Young Italians, defying anti-immigrant bias, step up to help migrants

by Juan David Aristizabal and Marissa Wenzke

The abandoned buildings of the Olympic Village in Turin, Italy house 1,000 refugees who receive resources such as Italian-language lessons from a a dozen volunteers, many of them local college students and residents.

While many older adults express a fear of the wave of immigrants arriving in Italy, young people like 21-year-old Francesco Natale stand ready to welcome the newcomers.

“The situation is complicated, but my generation is looking for a new time. Refugees are a good opportunity for Italy,” he said.

Natale is a volunteer at the Centro Astalli Center, a charity run by the Jesuit Refugee Service that assists immigrants in Rome. Since the start of this year, nearly 25,000 migrants have arrived to Italy by sea, reports the International Organization for Migration, with the country only trailing behind Greece’s 150,000 migrant arrivals through the Mediterranean.

With ongoing deportations and border blockades in Greece, migrant arrivals in Italy are expected to rise. Nearly 600 immigrants were rescued from sea and brought into the country over a single two-day period in April.

But attitudes toward migrants are less than favorable in many parts of Italy. Sixty-nine percent of Italians view immigrants as a “burden,” a Pew Research report found last September, and just one in five people said immigrants would “make our country stronger.”

Despite this, young Italians like Natale view the migration wave with more hope than hostility.

Centro Astalli, the Catholic-run refugee center where Natale works, serves meals to migrants and helps them with tasks like searching for work and filing asylum papers. Inside one office at the center, smiling pictures of Pope Francis reflect an atmosphere of peace and welcoming — sentiments the pope has pushed for amid a record-breaking migration crisis across Europe.

Natale’s eyes hold inspiration and hope. He is studying photography and dreams of becoming a photojournalist. A year ago, he started volunteering at Centro Astalli, where he said migrants can find the help needed for a better life.

“Italy is a country of opportunities even if the current situation is bad,” he said. “I want to make changes here.”

He and other young Italians are helping the exodus of migrants from parts of the Middle East and Africa, even as they also face futures of uncertainty.

Young Italians are having trouble finding jobs. At least one in three people between the ages of 15 to 24 is unemployed, with this unemployment rate at 36.7 percent as of March, according to the most recently released data from the European Commission.

“The economy is not good, but I see this moment as a great time to create a system that really works for the people,” Natale said. “Young people have a responsibility to create that system.”

Complicating the landscape of rising immigration and a struggling economy is Italy’s shifting religious make-up. A 2010 survey by the University of Milan found that for Italians born after 1981, mass attendance, self-identification as Catholic and adherence to Catholic teachings are “in collapse.”

“The youngest Italians are the ones to whom religious experience is most foreign,” wrote Professor Paolo Segatti, author of the study. “They clearly go to church less, believe in God less, pray less, trust the Church less, identify themselves as Catholic less and say that being Italian does not mean being Catholic.”

But the decline in young Italians practicing the majority religion has not changed the fact that many are still involved in the Church’s social work.

In addition to the Astalli Center in Rome, another place where young Italians are working with migrants is at the Olympic Village in Turin. The facility, built to house athletes and press for the 2006 Winter Olympics, has become a haven for 1,000 African and Middle Eastern refugees. A dozen local residents and college students, most of them in their twenties and all of them volunteers, are working with the new arrivals.

Government services for migrants are extremely limited, and there isn’t much that can be done by volunteers to help the refugees get jobs or social services. Much of their efforts are focused on trying to integrate the migrants into broader Italian society by helping them learn Italian and  subjects such as algebra and geography.

Elena Tommasoni, a 20-year-old student at the University of Turin, works as an instructor at the village. She teaches Italian and helps some of the residents learn basic job skills.

“We want to help them, and religion does not matter here,” Tommasoni said of the village’s residents, who come from many faiths, from Islam to Christianity.

While the Church does not formally manage the makeshift group of volunteers, called Ex Moi, Tommasoni said it has supported their efforts.

“The Church is doing great work,” she said. “It is speaking for these people, and also the church is listening to us.”

But frustrations remain with the anti-immigrant sentiments in much of Italian society and laws. Angelo de Lucia, another 20-year-old volunteer at the Olympic Village, said the immigration system is not working.

“I can’t stand anymore to stay quiet without doing anything,” he said. “Here in Italy, we don’t do anything.”

Strict immigration policies like the Bossi-Fini law requiring deportations of immigrants without legal paperwork, along with a lack of government-funded resources for migrants, make for an even more difficult situation, de Lucia said.

Walking out of the village’s classroom, de Lucia explains how many of the village’s residents have a difficult time breaking into the Italian work force. Outside the village’s front walls of cracked concrete and graffiti, he gives a fist bump to a resident walking by, smiling and speaking to him in Italian. Then he returns to the conversation to make another point.

“Maybe we are not a majority, but a lot of people in Italy feel the system doesn’t work. We have to do something,” he said, gesturing and looking toward the building beside him. “Like this.”

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