We Are Here Zürich: “Let’s make people experience the positive aspects that migrants bring”

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Intervenção na cidade de Halle (Alemanha), promovida pelo We Are Here Zürich. Crédito: Divulgação

Formed by volunteers, the group organizes activities inside Switzlerland and other countries, putting migrants and local people together in open-air events; next stop is Brazil

By Rodrigo Borges Delfim
From São Paulo (Brazil)

“We decided to set up these initiatives to make people ‘feel’ and ‘experience’ all the positive aspects that migrants bring along with their personal histories, cultural background, knowledge, skills, food, etc.. instead of letting the images and reductive interpretations settle in”. Here is the goal of “We Are Here, Zürich”, a group formed in Zürich (Switzerland) by volunteers engaged to put together migrants and local people in open activities.

The group is giving their first steps (it has started this year of 2017), but the activities already went out of Swiss borders. Last European summer, “We Are Here Zürich” promoted an open-air happy hour on a corner in Halle, Germany. And during November 15th to 19h they are coming to Brazil to join at 1th Architecture Biennale, in São Paulo – in partnership with Arquipélagos Urbanos, a Swiss-Brazilian group – to promote something similar in downtown.

Manon Fantini, one of “We Are Here Zürich” volunteers, is going to take part the actitivities in Brazil and told to MigraMundo about what they are preparing for the 5-day program. And also gave more information about the group and their next steps. “By preparing the project we have found out that it is actually a topic but we are very curious to discover the scale and the response to the problematic, both from the point of view of migrants and from the point of view of Brazilian citizens”, says.

MigraMundo: How did “We Are Here Zürich” surged? Do you have some inspiration in other initiatives?
Manon Fantini: We are here Zürich started as a spontaneous initiative by a group of friends coming from different fields (architecture and curating) who connected around a common desire to take active part in the problematic of migration. Having experienced the thematic in different situations through previous projects, from the shores of Lesbos to the ‘Jungle’ refugee camp of Calais in Northern France, we thought it could be interesting to benefit from our professional experience to organise workshops in Zürich, activities open to all that could be opportunities for refugees to network with the city’s citizens and for Zürich residents to get to meet the refugees that are so much talked about but still often seem to be so far away.

MigraMundo: How did the opportunity to join 11th Architecture Biennale in São Paulo come?
Manon Fantini: Through friends, we heard about the intention of “Arquipélagos Urbanos” to make a proposal for this Biennale, possibly with other partners. We discovered their project to re-explore geographies of a city through walking. We thought it could be complementary approach to our usual strategy, which is always to make visible actions in a fixed location. Imagining a project in a place where we have no prior knowledge of the situation, we figured a big part of the experience would be to find out where the refugees are located in the city, or somehow where they can be found. We contacted Arquipelagos Urbanos and pretty soon came the idea to make a joint proposal, that would include walks to explore where the welcome points for migrants are in the city, and invite participants to join a construction process that would happen in a specific location.

MigraMundo: Why did you choose a walking through São Paulo downtown to talk about migration and city?
Manon Fantini: We chose the city center as a fixed point to set up the building process, because of the great diversity of people it could allow to reach, related or not with the topic of migration. We were looking for a location where we could be building “in the open”, and easily invite people from any background to join the construction workshop. Luckily, we found the Teatro de Container Mungunzà who accepted to host us for the duration of the project. We still don’t know where the refugees and new migrants can be found in the city and discovering where the reception centers and helping organisations are is part of our objective. The city center is the starting point from which we will start our explorations and the excursions can go anywhere from that point.

