The SICRIE Experience
It has been a real privilege to be involved in the SICRIE Project. At the outset in our Grundtvig application the proposing partners stated that we believed that projects like SICRIE were necessary because of the traditional stereotypes, historical prejudice, ignorance and fear that sometimes hinder meaningful interaction and integration as the movement of people with Europe increases. Those of us who planned the project came from very diverse European contexts and experiences. It seemed to us, based on our own life experiences, that there can be significant social leverage in defusing misunderstanding if people are given the opportunity to encounter one another with their different stories from diverse contexts and experience.
The application for the project was lodged through the UK National Agency (Ecorys) by the Northern Ireland partner in February 2009, approved in June 2009 and began in September 2009 with the first workshop held in Prague in November 2009. In the intervening two years up to the end of June 2011 the partnership held four workshops, one in each of the partner countries.
It would be fair to say that while we had a good idea of the direction we envisaged the project taking there was, as with most projects of this nature, a few unexpected developments. The Lithuanian groups focus on older people is not what they had initially envisaged and the Czech partner was only vaguely aware of the existence of refugees from Burma when we lodged the application. However, beyond these slightly unexpected turns the core element of the project – the sharing of stories of life experience on religious and cultural interfaces – proved to be as worthwhile as we had hoped.
Many of the participants in the partner groups had some previous experience of dialogue and encounter across interfaces of various kinds, but mostly within their own cultural context. The added dimension of the SICRIE project was the opportunity to share those encounters with others from different European contexts. This produced a number of added benefits which are summarised as follows.
Each partner group learned about their host’s context and in each workshop the partners visiting were learning about the cultural, religious, political and historical issues that shape the present. This learning was more than simply awareness of new information. Given that the sharing was done in the context of new interpersonal relationships being built and developed over the life of the project the learning was personalised and the challenges, the pain of exclusion or the benefit of inclusion were personified in the people who shared meals and who walked and talked together. The building of relationships and the personal sharing moved the encounters from sharing information to meaningful insight to the lived experience of others.
Precisely because of the relational element of the project we were spared trite comparisons and superficial empathy. Never-the-less there was times when participants could identify similarities in the practice of inclusion or exclusion in their differing cultural contexts. Being able to see similar practices and issues in another context can sometimes shed fresh light on one’s own problems or create fresh vision and enthusiasm for tackling practices of exclusion and working for inclusive communities. Seeing similarities in other contexts can be the means of seeing your own context more clearly or in a different light.
Each workshop session included times of reflection within and among the partner groups. From the outset we anticipated this would be the most important means of facilitating learning, and it proved to be the case. By starting each workshop with cultural visits, tours and talks the rest of the workshop time could be taken up with reflecting on and discussing the questions and issues that arose from the initial input. Whether it was visiting the museum of Communism in Prague, walking the streets of Belfast, visiting Roma communities in Bulgaria or crisscrossing Lithuania from Vilnius to Klaipeda visiting historical landmarks each workshop began with direct physical encounter with the realities of life in each partner context. There was always plenty on which to reflect together and that process of reflection generated a learning and understanding that was owned and shared by the participants.
The website shares with the wider world something of the development of the project as well as some of the learning from the encounters. I would encourage you to visit the Workshop report pages (see the taps along the top of the website) and the Reflections on SICRIE Project page to get a flavour of some of the reflections of participants. Snapshot comments from the individual evaluation forms are available here. We hope that within the site there may be ideas and information that will facilitate and inspire others engaged, or considering becoming engaged, in exploration of religious and cultural interfaces in Europe. We hope too that while the SICRIE Project Grundtvig funding has come to an end the project will continue in other forms. If you have ideas or suggestions about the project or the website please use the Contact page to get in touch.
Our thanks is due to each of the National Agencies for their support throughout the project. In each case the National Agencies have not simply been the people to whom we account for the funding but facilitators who have been willing to provide encouragement and guidance throughout the life of the project. Thanks too to the European Commission for the vision behind the Life Long Learning Programme and the funding of Grundtvig Programmes in particular.
Finally, a special word of thanks to the Lord Mayor of Belfast Niall O Donnghaile for hosting a reception on Monday 5th September to mark the completion of the project and the launch of the website (see photograph above). It was a bonus to have present two men from Spain visiting the city as part of the City Council's Grundtvig Adult Exchange programme. The attendance of others involved in community work in the city and the Lord Mayor's kind remarks and generous hospitiality were greatly appreciated. Other launch events in Bulgaria, Lithuania and the Czech Republic began the process of dissemination of the experience and learning from the SICRIE project which will, no doubt, continue for some time to come.