Photo: Anna Barseghyan
During a recent meeting, a stranger asked me what is my position in HRL - Human Rights League, to which I replied: I am a Cultural Mediator in Bratislava. It was necessary not only to repeat many times, but also to explain what it was about. Unfortunately, I did not have my Cultural Mediator - General Guidelines with me, so I explained that it feels like to be a bridge on an impassable river․ The woman smiled, but surely did not understand the whole thing․ Probably, in recent years many acting Cultural Mediators have found themselves in a similar situation in Slovakia. That's why I came up with the idea to explore this field, to help those who need more expanded information.
Coming back to CM guidelines, this was the first paper I got from HRL to learn about my responsibilities. The position of Cultural Mediator was opened in HRL in 2018, to assist the KapaCITY project. The aim of this project was addressed to provide municipalities in Slovakia with tools and skills for migrants’ successful integration. Some of my responsibilities included gathering and maintaining a database regarding third-country nationals’ needs for integration; developing new or revising existing integration plans for third-country nationals at local levels; organizing cultural/educational events; organizing independent activities contributing to the foreigners’ integration; etc.
Beside my own job exploration, I tried to make a research among people who work as Cultural Mediators and organizations which employ Cultural Mediators in Slovakia.
What is the correct definition of Cultural Mediator? It is a new subject that is not properly taught at school or at the major part of universities. As for me, I am a journalist, I did not specially learn to be a Cultural Mediator, I simply use my communication skills and experience in media field.
In Wikipedia Cultural Mediation is described as a profession that studies the cultural differences between people, using the data in problem solving. Based on the information provided by Wikipedia, it is one of the fundamental mechanisms of distinctly human development according to cultural–historical psychological theory introduced by Lev Vygotsky and developed in the work of his numerous followers worldwide.
I started to search an information and literature on Slovak online platforms about cultural or intercultural mediation studies and as a result I discovered SIMARS - Slovak Institute for Mediation and Alternative Dispute Resolution. “Solving conflicts without conflicts” they say and it could be probably the best and the shortest description I have ever heard about mediation. SIMARS suggest their support in different problematic situations, in which they act like mediators, as well as propose some studies for future mediators. This field is more expanded, mediators are solving various issues with their knowledge on laws in the field of government, schools, universities etc. Although many mediators are lawyers and former judges, it's becoming increasingly common for non-lawyers from all backgrounds to serve.
But let’s come back to Cultural Mediation, which is just a branch of the General Mediation.
Mediator František Kutlík, the president of SIMARS, who has published some books on mediation and his book “Intercultural mediation and conflict resolution when working with foreigners”, believes that the primary precondition for fighting the image of danger and threat from diversity is to build cultural-ethnic-religious understanding and empathy. In other words, it is necessary to activate the ability of people from one culture/ethnicity/religion to empathize with the thinking, way of life, traditions, customs of other groups.
One of the disciplines that has the ambition to help and engage in this process is intercultural mediation with its broad-spectrum application.
How to become a Cultural Mediator?
My small research has shown that the Cultural Mediation is not a separate profession, but many European universities offer it as a subject in conjunction with linguistics. For example, Ca' Foscari University in Venice suggests Bachelor's Degree Programme in Linguistic and Cultural Mediation. Another one, SOAS University of London suggests The Master’s Degree Programme in Translation combines training of practical translation skills and/or Cultural Mediation with teaching of translation theories and methods.
In Slovakia University of Matej Bel, Philosophical faculty department of languages and communication, started a new selective subject “assistance to Foreigners” in cooperation with the town of Banska Bystrica. Since April 2020 students could register for it. The courses were inspired by a course “cultural and social integration of foreign students” offered since 2019/2020 at Faculty of Arts Matej Bel University.
There were two courses prepared, Bachelor's “integration of persons from abroad in practice” and Master’s “application of theoretical knowledge during integration of persons from abroad”. Lujza Urbancová, a vice-dean for international cooperation at Faculty of Arts, says that The Bachelor’s course got 18 students registered, from which 15 students were participating; and the Master’s program got 7 students and all of them were participating.
Lujza Urbancová explains why there was such a need: “The number of foreign students at our faculty has been increasing and there has been the need to offer better service for them and facilitate more contacts with Slovak students behind classrooms. We have encouraged and exchange of e-mails or social media contacts between Slovak and foreign students we teach, but we have not had any evidence of the cooperation.”
