In the quest for integration, refugees in Rome risk deportation

ROME – A statue of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus, both depicted with black skin, brown eyes and curly hair, hovered over the 16 students, who sat in two rows behind folding tables littered with Italian language worksheets and bright pink textbooks.

Morning classes are held from 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m.

Morning classes are held from 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m.

Maria Senena Palieri, a relaxed teacher who jokes with the students and smiles constantly,  paced in front of the students and pointed to different objects in the room, prompting the students to chime in with their newly acquired Italian vocabulary words. She picked up a half-filled plastic water bottle. “Bottiglia,” she offered after a few students mumbled the word under their breath. She pointed to a woman’s earrings and quipped “orecchino.” Then she held her hand over her head and mimed the spray of a showerhead as she encouraged the students to guess “doccia.”

Palieri leads the Italian classes at the Comboni Association for Emigrants and Refugees church on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

The students, all new to Italy, are refugees and migrants, who travel from various corners of Rome to attend free Italian classes in the church. The inside of the church underscores the association’s views surrounding racial inclusion. Black and Latino representations of Jesus Christ and Mary occupy large spaces on the walls, accompanied by multiple geo

graphical maps representing the countries students have immigrated from. The students took turns at the maps talking about where they lived before moving to Europe.

“We have many migrants here in Italy and for them learning Italian is absolutely a necessity,” Palieri said. “If you don’t speak Italian, you don’t know your rights.”

Students who study inside the Catholic institution use the same supplies as those who study in secular schools.

Students who study inside the Catholic institution use the same supplies as those who study in secular schools. (Cydney Tucker / Religio)

According to the International Organization for Migration, nearly 19,000 migrants and refugees have entered Italy in 2016 alone. Unlike most of the individuals fleeing to Greece, the majority of those arriving in Italy come from North and Western African countries such as Nigeria, Gambia, Senegal, and Mali. While their route largely depends on their country of origin, most migrate on foot from country to country before finally taking a boat across the Mediterranean Sea to Italy. Italian officials fear that with the closing of Greece and other neighboring EU countries, waves of immigrants will be entering the country at a rate that the government is ill-equipped to handle.

The journeys are fraught with danger. In a recently released study, the International Organization for Migration found that as many as 3,770 migrants have died by drowning, shipwreck or gone missing during their journey through the Mediterranean since January. Many migrants, including women and children, travel alone and follow smugglers into various regions of Europe. Of the thousands of refugees who arrived in Italy during the last three months, only a small percentage have been granted asylum. The majority of them get few to no benefits from the Italian government. In many cases, the Roman Catholic Church has been left to pick up the slack. Last year, Pope Francis called on European Catholics to adopt a family. Just last month, the Pope brought 12 Muslim refugees from Syria on the papal flight back to Rome with him.

And while only a small number of Catholic churches have brought in refugees, many Catholic organizations are now providing them with services, such as Italian language classes. Still, some Italian and foreign media outlets cover the refugee crisis in a hyperbolic and overly negative light. Stories about immigrants committing violent crimes are not unusual in the press, especially at publications with reputations for presenting conservative viewpoints, and few stories bother to feature individual refugees.

Inside a classroom at the Catholic Migrant Services center. (Cydney Tucker / Religio)

Inside a classroom at the Catholic Migrant Services center. (Cydney Tucker / Religio)

Other reporters and editorial writers are pressing for a better response to the influx of people seeking asylum in Europe from the Italian government and from religious organizations including the Catholic Church.  For example, editorials and op-eds in La Stampa have called for a kinder tone and thought about how immigrants could help the nation’s aging population in light of the influx of migrants seeking homes in Italy.

Many Catholic churches and lay organizations around Rome offer free Italian language courses within their churches throughout the week. Within the center of Rome lies Monti, an artsy urban neighborhood surrounded by various minority houses of worship. Here, there are Filipino and Korean churches sitting beside Buddhist temples. A  couple of blocks away stands  the neighborhood mosque. In a back alley off the corner of via del Buon Consiglio lies the Comboni Association Emigrants and Refugees. The association was founded by the Rev.  Renato Bresciani in 1976. Since then, missionaries and volunteers have routinely provided humanitarian, training, and pastoral services for the migrant and refugee community in Rome. With the recent spike in migration, many humanitarian organizations have increased their work to match the needs of the individuals coming in. Their mission statement was written 46 years ago, but it still applies today as more refugees enter the country. The association aims to inspire the spirit of St. Daniel Comboni and “share the pleasure of ‘serve the poorest,’ immigrants, and refugees,’” and offer migrants “human support but also cultural and spiritual, to help them enter the country of their choice as their final destination.”

Catholicism is not forced onto any of the immigrants who seek help here. They are left to practice  the Buddhism and Islam that is their faith. There’s no religious requirement for people seeking help from the church.

In addition to Italian and English classes, the association also provides dental care, immigration advice, and help securing documentation. On a shelf outside the dentist’s office, colorful binders hold paperwork documenting the health of patients’ teeth. The green, blue and pink folders house the names of people from as far as the Philippines and Senegal.


This poster is one example of the teaching aids used to teach immigrants Italian, through images that describe various verbs and adjectives. (Katie Shepherd / Relgio)

Volunteer teachers hold language classes three times each week at the church. Some students visit the church every weekday to practice Italian and English, with the hope of gaining the skills needed to secure a job and documents for permanent residence in Italy.

A petite Filipina student with long brown hair and a soft voice attends Italian classes at the church. Her mother tongue is Tagalog, one of several languages indigenous to the Philippines, but she also learned to speak English in her high school in the Batangas region of the island nation. Now 17, Krystle De Roxas, is trying hard to learn Italian quickly.

“It’s difficult to understand the Italian language,” she said. But since moving to Rome in November, 2015, she’s picked up a few new vocabulary words – enough to introduce herself, talk about her parents’ jobs at a local market and say where she lived before immigrating to Italy. Her biggest problem in her new home is that she can’t start taking classes until she learns some of the local language. De Roxas said she hopes she’ll know enough Italian to start taking high school classes soon.

Sherif Korta, a 33-year-old Gambian native, reports to the Comboni church three days a week. Each morning, he wakes up at 8 a.m. for his 90-minute commute to class. “All I do everyday is go home and go to class,” he said. On this particular day, Korta arrived more than an hour early. He sat at the back of the classroom with his arms folded, reciting each word Palieri stated in Italian. Mercoledi. Colosseo. Carabiniere. Padre.


Students of all ages visit the church to study Italian. (Cydney Tucker / Religio)

Korta has lived in Italy well over a year yet his dreams of obtaining citizenship aren’t any closer. “The problem I have is I come from Africa to come here, it’s not easy. The law is not the problem, getting documents is not all the problem. Problem is integration,” he said.

Three days a week, Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, Korta takes a total of two trains and a bus in order to get to his 2 hour language class.

Because he illegally entered the country, undocumented and without a job, money for the bus and train is a major issue. In order to attend class, Korta must illegally board the bus to travel into Monti{{confirming details TK}}. If caught, Korta can be placed in a detention camp and deported back to Gambia. But Rome is his home now and learning the Italian language is worth the risk.

“All I want is to learn the language and live,” he said.

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