Some people are pushed to the margins of society because of the way society perceives them - as not part of it. But they all have something to offer.

Claudia Calleja learns that something has to be done to bring them back where they belong.

The first step is awareness.

Exclusion, marginalisation and integration reflect a societal space with a centre and a periphery.

In a world that has been termed over-populated, one could argue that it is almost impossible to be pushed aside as that corner is likely to be inhabited.

Some may even argue that people claiming marginalisation are making a fuss and pitying themselves but the fact remains that, when the structures are not in place to allow people to be part of society, these people are forced to the fringes.

Integra Foundation co-founder Maria Pisani explained that a marginalised person exists when the provision is not made for that person to be a full part of society and be able to participate and make his or her own decisions in that society.

The person may be an asylum seeker, a drug user, a homosexual, a person with HIV, a person with a disability, a woman, a young or elderly person. Although these face completely different issues they are all marginalised, she said.

"Exclusion rears its ugly head in many different ways but it still comes down to social exclusion. If a person is not able to participate economically or to take an active social role in society, if they are denied those basic human rights then people need to become aware of it," she stressed.

Since the foundation started operating she has learnt the strength of awareness as the first step in combating marginalisation. People need to open their eyes to the fact that there are groups of people facing a variety of issues, then see what these issues are.

"Speaking about drug users, for example, there is a stigma related to them and people who have gone through rehabilitation find it difficult to reintegrate into society at the most basic level of finding employment."

Another group of people fresh in Ms Pisani's mind are people with a disability.

"The other day I met a young, blind girl. She blew me away. She's such an intelligent little girl. She explained that her teacher is leaving and there isn't going to be anybody to teach her braille."

Immediately you become aware of the repercussions. The girl is not going to have a teacher which means she is going to fall behind academically and, as a knock-on effect, she will not be able to participate in society to her true potential.

And that is just one very small example of how marginalisation hits so many different people, Ms Pisani stressed.

Contrary to what some may think, one does not have to be outright poor to be marginalised. Statistics have shown that ours is an aging population and unless by the time we are elderly there are existing structures to allow us to continue being part of society, then our destiny lies at the fringes.

"We've allowed a lot of things to go. The attitude is that, if it doesn't affect you personally then you kind of let it go. But history has shown us that we cannot just let things go for other people's sake and for our own sake," she said.

But what can people out there do, you may ask.

"We need to provide the structures so that these people can speak for themselves. For example, allow young people to speak about young people's issues and allow people with a disability to design projects for people with a disability. Society stands to gain by including these people as they have something to offer and the first step is seeing this."

Integra Foundation - action in society

Representatives of different political parties, NGOs and members of the Church last Monday joined up with young and old, men and women, for a peace march in Valletta.

The march, with the theme Together Against Hatred And Discrimination, was organised by Integra Foundation to highlight the need to say a loud and clear "No" to all forms of hatred towards any marginalised group or individual, and the strong need for provisions in legislation dealing with hate speech (through various forms of media) and hate crime.

As things stand today, if, for example, a homosexual or a dark skinned man is beaten up because he is homosexual or dark skinned the assailant is charged with assault but there is no charge to incorporate the motive of the assault - hate. And such things are happening as just last Monday an 18-year-old Eritrean man had his jaw broken when he was beaten up in Sliema, just for who he is.

Integra Foundation is a young, independent, not-for-profit organisation working to facilitate the psychosocial integration of all marginalised groups and/or individuals into mainstream society.

It seeks to bridge the gap between minorities and other segments of society, facilitating their long-term integration in society and, in the process, fostering a sense of freedom, community and diversity in the social fabric. Its vision is that of a successfully integrated and tolerant society that recognises and embraces strength in diversity.

The foundation's strategy includes: Actively opposing racism, xenophobia and cultural intolerance; providing support to marginalised groups through tangible community development projects; empowering and engaging the active participation of marginalised groups to maximise their potential as full members of society; facilitating the access of minority groups to essential community services; lobbying for the integration of minority groups into society; raising awareness of issues relating to minority groups by providing accurate, timely and objective information and partnering with other relevant national and international organisations to maximise synergies in operations and disseminate knowledge on pertinent issues.

Integra is working on a programme, partly sponsored by the EU Youth Programme, which aims to bridge the gap between young Maltese and young refugees residing in Malta in an effort to combat feelings of racism and xenophobia and other forms of discrimination and intolerance through attitudinal change and healthy, informed discussion.

For more information visit www.intergrafoundation.org or send an e-mail to info@integrafoundation.org.

An asylum-seeking person in society

Although racism does exist in Malta, Tesfaldet Habtezghi, an asylum-seeker, believes it is the exception rather than the rule and that the secret of integration into society lies in understanding one another.

"There is racism from a very few closed-minded people. These are very small in number so how can they dominate the majority?" he wondered.