She continues: “I mentioned the possibility of organising this subject at the KapaCITY workshop and Gleb Fishchenko, a Matej Bel University foreign student, was interested in enlarging the target group and preparing this subject to help foreigners in the town. We prepared the subject in cooperation. I am the person officially responsible for it and Mr. Fishchenko works with students.”
The subject opened for first time in September 2020 and Slovak as well as foreign students registered. “When we prepared the subject, we expected mainly Slovak students will register, but later we realized, that foreigners living in Slovakia for longer period can be helpful for foreigners, too” concludes Urbancová.
In addition, Lujza Urbancová mentioned that they supposed to continue the programs without knowing yet if many students will be interested. The courses will be taught online or, according the method of work, participants do not need to meet every week online, they can meet in small groups several times a term. She hopes the subject will attract more attention of students every year.
Cultural Mediators for KapaCITY project
Daša Knošková, a director of an NGO Marginal, KapaCITY coordinator, responsible for trainings on social rights of migrants, informed that for the project they employed few cultural mediators in Košice. As of end 2020 they have cooperated with an international student, Sayantan Roy from India, and with Eleonora Ďurišinová, a Ukrainian who used to be a student and now is employed.
Sayantan was preparing the questionnaire for international students, informing different communities of foreigners with governmental Information, collecting data about their needs, meanwhile Eleonora was helping with newsletter and also with translation of brochures (welcome packages, newsletter with COVID-19 information etc). I spoke with both of them.
Photo: Eleonora Ďurišinová
HRL: Who is Cultural Mediator? And how to become one?
Eleonora Ďurišinová says: “A cultural mediator is a kind of link between an organization providing a service/assistance and a community that can benefit from this assistance. A cultural mediator helps to convey information in an understandable and culturally sensitive way for a specific group of people. In addition, mediator helps to identify problems that the organization does not know about or has not encountered before. One of the many goals of the mediator is to raise the community members’ interest and desire for cooperation through a free dialogue.”
Eleonora believes that any person who has a desire to help, who is ready to learn new things and is open, can become a cultural mediator. “I believe that in this activity it is very important to act in a neutral and impartial manner, without dividing people into groups and categories.”
She continues: “There aren´t any courses available specifically for cultural mediators. Still I often try to take additional courses and trainings that could be useful, on topics such as translation, psychology, history. For a correct interpretation, having a good vocabulary is not enough. It is important to understand cultural characteristics, not to take sides, remain objective and convey information as accurately and correctly as possible.”
Photo: Sayantan Roy
According to Sayantan Roy, a cultural mediator is a person who moves within groups with different cultures. He/she helps foreign nationals to integrate by analysing data, creating personal relationships, organizing events and more.
Sayantan says: “To become a Cultural Mediator, you should learn about cultures and be unbiased. Make personal relationships with different communities. Represent their problems to municipality and make them feel they are an important part of the society. Join a project of NGO or government related to cultural mediation.”
“The biggest advantage of being a cultural mediator for me is being able to meet new people.” praises Eleonora. “A mediator is a person who does not only allow any point of view to be expressed, but encourages their search. I like to learn new points of view and look at things in a new way, perhaps even in a way that I never imagined.” Sayantan adds: “I think it's interesting and very much fun for any outspoken and outgoing person who loves to speak and connect with people, solve their problems, help them to integrate them in the society.”
To the question, why are cultural mediators usually non-Slovaks, Eleonora answers: “A foreign cultural mediator reflects cultural characteristics in his/her formulation of sentences, which helps to avoid misunderstandings or even conflicts. Different cultures have different understanding for example of time: Germans always come to negotiations on time, but for a Spaniards half an hour late is nothing uncommon.”
Sayantan advises to people who are unfamiliar with cultural mediation and maybe would like to become a good one, to go, mingle with people, understand them, represent then, solve their issues and make them feel at home in Slovakia.
