Every year Russia accepts a significant number of migrants from all over the world. Official statistics says that as of end of 2016 a little more than 9,5 million foreign citizens were staying in Russia.
By September 2017 our government is supposed to work out regulations towards sociocultural adaptation and integration of immigrants into the Russian society, as requested by the president. For now, while there is no active government program, integration is provided by non-commercial structures and Russian-language schools. There are only two specialized language schools in Moscow and they both teach children.
In 2014 Civic Assistance launched a free integration course for migrants and refugees of age. The program includes Russian as a foreign language studies, legal education and computer literacy.
“At first there was a Children’s adaptation center which didn’t accept adults. Parents brought their children to classes and waited in the corridor. That’s when I realized that those mothers didn’t speak Russian either. And that’s how we got the idea of starting Russian language classes for adults”, says Karina Kotova, the project coordinator who joined the Committee as a volunteer teacher in 2011.
The classes take place three times a week. For now we have 21 students, migrants from Congo, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Palestine, Iran, Yemen. They all have their own stories and reasons for coming to Russia – war, political and economic crisis and authoritarian regime back home.
According to sociologists, the main barrier to getting a job and integrating into the society and culture is the lack of language skills. Latifa who came to Russia from Afghanistan 10 years ago agrees: “Without the language I couldn’t solve any problems I had, including document issues. Now I feel much more confident when talking to government employees or locals. These classes helped me a lot.”
Latifa has three children. They are better integrated into the environment. First and foremost, because they go to school.
“Schools are probably the most important link between Russian and foreign families. Children communicate with their contemporaries, learn the language, parents attend school meetings and meet other parents and teachers. We try to help foreign citizens absorb Russian and it’s vital that schools would also support and endorse foreign parents in school activities. That they would engage both the parents and the children in extra school events and not push them away due to the language barrier” – stresses Anastasia Denisova, project coordinator for the “Civic Assistance” Committee.
Unwillingness to integrate is a myth
When talking about integration issues certain authority and bureaucracy representatives refer to immigrants who are not eager to learn the language, follow Russian traditions and get familiar with the culture. Karina Kotova, “Integration course” project manager, believes that such situation is possible because authorities are trying to explain their own inertness and failures in integration areas. “Unfortunately there are still no government-initiated programs that would be successful. They keep announcing major projects, be it a promise to open 30 tolerance centers in Moscow (which never happened) or a pompous celebration of migrants’ day at a time when in reality the situation with foreign citizens is getting worse each year”.
Still sometimes the authorities do take up on the task of solving some issues. For example, in 2012 they introduced a law that would oblige all migrants to take an exam in the Russian language. These days this exam has to be passed by those applying for temporary residence permit, permanent residence permit or want to get a patent. This program was planned to be become the basis for the integration process for migrants but in reality it didn’t turn out as well. “This in fact increased corruption but didn’t improve integration. Many of those who passed the exam do not have sufficient language skills to obtain a language level certificate” –says Karina Kotova.
The main problem is not that immigrants do not want to integrate into the Russian society but that they cannot do that, the government does not provide such an opportunity. “Within the last 10 years I spent in Russia I couldn’t find an organization that could help me learn Russian. As a result I had to learn it myself by means of casual communication but I still didn’t know how to speak correctly. Our language doesn’t have such vast variety of grammar” – shares Latifa.
According to Zhanna Nikitushkina, a teacher of Russian as a foreign language, each person attending language classes in “Civic Assistance” is eager to speak Russian. “Some people are progressing quickly, others are slower. It depends on the environment and individual characteristics. Those in harsh conditions who don’t have fellow citizens around or have to use Russian at work easily learn the basics that allow them to communicate with Russian-speaking people” – Zhanna explains.
Teacher Zhanna Nikitushkina
These days we have the opportunity to improve language skills with the help of modern technology. Not all project participants know how to use them that is why those who need help also receive individual counseling on computer literacy.
Legal education is another part of the “Integration course” program. This class attendees are told about ways to legalize their stay in Russia, get a job and labor law in general, rules of communication with police officers, possibilities of legal defense and human rights basics. Topics that are raised depend on the group and general Russian language skill. Professional psychologists run conflict resolution trainings for fluent speakers. They include getting acquainted with the gender theory, discussing gender and ethnic stereotypes in daily life and learning appropriate ways to settle conflicts. “Unfortunately, women are frequently not included in the society. Many of them don’t work, they sit at home and talk only to their fellow countrymen following certain traditions. They are wary of police and aggression from local people, they are afraid to go outside alone. As a result we often meet women who have been living in Russia for a long time but don’t speak even basic Russian on the so-called “survival level”. Psychological assistance is aimed at easing their adaptation and we are working on a dynamic development of psychological help for women” – Karina Kotova remarks.
“If I have a problem at home I note it down and later discuss it with the therapist” – student Sona is smiling. She came to Moscow from Afghanistan, took hairdressing classes but cannot find a job now. She earns her leaving by teaching children the Dari language. Sona is now trying to acquire temporary asylum in Russia and is hoping to stay here.
Educational programs of psychological assistance together with the language and professional classes are ongoing in many western countries both in governmental organizations and non-governmental ones. Such courses allow not only to overcome personal and family issues but also deal with social deprivation for people who find themselves in a different sociocultural environment. A vast majority of such programs is aimed at women who are believed to be worse at adapting to the reality of the host culture and society.
“Civic Assistance” integration course is made possible through the support from the Norwegian Helsinki Committee. Besides language classes in Moscow the Committee is also implementing projects of teaching children and adults the Russian language in Noginsk and Losino-Petrovsky (children are also taught English and Arabic).
“Integration course for immigrants is a small project.” – says Karina Kotova. “People who are ready to learn come here every day but we do not have enough resources to invite everyone to the class. That’s why this initiative is a drop in the ocean despite its positive aspects”.
Story by Anastasia Gaeva, Daria Manina, Civic Assistance Committee
Photo by Alisa Rechtman