The EUI refugee initiative: one year on

Written by Ellen Halliday on . Posted in Community news

Almost one year ago, the EUI opened its doors to six asylum seekers as part of a project undertaken in partnership with the Caritas Diocesana of Florence and the ‘capitolo di Fiesole’. The initiative draws on many of the diverse skills of the EUI community – researchers and staff – to support the integration of the asylum seekers in Italy through a range of language courses, educational programs and job training. Nearly twelve months later, a great deal has been achieved.

The guests currently staying at the Institute are aged between 22 and 33, and are from the Democratic Republic of Congo (1), Ghana (2), Ivory Coast, (2) and Mali (1). In a unique move, these six stay within the EUI itself, in apartments owned and made available by the Fiesole Parish and renovated by the EUI. ‘To our knowledge, we are the first and only university that opened its doors to host asylum seekers on campus,’ said Caterina Guidi, general coordinator of the initiative.

Since the autumn, five of the refugees have also been attending secondary school, and are working towards an examination that will ease their transition into the job market. They spend six hours per week at the Scuola Verdi, where the program is supported by the EUI language teachers, Annarita, Camilla and Gaia. The five EUI guests taking the examination are among a larger group from the Caritas Diocesana.

The sixth EUI guest, Do. had already attended two years of university in the Ivory Coast before arriving in Italy. In addition to preparing the exam for secondary school, he is also attending evening classes at a professional high-school under a special Monoennio regime. Annelie, languages and education representative for the project said that, like the others, ‘he has a busy schedule,’ and attends classes from 5pm to 10pm every day.

In January, all the asylum seekers achieved their A2 CELI certificate in Italian language from the University for Foreigners of Perugia. Annelie explained that this is a notable milestone. ‘This is a very important thing institutionally, as it helps get refugee status and work opportunities,’ she said. ‘At the beginning a big effort was made in tandems with EUI researchers. This helped them a lot to get going with the Italian language, but now almost all of them are able to maintain ‘normal’ conversations. Now the tandems are increasingly about authentic conversations, which are different but still very beneficial to them. Two of our guests are also are interested in learning a bit of English,’ Annelie told EUI Life.

The asylum seekers are equally effusive about the impact of this element of the initiative. For M, picking up Italian has had the greatest effect on his life. ‘Being at the EUI really boosted my language skills,’ he said. ‘It allowed me to get to know a lot of people.’

For, education and job placements are just some elements of the EUI Refugee Initiative program. The group also assists the asylum seekers as they integrate into Italian, and EUI, life. ‘While we work to ensure their material independence, we also want to reinforce their personal sense of worth, their self-confidence,’ she said. For Do, this is one of the main benefits of the initiative. ‘Spending time at the EUI helps me to forget a lot of negative things,’ he said.

The social aspect of the EUI Refugee Initiative is perhaps one of the most unusual. By being on campus, the guests have many opportunities to interact with an international community. ‘I have learnt a lot about Italian and European cultures and lifestyles,’ explained Do. ‘Being here definitely helped me to understand the different habits of people in Europe and how to adapt in order to establish positive relationships,’ he said.

A number of the guests also spend time with the EUI community in the cafe, and on the football pitch. ‘The enthusiasm and energy that they bring to every training session and match is infectious,’ ‘squadra’ coach Oliver Garner, told EUI Life. I would hope that, through providing a communal activity which we can share together, the squadra has helped the guys in their natural integration into the EUI community.’

‘The aim is to ensure full autonomy and independence,’ Caterina explained. Yet through the language classes, job skills, and organising social activities at the EUI, the initiative hopes to create ‘a sense of being part of a community and a wider citizenry of a country,’ she said. The efforts to create long-lasting integration appear to be working. ‘Participating in this project has been for me a chance to show that we can live together and that we are all equals,’ Di. said.

As the initiative is a first-reception programme, the guests will eventually move on. Indeed, three of those who arrived at the EUI last April have since left: two have been given humanitarian protection and another one has been granted political asylum. Yet those who have left the EUI Initiative have remained in Florence and retained contact with the network created in Fiesole.  ‘We are trying to be involved in their future, and we are happy to know we are playing a role in their integration,’ said Caterina.

At the EUI, the Refugee Initiative continues to have support from President Dehousse and Secretary-General Grassi, both of whom have arrived at the EUI in the past year. The agreement between the European University Institute and the Caritas Diocesana of Florence is expected to be renewed for at least another year and the coordinators hope to see the project continuing far beyond 2018. At the EUI, ‘our common will is to continue,’ said Caterina. ‘Diversity is always richness!’

The EUI Refugee Initiative hosts weekly lunches with the guests, meeting at the Badia main entrance every Thursday at 1 pm. For more information, or to get involved with the initiative, contact the committee at: [email protected]

Tags: ,