I have been in the South of Italy for two months now. My project involves the integration of 40 refugees from several places in Africa into Salento society. I understood that the work would be difficult from the beginning.
First, we have an already established language barrier, where half of the refugees speak French upon arrival and half speak English, one or two even speak only their native language, but none of them arrive with a word of Italian. This language barrier is addressed almost immediately, when the refugees are enrolled in daily Italian lessons (Monday-Friday) and have a need to communicate with the workers within their base centre, some of whom only speak Italian. Then we are faced with the prejudices already bestowed against the refugees from the point of view of the Italians themselves.
In Ireland, where I come from, we experienced an influx of Polish a few short years ago during their economic problems and the view of some of the Irish was an unwelcoming one. They believed that the Polish were ‘taking their jobs’ and ‘living off the state’, but this of course, was not true. These new people were trying to build a new life of their own in Ireland because living in their own country was not an option anymore. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has estimated that, of the 55,000 people who have reached Europe this year, 83 per cent of them went to Italy. This means that the Italians need to prepare themselves for this volume of refugees coming into their country and that in order to survive there will be an element of them searching for work or settling in homes in their smaller villages.
The important thing to remember is to be open about their arrival. It is inevitable that they will come – “The number of refugees arriving in Italy has soared this year by more than 30 percent in comparison with the same period last year, with 46,000 people arriving so far” so the next step is to be open and to appreciate the difficult journey that they have been on so far; “of every 39 refugees who survive the perilous journey across the Mediterranean, one dies, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) said, adding that 1,244 refugees were known to have died so far this year.”
During my time here, I hope to learn more about their journey and about the acceptance of them amongst the people that they now call neighbours.