Last week, Kopin was featured in a blog post of ‘Talking Eds’ (4th edition). 

For the original article and to listen to and read the interview with Kopin’s directors, visit Talking Eds

Several weeks ago I had the opportunity to speak to William Grech and Dominik Kalweit, the directors of Kopin, a Maltese human rights and international development NGO. I was interested to learn more about Kopin’s work after having attended the Degree Plus course they offered this semester at the University of Malta, and after having accompanied Dominik in delivering an information session on human trafficking at the Hal Far Open Centre, which houses over 1000 migrants. As I found out in the course of our conversation, these activities are only the tip of the iceberg of Kopin’s work, which also includes training school teachers on managing increasingly multicultural classrooms, collaborating with local artists to engage the wider population on issues of migration and sustainable development, and conducting advocacy work on behalf of the most vulnerable members of society.

As Dominik and William begin to describe Kopin’s aims and activities, I am immediately struck by the holistic nature of their approach: Rather than addressing issues such as human rights, sustainability and migration in isolation, they view them as inherently inter-connected. Education, for Kopin, is about bringing these issues together and demonstrating their relevance to our everyday lives. Dominik explains that they aim for a participatory approach, which generates “more space for new thinking, perhaps for more critical reflection, which we often see as lacking”. Generating space is, as William further elaborates, a crucial element in all of Kopin’s projects. Speaking about their work with teachers who are facing increasingly diverse classrooms – the number of students from migrant families has risen significantly over the last decade and foreign children now make up around 10% of Malta’s school-aged population – William explains that a critical engagement with “hot topics” like migration requires a safe space in which participants feel comfortable to express views that may be viewed as problematic, or even labeled as racist. These views, William believes, are rooted in fear. “And we try to remove that fear. And the less you speak about what you fear, the more afraid you will feel about that issue”. Therefore, when delivering training for educators, they are keen to allow a discussion to evolve naturally among the participants, rather than imposing their own views.

In these discussions, challenges emerge that teachers across the island and across all levels of education face, pointing to more deep-seated, systemic problems. Malta’s highly demanding education system, a lack of learning support educators (to the detriment not only of migrant learners but also of children with learning difficulties), and of course foreign students’ diverse educational backgrounds, are just some of these problems – problems over which teachers have no control. Therefore, another significant aspect of Kopin’s work is to raise these issues with policymakers and stakeholders and to advocate on behalf of teachers. After a decade of working in schools, they have gained both the trust of teachers, whilst simultaneously establishing themselves as a civil society partner with government officials. When I ask whether Malta’s small size makes advocacy work easier, Dominik is ambivalent: “I think it’s easier for us to get into a room with a minister, but it’s not necessarily easier for us to convince the person to change something”. Kopin’s ability to effect real progress in Malta’s highly polarized political environment is compromised by their position as a non-partisan NGO. “Civil society is not yet, I think, accepted fully as a meaningful and representative actor within society”, William tells me, but admits that this may in part also be due to how civil society presents itself.

Aware of the risk of “preaching to the converted”, as Dominik puts it, Kopin makes a conscious effort to target populations who might not normally engage with the issues and themes Kopin is concerned with. Dominik tells me about a virtual reality exhibition at the Maritime Museum in Birgu that brought to life the experience of asylum seekers fleeing their homes and crossing the sea. For another arts project Kopin invited local artists, many of whom had not worked with a human rights NGO before, to interpret themes related to migration and sustainable development. Dominik explains that out of these projects and collaborations that might have seemed unlikely at first, new perspectives emerged, but that they also made sure to reach out to groups that wouldn’t ordinarily engage with these activities. Using the arts to raise interest in and awareness of social issues, Dominik believes, is particularly important in these times, when far-right populist movements are on the rise.

At this point, our conversation turns to the current health crisis, which is beginning to lay bare the weaknesses of populist governments, mostly at the expense of the most vulnerable members of society. Kopin has been drawing on its network with civil society, including migrant-led organizations, and its contacts with local councils and government ministries to continue its advocacy and outreach work. They are particularly concerned about an increase in the number of people at risk of homelessness, and are determined to ensure that everyone has access to basic services and commodities, regardless, as Dominik stresses, of “whether it’s somebody who has asked for protection or who has been granted protection or it’s a third country national or an EU national like myself or a Maltese like William”.

In the meantime they’ve also had to transfer many of their educational activities online. This isn’t simply about transmitting knowledge and information via online platforms, but also, William explains, “ways and means how people can be supported in researching the topics themselves and finding ways of ensuring that there is a learning not only in terms of knowledge, but especially of reflection, critical thinking and values”. This will involve an overhaul of many of their established activities, such as their teacher training. It’s a challenge, but Dominik is confident. “Challenge accepted, we’ll win”, he says with a smile.

It is no surprise, given Kopin’s holistic approach, that they are expecting the current health crisis to have long-term, potentially positive ramifications that go beyond a mere increase in online learning tools. “Our hope is that this situation would have brought to the attention of many more people the importance of understanding interdependence in all its aspects, how literally no person is an island and how we are all responsible for each other”, William tells me. Interdependence, he explains further, refers not only to interpersonal and community ties, but also to our deep dependency on the environment, which has been neglected for so long. While it may be hard to predict how the world will emerge from the crisis, there is no doubt that there will remain a great need for organizations like Kopin to continue advocating for and working towards social change.