‘Benvenuti Rifugiati’ (Refugees Welcome) is an international network. Founded in Germany since 2014, it settled in Italy on July 2015. To alleviate the tragedy of migrations that is shaking and dividing Europe: the volunteers, with a bottom-up approach, gathered themselves in a non profit group and are tangibly acting to give migrants a place to live by building relations between them and the families who offer them a bed.
At the moment we write, they operate in four big Italian cities and in other territories (Rome, Milan, Turin, Bologna, Abruzzo, Padova, Marche and Romagna). As you will know in a minute, they are rapidly expanding their range and are open to any contribution to improve this original offer of social cohesion and inclusion.
A family or a group of friends can, quite often, stand as the best solution to relieve traumas of who tries to integrate in a foreign country and tries to understand how this works just aftern being forced to leave his/her one.
Slow Words met them to tell you how much energy, discovery and marvel they handle (and give back to the world) every day.
How do you operate?
We have a database and around 200 volunteers, we try to match demands and offers. The main activists and the founders are not uniformly distributed in all the territory. The Italian platform of Refugees Welcome (Benvenuti Rifugiati) is online since last December, and today includes 412 registered families: they are, so, available to guest in various ways. We are maybe not yet able to reply to all the requests of those families available to host in their premises in a specific area because we still lack the volunteers covering that zone. They are crucial for us to organize the welcome. I give you an example: in Calabria we maybe have few volunteers that are not located in the same city. We need a little bit of more time to grow evenly.
We recently added Marche, Romagna and Veneto in our territories, straight after we should be able to operate in Sicily and Calabria. We have the will to expand our reach but we have to take in account which strengths we have (that, I should say, are not little!)
Here I wish to say that all the volunteers who collaborate with the welcoming families add their task for our charity to the ones of their jobs – and of course they work for us for free. In these months the engagement for some of them has been reaching the full time, so we are relegating our jobs in a corner and if we continue to do so…
How the idea has been originated?
So many people wrote to the Germans from many different Italian places to understand how they succeeded to create Refugees Welcome…The German put these people through…I had reached the group just before the foundation of Refugees Welcome Italia, I heard that it was about to be born and wanted to take part.
Who are, in one breath, the volunteers who take daily care of Welcome Refugees Italia and who is replying to this interview now?
These people are coming from different professional worlds: from the journalism to the education areas, from pr to IT, from the cultural mediation, from the social innovation. The members of the ‘Direttivo’ – some of them are also founders of Refugees Welcome – meet weekly on skype: I also join them because I am on charge of the Secretary beside to be part of the local members group. We try to meet once a month also in person, by sharing the travels in horizontal ways and in those occasions we also gather with all the managers of local teams and with the different people collaborating with us.
All has been arising, as I was telling you before, thanks to the German charity that created a mailing list of who was interested to know more about how to welcome refugees. From there some friendships started, because they had such strong cement in common. From the first encounter of the last September, where we gather all together, the first group of people in Italy subscribed a private Facebook group.
I am 54 and I am a translator and interpreter beside to be an intercultural mediator (Maria Cristina replies to this interview).
The first offline meeting of the FB group was luckily held in my city, Bologna.
I took part to it and since then I started to deal with this task: from the original group the half left as usually happens, but also many others joined it. We started to institutionalise our group with a ‘Direttivo’ (a managing board) and various work groups. Today I am also local manager and general secretary of the charity. I am active on various tasks: from the bureaucracy to the management, from the phone calls to the families to the contacts with other charities and groups, to deal with the laws…And, of course, I am also hosting refugees. It was like a sort of destiny….it was inevitable me and Refugees Welcome got to meet.
We do not have a business unit, we only have a legal address. We are hosted by other charities.
Which is the identikit of a perfect volunteer? And which kind of hosting families are you looking for (i.e. traditional or extended)?
Volunteers are very different especially for age range (from 20 to over 50…), a common character is that are often people working in education.
More than ‘extended’ families, we deal with ‘restricted’ ones, in the sense that quite often are the singles to sign up in our database. For us this does not make any difference: when we get the availability of a certain kind of families, we try to associate the suitable person to be welcomed by them.
I make an example: in Bologna we are looking for a guest in the house of a gentleman who is living alone. He is very suitable to host, because he is a pedagogue with special competences on youth (this is the perfect identikit!). On the other side, he is busy with his job until late in the night, so when he is not at home we have to find someone managing the time of the refugee who is his guest. This said, the solitude is relative because the territorial teams (in Bologna we have dozens of volunteers who help the hosting families) will fill a good part of the day of the guest in a ‘single’ family we usually shape ad hoc with different activities. For example it can be an Italian language course or the weekly visit to the Job Centre – and any other pertinent one.
