How Sicilians Are Helping Young Migrants Arriving On Their Island

Tambah Jenneh, 18, is a migrant from Gambia now working at 11eleven in Catania (c) Sean Neil / Al Jazeera

Sicily has first-hand experience of the largest human migration since the end of World War II. Last year over 170,000 migrant people arrived on Italian beaches after a desperate and frightening sea crossing but the dangerous journey claimed at least 3,000 lives. Many of the newly arrived migrants fleeing war, poverty and political instability are young people, orphaned or separated from their families. Some of my fellow countrymen are doing their best to help these kids achieve better lives – the reason they attempted the perilous journey in the first place.

AccoglieRete was founded in 2013 to help unaccompanied minors arriving in Sicily. It’s thought 70,000 migrants landed last year on the southwestern shores near Siracusa. This area has seen many young Sicilians (like me) leave the country in search of work and a better lifestyle. The unemployment rate in Sicily is, at 14 percent, amongst the highest in Italy.  Carla Trommino is an immigration lawyer who co-founded AccoglieRete in July 2013. “We are the door of Europe and the government looks at the problem in a general way, but it doesn’t care about the individual,” she says.

Carla and fellow volunteer staff were particularly motivated to help the 4,000+ unaccompanied minors who arrived last year alone.  AccoglieRete workers help in several ways. Firstly, they provide the courts with a list of available volunteer legal guardians to be paired with unaccompanied minors. The purpose of this pairing is to help the kids access healthcare, register with the police, and guide them through the process of getting legal documents.

Many young people cross the sea to Sicily in search of a better life
Many young people cross the sea to Sicily in search of a better life

In addition, AccoglieRete, strives to be part of a process of social inclusion and integration. The guardians often invite young migrants to their homes for the weekend and organise social activities. Some have even become foster parents, bringing children to their homes and away from the large immigrant centres where they are still at risk from human traffickers linked to organised crime.

Before AccoglieRete began their work, about 60 percent of registered children disappeared from the centre. It’s feared many had been lured by human trafficking networks into forced labour or worse. After one year, during which AccoglieRete took on more than 1,000 cases, the rate of disappearances has dropped to 20 percent.

Barbara Sidoti spent years working in Austria, Yemen, and Malawi for the UN but has returned to her native Sicily, to be part of a movement of Sicilians trying to reclaim the island. They want to contribute to an alternative vision for the economy not defined by corruption and organised crime. Last year, she became the legal guardian of four boys from Gambia. “I looked at it as a mode of civic engagement but was surprised at how quickly I became emotionally involved,” she tells Al Jazeera  On weekends at her house, the boys would cook Gambian food, and, when they lacked the proper ingredients, they experimented with what was available. “From this we came up with a dream project, a restaurant to fuse African and Sicilian food. Because what’s rich about Sicilian culture is that it’s a result of centuries of hybridisation between the cultures that have come here – Greek, Roman, Arab.”

The hobby became something much more when a friend from Catania, told her of a theatre which needed a new catering company to run its restaurant. Sidoti partnered with two people – one of whom had been looking for a chance to open a no-waste restaurant. Last October, the group opened their new place in the theatre and called it 11eleven.

11eleven restaurant CataniaFood 11eleven

To date, 33 young people have been paired with new families.  Carlo and Marilena Farina have been family for 15-year-old migrant Ramon for the last 18 months. He left Egypt when he was 14 after a fight with a boy at school. Having left his country to start a new life in Europe, he now is doing well atschool his new school, and speaks fluent Italian.

“We Skype with his parents sometimes,” said Marilena. “His mom thanks me because he’s so well-behaved, and I say ‘no, thank you, he was like that when he got here’.”
The Farinas had been Ramon’s legal guardians and hosted him on weekends. Then he asked about the possibility of moving in on a more permanent basis. Childless Marilena and Carlo agreed. “It was something missing in our lives, he completes me,” Marilena says.  Carlo understands that the immigrant influx took Italy by surprise but Sicily has welcomed many peoples over the centuries.  “It was a shock for people at first when all these people started showing up,” said Carlo. “We were totally unprepared. The state didn’t know what to do.”

But at least some Sicilians have stepped in to help.  Carla Trommino sums it up nicely.

“You can’t stop human migration. All you can do is decide how you are going to respond it.”

This blog post is based on a great article by Sean Neil writing for Al Jazeera

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5 Comments Add yours

  1. Reblogged this on The Dangerously Truthful Diary of a Sicilian Housewife and commented:
    After my bleak presentation of the immigration issue facing Sicily, I am really excited to find and share this initiative to welcome and help new immigrants integrate into Sicilian society.

  2. Fabulous article, and what a briliant initiative. It’s so heartening to find a story of hope and positivity in all this desperation where often we cannot really see a good way forward.

  3. Lyn says:

    Bless these people who care so much and are able to to turn their caring into actually helping. Great story. I watch these stories on TV here in Australia and it breaks my heart to see so much suffering

  4. So nice to read about the immigrants being helped by caring people.

  5. Anthony Murphy says:

    This project looks wonderful. It shows me how much love we have to give to our brothers and sisters and what happens when we try

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