MigraMundo: Migration is a serious and extreme subject in Europe, with far-right parties spreading fear and hate using migration debate. How have that context influenced “We Are Here Zürich” activities?
Manon: This question is at the core of We Are Here Zürich’s activities. One of the most striking aspect of our previous experiences with migration problematics was the discovery of the incredible amount of positive energy that people who had to leave everything behind were able to pull out to invent acceptable ways of living together. We met people who had very often survived extremely traumatic experiences who were still able to be curious, creative and who could engage an incredible motivation in constructive projects. Moreover, each person we met had a lot to offer to us in terms of human values and presence. To experience this resilience and generosity in such difficult contexts was a lesson that transformed us, something precious we had a lot to learn from and that was absolutely absent from anything migration-related that appeared in the media. In Switzerland, there are very telling examples of stereotyped images that are repeatedly used by the far-right to promote fear and hate. We decided to set up these initiatives to make people ‘feel’ and ‘experience’ all the positive aspects that migrants bring along with their personal histories, cultural background, knowledge, skills, food, etc.. instead of letting the images and reductive interpretations settle in.

MigraMundo: Which other places had “We Are Here Zürich” already presented their activities?
Manon: In Zürich, our projects always happen in the same location, a temporary reception in the city center where we have started to get to know the residents and develop projects ‘in cooperation’. For the first time this summer, we were invited to make a project for an architecture gallery in the German city of Halle (Saale). Our hypothesis was to say that since the refugee ‘crisis’ is impacting pretty much the whole of Europe, we could probably find in that city refugees or migrants who could be interested in joining a construction process. We also assumed there had to be organisations that propose similar activities to facilitate integration to what can be found in Zürich, and who would also be interested in joining the project. Through the week-long construction project we could confirm this hypotheses and the project created a situation that allowed for other inhabitants of the city to get to meet these « new presences » through making. This experience encouraged us to instigate similar actions in different locations. The project in Brazil in that sense is part of this process.

MigraMundo: What do you know about current migration debate in Brazil?
Manon: Not very much. The whole idea of the project is to find out about it! It is interesting to note that when we mention the project around here (in Switzerland) a lot of people tend to ask : ‘oh but are there really refugees and migrants in Brasil?’ . By preparing the project we have found out that it is actually a topic but we are very curious to discover the scale and the response to the problematic, both from the point of view of migrants and from the point of view of Brazilian citizens.

Migramundo: What kind of effects do you think “We Are Here Zürich” activities can cause in Architecture Biennale?
Manon: In architecture, as in many other fields, ‘participation’ is (very) often used as a strategy to develop solutions to specific problematics. In that sense, migration has been inspiring many participatory approaches worldwide, as migration flows have been intensifying and transforming our architectural and social environment, raising countless spatial and social issues. There is no reason to think this phenomenon will not intensify in the coming years. In the context of an exhibition that intends to open the debate on the states of the arts in architecture, we have no answers in terms of What should be done together regarding these issues, really. But we do believe it is essential to explore How working together can be tested and experienced. Which process allow for all skills and creative inputs to be recognized when participants come from extremely diverse social and cultural backgrounds? How can all the multiple creative forces that are engaged in this specific problematic be integrated in the project process? How do we invent a project with versatile and evolving making teams? We are hoping to share our belief that creating the situation of making together is in itself a necessary project, through which can be triggered questions that can resonate with the work not only of other architects, but also of other engaged citizens.

MigraMundo: Do you have new plans after this activity in São Paulo? Could you tell me about, in positive case?
Manon: We do! In Zürich, we will pursue our projects on a regular basis with the community that has formed around them. We are also planning similar initiatives in other places in Switzerland and abroad. As you mentioned above, there are countries where it is still very difficult to evoke the problematic of migration in the open even though it is clearly ‘existing’. In these places too, there are volunteers initiating projects to facilitate integration and engage in solving issues that the population often refuses to address. We are working on setting up initiatives in such contexts, hoping to encourage dialogue and to get in contact with individual actors who are finding ways to engage despite the pressure that is on their shoulders. If the problematic is global, we have a lot to learn from each other’s experience and of course solidarity can give us all strength. We are looking forward to find out about innovative approaches that are developed in Brazil that we can share in Switzerland and further carry to potential future partners!

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