Before you were mentioning about the demand/offer matching that is also typical of other online hosting communities as Airbnb: in those cases the work of the community ends when a guest finds home but for us is the opposite: it starts just then. Because there is a team deeply following the work and life path of the guest until he/she exits from the hosted family.
Nobody agrees to host forever, so there is a date of end of the stay. This term can be maintained or amended. If the involved persons are going well, it is possible to prolong it but often this does not happen. And, anyway, it is important to take care (not a week before) of the path of the guests after they live their temporary family. We are different, very much different from Airbnb!
The parallel with online housing communities as Airbnb was getting me curious also for the relation that is created online between profiles of unknown people…
Yes, but also in that case, I should say that they are ‘unknown’ until a certain extent: beside the database (that of course we use) there is a path of acknowledgement between host and guest preceding the moment he/she is moving in the house of the family. Usually they meet in a neutral area then we go on with the mediation: until the last day everyone can change mind if there is no comfort or if they feel something strange… Of course, getting each other takes time, but at least we start from a small part of reciprocal meeting and minimal share of emotion!
Can you tell a story of refugees you have been particularly touched by?
An Eritrean blind boy arriving in Italy when he was 12 thanks to humanitarian aids, with the attempt to help him to see again (he had been affected by a mine blowing, that made him blind and killed the many young mates playing with him at that moment). Now he is 21, he took high school diploma with the highest score and studies at University passing each exam with ’30 e lode’ (again, the highest score) and it is not lacking so much time now from when he will take the Italian citizenship…
Which kind of encounters or days your volunteers do have?
We are often invited to show the work done with Benvenuti Rifugiati within public functions – with and/or at other charities or at Council events…We often meet councillors, institutions, families and refugees. We often organize some promotional desks in major events or in open air festivals. We introduce ourselves to other gatherings in our places dealing with immigration in order to foster the creation of new networks or to make new contacts. We deal with our FB pages, we look for interesting bids.
Which is a brilliant social cohesion experience you experienced abroad and you wish to import in your country
I saw that the German group published online a platform to encourage the friendship between refugees and local citizen: this would be great. I often hear ‘I want to host but I do not have a spare room…’. Well, a simple dinner invitation is an occasion to meet, and maybe the friend you invited to dinner would have a spare room and is willing to host the refugee, so we could multiply the occasions to help and to solve problems.
What does society make for Benvenuti Rifugiati?
Very little. We can say that the balance is maybe slightly negative, in the sense that it could make more.
As citizen and as a worker volunteering in this field, I also should add that I meet incredible and marvellous people. For instance in Bologna, a quite central district – not posh but neither in the fringes – is home since six years of Indovina chi viene a pranzo (Guess who is invited to lunch): a street is pedestrianized for an entire day and a long table is set. It is multicultural and is organized by Amis, a social cooperative of highly qualified foreigner cultural mediators. All the communities of foreigners in town join it, beside the authorities. In these moments roles and perspectives are upside down: the ‘users’ become protagonist and tell their lives.
Which is a surprising experience you had in the recent times?
An Ivorian friend found a great job…unfortunately it is surprising because this does not happen so often…while another, from Gambia, found a terrible one that will force him to ride the bike for 40 km a day to reach, night time, his workplace when no bus is running, but he accepted the job anyway.
Do you happen to share spare time and food in freedom with the refugees? If yes, how?
I hosted several of them…we are cool and informal. You feel affection.
Can you share with us your desk now – without forgetting the books and the music on it?
I would say that I have my way in my disorder, but it’s not true! There are paper and someone else’s documents everywhere…a plate…few telephones…English books…train tickets…a laptop…
Which is the strongest and the weakest point of Benvenuti Rifugiati?
The strongest are our competence, the endurance; the weakest…who is getting us in troubles because does not want to loose a good business slice: this is wrong because we are not getting their budget given we are a non profit charity…There are strong alliances among cooperatives and councils to manage that the ‘cake to slice’ is to be shared only among two or three entities…Also in places that are traditionally ‘red’, i.e. the pioneers in the immigration policies (red: an urban definition, used in the past, when the political contrast among the white/catholic and the red/communist parties was neater and stronger).
Regarding my personal ones, I should say they are the same. I tend to be a lot multitasking and I should learn to be less. I tend to deal with too many things at a time.
What did you learn, until now, from your experience?
To never trust politicians!
The Italian version of this interview is dating back August 2016, written by Diana Marrone, has been commissioned to Slow Words by Foundation Easy Care to be published in a new column that Slow Words designed each month (until January 2017) for the Observatory of the ‘Social Cohesion Days’. To check the actual cities where Benvenuti Rifugiati is active, please browse: https://refugees-welcome.it