Human Rights League
Talking about the concept of Cultural Mediation the director of the Human Rights League, Barbora Meššová, is explaining that since the beginning of their work they understood that, in addition to the legal issues, clients needed help also with everyday stuff. They also found out that the system of integration was not functional and was not taking into account individual needs of their clients. “We felt short as lawyers”, Meššová said. "We have not used the term “cultural mediation” yet at the time, but we started engaging volunteers who wanted to help as social workers or assist clients with various issues.”
HRL: When did first “Cultural Mediators" appeared in HRL? Why was there a need?
Barbora Meššová: “Primary and essential assistants of lawyers are interpreters. Mostly we had to hire people from community who were not professionals as interpreters. Every time we hired a new interpreter, we needed to train him/her and teach them about ethical rules of behaviour as an interpreter. In 2014 we hired two of them who spoke several languages as cultural mediators instead of ad hoc hiring interpreters. Both of them had full migrant and Slovak experience, which enabled them to become this “bridge” between us and our clients. Cultural mediators enabled us to develop our model of individual case management.”
HRL: Who were they? Why are they mostly people from foreign countries?
Barbora Meššová: “It is not necessarily true. Our first mediators were, our good friends now, Barhum Nakhle, a Slovak with half Arabic roots and experience of living in Arabic countries and Naima Abdi, a Slovak who comes from Somalia, were our first cultural mediators. They were interpreters with added value. Thanks to systemic and long term work with them they understood our approach and knew what we needed to know from clients.”
“Being aware of both Slovak and Arabic/Persian/etc. cultural and legal context, they were best suited to translate the message to both sides. They helped us to better catch the important facts of the case, understand our clients and their motivations, and to build better rapport with our clients. On the other hand, they also motivated our clients to trust us, as their lawyers more. What worked was that cultural mediators were often seen by our clients as examples of fellow countrymen who live fully integrated in Slovakia. It enabled them to see the same kind of perspective of integration for themselves. We believe they inspired more of our asylum clients to remain in Slovakia, and those who were in integration process started to work on themselves harder.”
HRL: How many Cultural Mediators has HRL nowadays? What do these people do particularly?
Barbora Meššová: “In KapaCITY project we have cooperated with 4 cities in Slovakia and we wanted to show them benefits of cooperating with cultural mediators. Together with partner NGO Marginal, we hired cultural mediators in Bratislava, Banská Bystrica, Košice and Trnava. Throughout last 3 years 14 cultural mediators from 10 different countries have engaged in this project. Task of cultural mediators was to reach out to local communities of foreigners and for municipalities to cooperate with them. Cultural mediators in the project were collecting information about local population of foreigners, their needs, spreading information about the project and about the role of municipalities, organising events for foreigners or cultural events, engaging in building their platforms, helping municipalities in communication by translating information from Slovak into foreign languages, disseminating news of the municipality to them. They helped us to produce Welcome packages and leaflets in each participating municipality.”
HRL: Is it a full-time job in HRL or something that people can do in parallel with some other job? Is it free volunteering or a paid job?
Barbora Meššová: “Our cooperation with cultural mediators is based on part time mainly on ad hoc work basis at the moment. But we also cooperate with volunteers. At the moment, project KapaCITY is in its finals, but we hope that our cooperation with cultural mediators will continue in future. We are already thinking about new ways how to engage them in our team. We also trust that we have taught municipalities about the benefits of cooperating with cultural mediators and soon they will also start hiring them at least part time for the benefit of the local foreign communities.”
International Organisation for Migration
There are several institutions in Slovakia which work with Cultural Mediators nowadays. One of them is IOM – International Organization for Migration. Their cultural mediator, Shrey Kadam comes from India, lives in Slovakia almost for 4 years. He attended training sessions conducted by IOM in Bratislava on the role of Cultural Mediator and best ways to handle situations where cultural mediation is required.
Photo: Shrey Kadam
For Shrey becoming a Cultural Mediator means to be a person who is able to represent a community, someone with a good understanding of their social and cultural factors that affects their lives, and of the community around them.
Shrey thinks: “It's a role of the leader in a given community who is able to help bridge any gaps arising between them and local individuals, or organizations. Ability to understand cultural barriers and communicate effectively between different groups of people is very essential.”
Genuine interest in working for the community and helping in social integration helps to become a good Cultural Mediator, Shrey says. He thinks that maintaining a good report of demographics and understanding of cultural and social barriers is also very helpful. “The key is to first identify which community or group of people the cultural mediator is required for and what is needed to be achieved through the mediator. Apart from personal contacts, Social media is very helpful in searching for people who have skills and interest in such role”.
