Family+ Educators on the Frontline During Covid-19 Pandemic

Screenshot of virtual conference on 19th November 2020. Photo: The Oslo Desk.

Ka Man Mak on the virtual conference, ‘Coronavirus Crisis and Family Education’ that marked the end of the Erasmus Family+ project that has been working to end social exclusion of immigrant families in Europe.

On the snowy morning of Thursday 19th November, I was on my way to the office. An email notification popped up on my phone. It’s from the Headquarter Director of Elternseminar, Peter Wahl, telling me that the first keynote speaker was sick and therefore could not attend the virtual conference. Messages were sent back and forth among the organisers on how to update the program. 

As soon as I got into my office, a quick WhatsApp call with the organisers in Germany ensued. Then I opened the office door to let my assistant in. Jasmin Horber, Head of Mütterforum Baden-Württemberg, and I, as the moderator, jumped onto Zoom afterwards to get ready before the conference started – testing the digital tool and coordinating the new program structure. Horber told me that it was raining at Stuttgart.

A steady flow of family educators from various public institutions and voluntary organisations from three cities started to appear on the Zoom window. Many of the participants were in their home offices, some sharing screens, one in her car and others at a shared office space, ready to discuss about how the coronavirus pandemic is affecting them and what measures they have implemented.

The virtual conference marked the end of the Family+ project and was co-organised by Stuttgart’s public institutions, Elternseminar and Mütterforum Baden-Württemberg, both offering family education services. The two-year project is partly funded by Erasmus Plus programme of the European Union.

At the heart of the project is to exchange knowledge and practices between the cities – Stuttgart, Oslo and Gothenburg, on how they are empowering immigrant families through family education to overcome social exclusion by adapting to their needs.

After my short presentation of my immigrant background and career journey, Horber presented slides of photos from their study visits to the cities, which provoked joyful memories of their journey to learn from each other.

Nesrin Tyurksyoz, program coordinator of the Rucksack program from Elternseminar’s then read extracts from the absent speaker’s presentation on social inequality. Facts such as every fifth child in Germany speaks another language, and many families in Germany living in 50 sqm homes made working from home difficult during the lockdown. Wahl, later on, interjected that families with a lack of resources have fewer possibilities to navigate the crisis.

The coronavirus pandemic has no doubt disproportionately affected immigrant communities in Stuttgart, Gothenburg, and Oslo. All of the participants shared their current status in their cities, and are all experiencing a second wave of stricter regulations that have impacted the mental well-being of both the staff and the families they wanted to help.

There is a sense of resilience on the frontline for these family educators to continue their work and to reach communities of minority background, especially to distribute public health information about the coronavirus.

Since February, The Oslo Desk has been following the project’s coordination for their third study visit to Oslo where I was due to speak at the conference in March, but instead interviewed a sample of initiatives from each city for our podcast.

The project worked on the common understanding that parents’ educational background, social capital and access to the labour market have a strong link to their children’s success in education and labour market. As family educators, they have a crucial role to play in helping to include a diverse group of immigrants into their society by providing not only language courses, but also topics on nutrition, civic participation and hygiene.

Cities’s Lockdown Measures

Since 2nd November, Germany has implemented public health measures so-called “the lockdown light”, where everyone must wear masks in public spaces, such as public transport stations, on public transport, theatre, opera, music, clubs, sport activities, and such public health measures are expected to extend into the new year.

Many of the activities at family centres in the federal state of Baden-Württemberg in the southwest of Germany remained open for certain groups, but many activities needed to be amended. Helga Hinse located at Ettlingen said their centre kept their activities to small groups and outdoor activities were no longer possible due to the bad weather.

“We often say in Stuttgart that we are in stone age in the area of digital solution. I think in Scandinavia, there is a bigger possibility to make home offices and to get hardware and software for digital e-learning, but we have next to nothing. It is an additional obstacle,” added Wahl.

Beatrice Alger, from Forum Skill inserted that in Sweden, they also have the same restrictions and limited the number of people in a room, “Those who can work from home, can work home. There is me and one more in the office. We have all our meetings digitally, on Zoom nowadays, and on other platforms. So, we are struggling like Peter. People who are in our target groups, they are really struggling as they don’t have computers, and many can’t work at home so many have to go to work.” Alger also highlighted their financial struggles which has affected immigrants who were on-the-job training at their facilities. Some of their staff were tested positive for coronavirus and they are now even more careful with following the restrictions.

Ann-Britt Svensson from Kvinnocenter, a women’s centre in Bergsjön, said that they had to close their centre even though the women with immigrant background wanted to go there every day. Instead, they gave the women homework and made regular telephone contact with them, as many do not have digital skills.

Whilst in Oslo, there were similar lockdown measures, and Lene Løge Almqvist, who is the Head of Oslo Adult Learning Centre located at Rosenhoff informed that many of the students with an immigrant background have lost their jobs during the pandemic.

“It is impossible to get work training. So all of the program that included work training is now on hold. We are trying to find alternatives. On a larger scale, it has given some more options to provide Norwegian classes for other groups which is a nice situation to be in,” explained Almqvist. “It is [however] really difficult to organise anything new in the current situation.”

