Channel crossing

The task of improving access to social services in Kent might seem to have little in common with improving employment prospects in northern France.

However, a unique collaboration between Medway Council and the Maison de l’Initiative in the Grande Synthe region is managing to achieve both goals through a cross-border partnership that is breaking down the cultural barriers facing each region’s ethnic minorities.

The Culminer project has appointed four “cultural mediators” (two in France and two in Medway) whose job it is to identify and combat the causes of exclusion and discrimination. The project is funded until July 2005 by the European Union’s Interreg IIIA programme that encourages cross-border co-operation through the development of common social and economic strategies.

In Medway the project is focusing on improving the access to social services of people from ethnic minorities with mental health needs, physical disabilities and learning difficulties.

In France the mediators are targeting employment issues for ethnic minorities. But while the French and English teams may have different objectives, the methods they are using are broadly similar. “The principles of good practice are the same,” says one of Medway’s cultural mediators Bano Kahn. “Like Medway, Grande Synthe has a large ethnic minority population, and the barriers they face are similar. Cultural mediation is basically about showing people that we should respect differences in culture and they should not stop people getting a job or getting access to the services they are entitled to.

“We have been learning from each other. We have been to Grande Synthe to see how they integrate ethnic minorities into their social care system and they have been to Medway to see how our employment system works.”

The mediators work by acting as intermediaries between the ethnic minority groups and service providers. In Medway this means linking with Medway Council, the local health authority, several private and voluntary groups and the Medway Ethnic Minority Forum which represents 22 ethnic minority groups.

“There are several barriers that stop disabled people from ethnic minorities accessing social services,” says Medway’s other cultural mediator Jawaid Khan. “It can be cultural – some families may try to hide away a family member who is disabled. It can be a language barrier or a communication barrier that is to do with the disability itself. There may also be apprehension with having to deal with a lot of white people, which may be how they perceive the service provider.”

One of the key roles of the mediators is then to identify people who are not receiving the care they are entitled to and to assist them in accessing the appropriate service. “Our target was to assist 25 people. We’ve achieved that already,” says Jawaid Kahn. “Often these people are not known to social services so it’s a problem that you don’t know about until you go looking for it. One of my clients is now 22 years old but his last care assessment was when he was a little kid. So, of course his needs are completely different now.

“His care plan was all wrong and he was entitled to a load of benefits that he hadn’t been claiming. I’ve been able to help him with that.”

Another key role of the mediators is to help service providers ensure that their services are more in tune with the cultural needs of their ethnic minority clients.

“At the moment we are preparing a course on cultural awareness for service providers so that they are aware of the different cultural needs, religious needs and dietary needs of the different ethnic groups that they are likely to come into contact with,” says Jawaid Kahn.

One cultural difference that the mediators have managed to bridge with ease is the Anglo/French divide within the Culminer project itself. Indeed, the cross-border nature of the project has thrown some of the problems the Medway team are seeking to combat into a new perspective. “In France the attitude to ethnic minorities is that now you are in France you are French,” says Jawaid Kahn.

“There’s no such thing as a Commission for Racial Equality, so the Grande Synthe team have their work cut out. We may not have racial equality in this country by any means but, credit where it’s due, compared with France we are miles ahead.”

Lessons learned   

  • Disabled people from ethnic minorities can be prevented from accessing social services by barriers both within their own communities and within service provider agencies. 
  • Cultural mediation can help break through these barriers. It can raise awareness within minority communities of the services available. And it can combat cultural insensitivity within the service providers. 
  • The cultural mediators are able to practice what they preach. “Those of us in this job tend to look at different cultures in a positive way as something enriching that is to be celebrated rather than as an obstacle to be overcome,” says Bano Kahn.

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