Anna Shvachka is from Ukraine, she works as a Cultural Mediator for IOM Slovakia for 3 years. In this capacity she serves as a connecting bridge between Migration Information Center-International Organization of Migration (MIC-IOM) and Slovak migrants of Ukrainian origin.
Anna’s task as a Cultural Mediator is to accumulate the main issues that Ukrainian migrants have in the process of integration in a new country, Slovakia. After that she formulates requests regarding certain most important topics and pass them on to the international and Slovak organizations that help migrants to integrate and also protect their rights: “A number of such questions developed into seminars - meetings of Ukrainian migrants with experts on a specific topic. For example, a meeting of Ukrainian migrants - workers of the Samsung factory- with a Slovak lawyer was organized. At this meeting, the lawyer explained our labour migrants about their rights in Slovakia. For example, how they should conclude a labour contract correctly, what the minimum wage is and maximum working hours are, how long you can be on vacation and whether a Ukrainian labour migrant can independently change an employer and how to do it correctly, how to get sick leave, how to get insurance compensation in case of injury at a working place, etc”. Anna thinks that the most important thing that a Cultural Mediator should do is to help his compatriots find correct and competent answers to questions which are important for them, related to establishing their new life in Slovakia.
Photo: Anna Shvachka
Besides being a Cultural Mediator for IOM Slovakia, Anna has been determined to provide help for eastern Ukrainian community thanks local Ukrainians, Slovaks and citizens of other countries living in Slovakia, as well as those who live in neighbourhood countries: Austria, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland. They have established a group of volunteers from Ukraine in the Facebook, thanks to which they coordinated the collection, transportation and transfer of aid from Slovakia to Ukraine: “This group grew rapidly, we began to meet more and more. A great impetus was the arrival of wounded Ukrainians to Slovakia for treatment and rehabilitation. We visited them together in hospitals, met more and became friends. Since Christmas 2014, every Saturday we went out to charity gatherings in Bratislava, Stara Tržnica. In early 2015, we officially registered our charitable foundation "Ukraine-Slovakia SME SPOLU” in “Ukraine and in Slovakia.”
Involvement of representatives of migrant communities in the IOM activities is one of the key principles in planning and providing services to the target group. Their Migration and Information Centre (MIC) cooperates with cultural mediators, representatives of foreigner associations and communities in Slovakia since 2006. Thanks to this cooperation they are able to research migrants’ experiences with a view of identifying common and specific services that would respond to migrants’ needs.
When did the term and understanding of "Cultural Mediation" appeared in Slovakia for the first time? Zuzana Vátraľová, the head of IOM in Slovakia thinks that the importance of cultural mediation in the provision of services to migrants appeared to grow after 2004, after the accession of the Slovak Republic to the EU. The increase of foreign population in Slovakia and existing intercultural relations influenced reception and integration policies. This trend gradually led to development of the specific services that take into account the cultural or ethnic diversity of the population. Introduction of culturally sensitive communication shaped by cultural mediation competencies has been perceived as essential for protection of sensitive migration management.
HRL: Who were the first Cultural Mediators? What were they doing?
Zuzana Vátraľová, IOM: “Cultural mediators played important role to help to disseminate information about MIC services. Furthermore, they acted as non-formal representatives of migrant communities in Slovakia and organized multicultural public events. These events enabled the majority population to learn about the culture of migrants in the Slovak Republic and at the same time migrant communities to organize their cultural life. IOM also used mediators to channel important information to migrant communities and to involve migrants in the design of the MIC activities.”
HRL: So, what is the main role of the cultural mediator?
Zuzana Vátraľová, IOM: “The role of the cultural mediator has not been officially recognized nor described in any official document in Slovakia. From our experience, they facilitate good communication and mutual understanding between different cultures, promote awareness and sensitization all parties involved on intercultural issues, promote access to public services and enhance services provided. The role of cultural mediation has been found to be central in the daily work of a variety of service providers.”
HRL: How can you become a Cultural Mediator in Slovakia? Who shall be considered a Cultural Mediator?