Illustrion photo: Arthur Lambillotte / Unsplash.

Almqvist had to walk away momentarily from her monitor to attend her sick daughter who was at home with her. Almqvist came back on and continued to describe the situation in Oslo. She noticed that the teachers were a bit more exhausted than usual and were looking forward to the Christmas holidays. Two classes were in quarantine at the time.

Whilst Almqvist is in constant dialogue with the Norwegian authorities to keep up with the updated regulations, she said that the students were coming into school sick and did not understand the coronavirus information that they had distributed to them in different languages. Almqvist then hired seven interpreters to explain the coronavirus information to as many students as possible, independent of their Norwegian language proficiency. She estimated that almost thirty percent of her working hours is allocated to reorganising due to new restrictions and assisting in tracking down close contacts of infected students, and communicating with teachers on the safety to go to work.

“We have been lucky enough to provide computers and iPads for many students, and teachers have been trying new ways of teaching on a large scale, both using available platforms on different devices. But also, when students don’t have computers or iPads, teachers have used WhatsApp to teach in new and creative ways to reach the students at home. So that is an inspiring journey.”

Digital Transformation to Access Education

After the break, family educators were divided into groups to share their experiences and observations when helping immigrants under the pandemic. Later each of the group’s appointed spokesperson summarised their conversations with many obvious similarities. One particular comment that stood out was that digital communication can never replace meeting people in person.

Sara Svensson from Kvinnocenter said that, “Overall, loneliness is definitely a challenge, for many of the groups, whether they are new mothers, elderlies or youths. […] One of things that Gudrun mentioned which we all agreed on was that you can have all the digital platforms, but it will never replace the real contact and the things that you share when you meet a person, such as body language. Some things are lost.”

All the family educators were seeking digital solutions to continue providing education and activities for immigrants while also respecting social distancing. Digital tools such as Zoom were being used to hold virtual meetings and classes, but this relied on internet connections, digital devices, and digital competence.

For Stuttgart, strict data privacy regulation was more profound than the other cities, which impeded on the implementation of virtual education and meetings. However, proper data protection for children is vital. Freelancers on the other hand do not to need to follow this strict rule. It was recognised that the flexibility to teach digitally and in classroom settings can enhance the learning process. Though, both students and teachers had to upskill in order to use these digital tools. There is also a need for technical support.

“We discussed about the need for administrators. It can’t be the case that we get lots of new equipment, new tablets and iPads, and not get the technical support we need. This is something that teachers and people working at the mother centre can’t do. We need professional help,” explained Helge Hinse, former Head of Ettlingen’s Women and Family Centre and a board member of Mütterforum.

Their discussions also included the pandemic’s worrying impact on the mental health and well-being of youths, young mothers, and elderly people as many talked about their loneliness, depression and anxiety; the low language proficiency of immigrants in their host country reduced their access to public health information; newly relocated immigrants found it tough to build a social network due to social distancing, though virtual meetings and parties provided some relief.

Instagram for Youth Relationship Builder

Last speakers of the day were Iselin Glover, project manager and Kevin Khan (19), young ambassador from Oslo’s Youth Work Center located at Stovner. The center was established to curb the low employment rate of youth with an immigrant background in the local area.

Stovner has a high population of immigrants and 2019 statistics from Oslo Municipality has shown that within the age group of 15-24 years, only 42.6% of first-generation immigrants were employed and 38.63% of Norwegian-born with immigrant parents were employed.

Kevin Khan is hired at the youth work center as a young ambassador to contribute ideas, create social media content and to interview youths on their needs.

“Youth in Stovner really want to work, whether it is part-time, after school or summer jobs. In Stovner, one of the biggest hurdles for youth in search for jobs is the lack of networking possibilities. Majority of Norwegians to a large degree have acquaintances who can help them get their first job. Also, there is a lack of role models here. Many parents, siblings and relatives don’t have full-time jobs,” said Khan.

With drug dealers actively recruiting young boys, the center saw this accelerated during the pandemic said Khan.  The offering of summer jobs was one way of tackling this. “The work we do here at the youth work centre, where we advise on job search, CV application, workshops and courses. It’s something that is not required by law, but we have seen the need to do more than just give out jobs. [..] They need preparations. They need a job over time, and they need networking and, in some cases, they need to work on soft skills to do well in the Norwegian labour market,” added Khan.

Iselin Glover has a background in Sales and HR management, with a master’s degree in organisational pedagogy, with a focus on knowledge sharing and multicultural organisations. She started working at the youth work center since December 2019. Over 60% of the youth who visited the center have parents born outside of Norway.

“They have skills which we call ‘hidden skills’. Skills that are important in the labour market but are often undervalued by society,” said Glover. She went on referring to examples such as translation skills, as youth help their parents translate documents and letters; cross-cultural skills, as youth gain knowledge from different cultures; and many have childcare experience as they take care of their younger siblings. These are positive things that need to be communicated more, she said.