He believes that with some awareness, even the closed-minded will open their mind.

"There is a weakness in public awareness. When you approach these people and make them aware of all the facts they can feel for you. These people are innocent because they know nothing. How can you blame them for thinking the way they do?

"It is the mass media's role to disseminate rational information that there must be social inclusion... You need a cultural revolution because this island has to open its doors. There must be cultural exchange," he said.

Mr Habtezghi, a graduate in economics, explained that he would have never dreamt of coming to Malta as he knew people who had been deported back to Eritrea from Malta and, while the lucky ones were still in jail, the unlucky ones had been shot dead.

After spending a year as a prisoner of war in Ethiopia he was repatriated back to Eritrea, which he eventually fled.

Mr Habtezghi arrived in Malta on September 17, 2004 and was taken to a detention centre until, on February 25 this year, he was granted provisional humanitarian status. Since that day he has been waiting to be called for his final interview leading to refugee status.

He thanked the government and also insisted on showing his appreciation towards the majority of the Maltese for the warm and welcoming attitude in which he had been treated since he had been here.

Asked if he ever perceived racism on the part of some Maltese, he replied that racism did exist but it was the exception.

He did not blame the Maltese people for reacting the way they did once they were ignorant of certain issues.

Touching on some of the issues at play he mentioned the prolonged separation of asylum seekers and refugees from their families, which could lead to psychological deterioration. To tackle this there was need for the introduction of unification programmes.

He also spoke about immigrants' awareness of their rights. While he appreciates the work carried out by the NGOs, Mr Habtezghi stressed the importance of stopping the talk and to start thinking in action-oriented practical terms. "Many refugees have no idea of their rights and their role within society and NGOs need to ensure they are made aware of such matters." That way, he explained, a refugee whose employer does not pay him will know whom to turn to.

Another issue was employment. In his case, for example, he held a degree but could only find employment in the manual labour market and it was usually jobs that Maltese do not want to do.

"I understand how some Maltese may become angry at the thought that immigrants are taking their jobs and are exempt from taxes. For this reason there should be burden sharing on an EU level." That way each country would take on as many immigrants as it can handle.

For an overview about the situation in Eritrea these three links may be helpful: www.cia.gov/cia/publications/factbook/geos/er.html
news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/africa/country_profiles/1070813.stm
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eritrea

A homosexual person in society

Clutching a rosary bead in one hand, Mario* explains how although he has learnt that the homosexual community is marginalised, such marginalisation is more evident on official, formal levels.

Through the years he has noticed a big change in the way both society and the Church deal with homosexual people.

"When I was younger I knew I was different and I was badly bullied at school. I also had a negative experience with a priest who dealt with the gay issue in a non-loving manner and I had left the Church, which I love and now returned to, for six years.

"Along the way, however, I found society and members of the Church much more tolerant on an informal, one-to-one level. On the official level it's another story. That's where a lot of pain, anger and hurt comes in."

Mario stressed that he was not speaking on behalf of the whole gay community as he lived and worked in a supportive circle whereas there were other homosexual people who suffered a lot of abuse.

Speaking about the Church he explained that he finds a lot of support on the pastoral level. However, when it comes to the formal level, there is room for improvement.

"The Church and the gay issue are two issues which are at heart as I love both and to combine both is not easy. The major issue is that the Church sees gay people as 'defective heterosexuals' whereas gay people feel they were created that way and are in no way 'defective'. Out of these two different understandings conflicts arise between us. One conflict is marriage.

"I understand how the Church can never accept a gay marriage in light of the way it views marriage as something between a man and a woman. A gay couple can never fit that and need to face facts.

"This, however, does not mean that the Church should shut out gay relationships. The Church can help a gay couple understand how to build a loving relationship with each other according to the values of Jesus Christ."

Moving on to society, Mario added, its role is different and vaster.

"Civilly, gay people have rights but a lot more rights need to be implemented. It needs to be understood that a gay couple faces realities such as buying a house together."

Society needs to have a legal structure that recognises the partnership between homosexual people and protects them. Take the example of a gay man hospitalised in the Intensive Care Unit - his partner would not be allowed to visit him because he is not recognised as family.

"Gay people contribute to society, they work, they pay taxes. Gay people are professors, teachers, they work in the labour market. They are children of mothers and fathers, they are sisters or brothers, they are lovers. They are people who are active in society and this needs to be recognised. With some cooperation and understanding there is place for everyone within society," he said calmly.

Mario explained that you do not choose to be gay, you are gay and for those people who refuse to understand this he had one message: "I would invite them to get to know me, nothing more. It's very easy to categorise people and get into a horrible mentality of statistics.

"We need to get to know the person. Then, I'm not gay anymore but I become Mario with my own feelings, thoughts, faith and struggles."

*Interviewee requested that only his first name be published.

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