Zuzana Vátraľová, IOM: “In previous years, MIC organised several trainings for Cultural Mediators. The objective of the trainings was to equip mediators with the knowledge and skills required for cultural mediation. Participants with diverse backgrounds and linguistic skills explored the role and importance of a cultural mediator in facilitating the communication and understanding between diverse individuals and communities in Slovakia. The participants gained additional knowledge about cultural competences and communication skills needed as a cultural mediator, while in the second part of the course they learnt about specific issues related to fundraising and community organizing.”
The MIC currently cooperates with 10 cultural mediators. The cultural mediators cooperating with the MIC organize community events, webinars and discussions reflecting needs of migrant communities. The core focus of the community meetings is provision of important information related to residence, employment, family reunification. Furthermore, cultural mediators play crucial role in identifying the most relevant topics, questions and current challenges in their communities. In 2020, IOM cultural mediators have organised four webinars for various communities of migrants responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Slovak Humanitarian Council
Another organization in Slovakia, which has developed a practice of Cultural Mediation, is Slovak Humanitarian Council. Dominika Nagyova, the Regional Coordinator for Bratislava in the “Rifugio project”, which focuses on provision of integration services to beneficiaries of international protection, explains that many new clients cannot speak Slovak or any common language. There is a need for the position of a Cultural Mediator. “Using formal translation for the clients would not provide us with more information about the countries of origin, cultural differences, and little nuances in the communication”, she says.
Dominika Nagyova: “When we started in January 2020, we have created a position of Cultural Mediator. The initial need was to have people who could translate and ease communication with the clients who speak neither Slovak nor English.”
HRL: Who are these Cultural Mediators? What they are doing? How have you found them?
Dominika Nagyova: “Cultural Mediators originate in countries where most of our clients come from (Afghanistan and Iraq), so they can translate to Pashto, Dari, and Arabic. We were looking for people who are not our clients (any more) in order to avoid conflict of interest. In Bratislava, we have two Cultural Mediators who are students of translation. They participate in counselling sessions when there is a need for translation for clients. They also provide their insights on the cultural concepts, and explain cultural differences between Slovakia and the country of their origin to the clients.”
According to Dominika Nagyova, the ability to mediate the communication between the clients and project workers is a key aspect of this position.
Author Anna Barseghyan,
Cultural Mediator for HRL Bratislava
10 recommendations about how to become a (good) cultural mediator
- Enroll for the courses related to the Cultural Mediation such as communication, linguistics or philosophy.
- Learn about different cultures and traditions.
- Join a Government, Municipal or NGO projects, related to Cultural Mediation.
- Make personal relationships with different communities.
- Organize events, meet people.
- Raise the community members’ interest and desire for cooperation through a free dialogue.
- Present communities’ problems to municipalities and make them feel they are an important part of the society.
- Try to understand cultural barriers and communicate effectively between different groups of people.
- Act in a neutral and impartial manner, without dividing people.
- Make people feel at home.
Article was drafted and published as a part of activities of the KapaCITY project, which is co-funded by the European Union from the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund and the Internal Affairs Funds.
 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cultural_mediation, Cultural mediation, From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.
 https://simars.sk/, Slovenský inštitút pre mediáciu a alternatívne riešenie sporov.
 Slovenský inštitút pre mediáciu a alternatívne riešenie sporov
 “Konflikty nekonfliktne”.
 https://www.thebalancecareers.com/mediator-career-profile-2164296, “What Does a Mediator Do?”, Author Sally Kane, August 22, 2019.
 “Interkultúrna mediácia a riešenie konfliktov pri práci s cudzincami.”
 František Kutlík, Interkultúrna mediácia a riešenie konfliktov pri práci s cudzincami 2019, Slovakia. SIMARS, z.z.p.p., Slovenský inštitút pre mediáciu a alternatívne riešenie sporov, Vydanie prvé, strana 13.
 Ca' Foscari University of Venice, unive.it/pag/22994/.
 SOAS university in London, https://www.soas.ac.uk/linguistics/programmes/ma-translation/
 “kultúrne a spoločenské začlenenie zahraničného študentstva”
 “integrácia osôb z cudziny v praxi”
 “implementácia znalostí pri integrácii osôb z cudziny”
 http://www.shr.sk/, Slovenská humanitná rada, SHR.