For the center, building trust is their first priority.

“Youth are aware of discrimination in the labour market. They talk about it a lot and feel it a lot. When we have conversations with them, the first thing we have to do is to acknowledge that they are feeling this way and that discrimination is real. It’s not a discussion point. Many researches have shown that men with Muslim-sounding names have fewer calls for job interviews. Once that is acknowledged, we can work on anything,” said Glover.

Young ambassadors, such as Kevin Khan, have helped interview 160 youth to find out their needs and to adapt their services to their needs. Through their actions to build a relationship with the youth, they learned that they wanted to be communicated through Instagram. With the opening hours drastically reduced during the pandemic, being available online becomes ever more important to reach the youth. Daily interactions with youth, including evenings and weekends, now relied on direct messaging on Instagram. Glover handles these private conversations.

“We use Instagram a lot, especially DMs – Direct Messaging. We have maybe 5 to 15 conversations every day all week long,” said Glover. Even though she does receive positive messages when a youth get a job, but the recent messages relayed feelings of sadness, hopelessness and more desperation. Though not everyone has good Wifi.

“We want to use Instagram as a platform for learning. We want to make it easy for youths to find information such as tips on how to apply for a job and what to put in job applications,” said Khan. They also wanted to use Instagram as a platform to engage and inspire youths by posting about young role models.  

The road forward for the center is to qualify the courses and build work-specific skills as there will be higher competition in the labour market in the future, and continuing the important work on building strong relationships with the youth. A successful impact the center had seen was when youth were offered summer jobs, 27 out of 223 of them went on to get a job.  

Concluding Reflections

As the conference neared to a close, participants were asked to choose up to three words that reflected their experience on the project through using Mentimeter where it created a word cloud. The most frequent words used are ‘inspiring’, ‘community’ and ‘interesting.’  

A pleasant surprise came at the end, when the German participants made goodbye posters as an appreciation and gratitude towards their fellow family educators. A wish to meet and collaborate again in the future.

As an immigrant mother and journalist, passively observing these dialogues and coming to learn of these initiatives, it made me realised how vital their existence is, and how compassionate these family educators are in fighting for human rights and going beyond just language integration. There is also a sense of self-awareness of their potential unconscious biases. This gives me hope for the future.

Amid the obstacles brought by the pandemic, these family educators undoubtedly will keep pressing on delivering education to the most vulnerable groups in society, as they tackle financial and personal struggles; and also making small and big changes in changing people’s minds towards immigrants.

The public institutions and voluntary organisation involved in the Family+ project:

Gothenburg, Sweden:

ForumSkill – A resource organization that has human rights as a starting point, and runs several different projects and activities. Their operations consist of work-integrated social enterprises, rehabilitative cultural work and an educational unit.

Kvinnocenter – A center for immigrant women that was started in 1998. They provide language skills and human rights training to women from all over the world. The center won the ‘Association of the Year 2019’ at the European Network for Intercultural Elderly Care.

Stuttgart, Germany:

Elternseminar des Jugendamtes des Landeshauptstadt Stuttgart – A local public body offering family education services.

Mütterforum Baden-Württemberg – An association of independent maternity- , family- and multigenerational centres located in Stuttgart.

Ettlingen’s Women and Family Centre – The centre, part of Mütterforum Baden-Württemberg, was started as a low threshold to welcome everyone to have a good lunch together to ease the afternoon for working mothers. They provide language and life skills, such as teaching food nutrition and hygiene.

Oslo, Norway:

Oslo Kommune: Bydel Stovner – The administrative district, Stovner, is part of Oslo municipality (Oslo Kommune). Public body in the local area such as NAV (Norwegian Labour and Welfare Administration) provides services, such as Jobbsjansen kvinner to give job possibilities to women between 18-55 who need basic qualification. There is a cross-sector collaboration between the local public bodies such as Norwegian Labor and Welfare service (NAV) in the district of Stovner and Oslo Voksenopplaerning Rosenhof.

Oslo Rosenhof VO – is a public school run by Oslo Municipality, The Education Agency. Oslo Adult Education Center Rosenhof is the largest school in Norway employing professional and experienced teachers on all levels, from beginner level literacy and A1, to advanced level C1.

Oslo’s organisations for helping immigrant mothers and youth with immigrant background: Bydelsmødre and Stovner Youth Job Center.

And in collaboration with Oslo Municipality (Oslo Kommune).

Disclaimer: The European Commission’s support for the production of this publication does not constitute an endorsement of the contents, which reflect the views only of the authors, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.

Ka Man Mak

Ka Man is an investigative journalist, documentary photographer, and social entrepreneur, as well as the founder of The Oslo Desk. She is a British-born Hong Konger residing in Oslo, Norway. She holds a Master in Environmental Geoscience and have taken numerous diplomas including child psychology, and a course in big data analytics at OsloMet. Made numerous publications in newsletters, magazines and Norwegian newspapers. Interested in edtech, constructive journalism, women in migration, Cantonese language, alternatives to capitalism and asylum policy.