteer support, ABUAB organizes cultural activities such as guided museum tours, concerts, and talks. These events not only allow refugees to engage with local culture and enjoy leisure activities for free but also help them build new networks of friendship and social support. The three fundamental pillars—culture, leisure, and social relationships—have a profoundly positive impact on the mental health of individuals who have often endured traumatic situations.

Irina and Viktor, a married couple from Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, arrived in Barcelona in 2022, fleeing the Russian invasion. For them, culture, particularly music, was more than just a hobby—it was their profession and their way of life. That's why, when they learned about ABUAB through Facebook, they didn't hesitate to join. "Food is important, but culture provides security," says Viktor, who communicates in still hesitant Spanish. Irina and Viktor are part of the over 190,000 Ukrainian refugees that Spain hosts, making Ukrainian nationals the largest group of people with international protection in the country.

With strong ties to their country of origin and an uncertain future, inclusion is a challenge for Ukrainians in Spain, especially for people over their 60, like Viktor and Irina. Reconnecting with their former routines, getting acquainted with local culture, and building relationships with new people are the main incentives of a program that also offers activities in Arabic and Ukrainian. 

Viktor and Irina, a Ukrainian refugee couple in Barcelona who have been actively participating in ABUAB’s activities, in front of Catalonian History Museum. © ACNUR/Lurdes Calvo

Lina, a 27-year-old Afghan refugee, has a different situation but is also a participant in ABUAB. Now a student of Advertising and Public Relations in Barcelona, she once managed her university library back in Afghanistan. The possibility of returning to her home country is remote for her. Instead, she sees the opportunity to learn about the culture of her host community as essential. "Spain is now my country, and I need to know everything about it. That helps me feel good and comfortable in my new place." In less than three years, starting from scratch, Lina has not only mastered fluent Spanish and surrounded herself with Spanish and other international friends but has also dispelled prejudices about her own culture, which is largely unknown to her host community.

This reciprocity is very present in ABUAB, whose name precisely alludes to opening doors. "It's a two-way door through which refugees peer to discover the culture of the society that welcomes them, but also vice versa, so that society gets to know them," explains Isber Sabrine, a Syrian archaeologist based in Barcelona and the mastermind behind the project. "When Syrian refugees see archaeological pieces from their own culture in a Spanish museum, it leaves an impression on them," he notes. Understanding historical and cultural connections, as well as differences, fosters an enriches dialogue that contributes both to integration and the well-being of individuals. 

Isber personally experienced this firsthand in an encounter that would later inspire ABUAB. It was 2015, and he was living in Berlin during a time when thousands of refugees were arriving in the city, fleeing conflicts. After finishing his workday, he would head to Alexanderplatz, where refugees gathered, to see if he could help them. There, he encountered the reality faced by many: they had shelter and safety, yet they felt isolated in an unfamiliar city, deeply affected by the trauma of displacement and war. It was then that Isber conceived culture as a form of therapy against sadness. Thus, a project was born, training refugees to serve as guides at the Pergamon Museum—one of the city's most significant cultural institutions—for other forcibly displaced people.  

After the success of this initiative, and now in Catalonia, Isber replicated a model with ABUAB that, according to his experience, boosts self-esteem and well-being for people forced to flee, taking them away from their problems and breaking the monotony. This work complements what he does with Heritage for Peace in conflict-affected countries. In places like Syria, Iraq, or Gaza, the NGO works to preserve archaeological heritage by conducting educational activities with children and providing livelihoods for the local population.

In summary, it involves putting the treasures of the past in the service of both present and future peace. It's a way to promote knowledge, respect, and diversity, contributing to a tolerant and cohesive society where refugees and locals walk hand in hand. Isber, who doesn't shy away from challenges, smiles when asked about the next step: expanding ABUAB throughout Spain and continuing to grow. 

Social Entrepreneurship Grants for Refugee-Led Organizations

In the framework of the Global Compact on Refugees and in line with UNHCR’s Community Participation strategy, UNHCR continues its commitment through the Social Entrepreneurship Grants for Refugee and Stateless-Led Organizations. This initiative provides opportunities for communities to participate meaningfully in identifying challenges related to protection and integration, as well as in seeking better solutions.

The projects implemented through this initiative not only enable refugees and stateless persons to be involved directly in the protection response in the country of asylum but also in the achievement of sustainable long-term solutions.